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CAAMFest 2013

Emotional History: A Student Delegate Review of Jiseul at CAAMFest

Posted April 8th, 2013 by conorrabinovitz in Student Delegates 2013, CAAMFest 2013

by Emily Y. Wang
2013 Student Delegate

Emily Wang


Jiseul is highly stylized art house, released in nostalgic black and white on the unreal crispness of digital film. But the film’s real power lies in its portrait of a human tragedy that is little if at all recognized in Korea or the United States more than 60 years after the fact. Commissioned by the Jeju Island government, native islander Meul O.’s first feature film attempts to recreate the human experiences of those involved in the 1948 US military ordered Jeju Island massacre with a severity that has long been lost on the rest of the world.


It is hard to pick out any main characters but we come to know certain figures from an accumulation of cutting between loosely connected story arcs. There is a man with a pregnant wife and child who leaves his mother behind, a grunt army recruit who remains silent, a young man with fast legs who believes he can outrun the South Korean army. Dialogue remains limited to trivial bickering amongst the villagers and we’re subject to generalized rants about attacking commies on the military base. At one point, new recruits share a tender moment, both lost and anxious about their youth and new life in the army. Even after realizing their refugee state, the villagers mostly talk of their limited supply of potatoes and going quickly back to their lives in the village after the storm has passed. These are incidences of their absorption in everyday life that are only heightened in poignancy by how helplessly both the young soldiers and villagers are swept up in the senseless brutality that occurs.

Meul O. chooses not the focus on the large scale politics that created this destruction of human life. We are generously given substitutes for character development with stylistic affect to carry the emotionality of the mundane juxtaposed with the unfathomably horrific. Knowing what is in store for them, I could not help but let my heart sink at the wasted time and energy of these on characters complaining about the arduous hike to their cave hideout, or the young man with horse legs whose horror only deepens at peeping in at an unknown young woman raped and murdered in a military tent. He and a friend flee from the base in the silhouette of nighttime and the torso of the dead woman appears cradled in the rise of the hill they are running across. They never find that friend, but their friend more or less the murdered woman, and they will only soon join her.

The film score is as bleak as the weathered forest and smoking, burnt out villages in film. It hits us at those pivotal moments when the villagers finally realize the horror of their situation, or replaces sourced sound entirely when the soldiers are especially murderous. Sometimes the soundtrack becomes too overwhelming, as silence could have adequately served the image if not make it more powerful. But just as this film is not an investigation in on the governmental footwork that lead to the murdered thousands, it is an investigation in making tangible the emotional state of an large scale atrocity whose emotional impact is just harrowing it by nature evades the tangible. If anything, we are made to walk out of the theater with a mournful reverence for those lives lost in the events of Jeju Island 1948.

(For more information about Jiseul, click here)


Chosen from a large competitive pool of undergraduate and graduate students, the Student Delegates are a small yet diverse group of students who rigorously train at CAAMFest “boot camp.” Under guidance from festival staff, student delegates participate in an intense schedule of music events, cooking events, film screenings, discussions, and exclusive meetings with filmmakers and special guests. The program aims to cultivate the next generation of filmmakers, activists, educators, and community leaders. Check back for blogs from all of the 2013 student delegates!

Southwest Airlines is a proud sponsor of CAAM’s Student Delegate Program. Selected CAAM Internship Program applicants may qualify for complimentary air travel, courtesy of Southwest Airlines.