South Korean Indie Documentaries Get Experimental

8:09 AM PST 05/28/2014 by Lee Hyo-won
"A Dream of Iron"

As local documentaries attract more attention at home and abroad, young filmmakers are breaking away from the strong tradition of participatory models toward more poetic approaches.

JEONJU, South Korea — Documentaries have been the backbone of the South Korean independent film industry, with 2009's Old Partner rewriting local box-office history and becoming the country's first film to compete at Sundance.

When Kelvin Kyung Kun Park's documentary A Dream of Iron premiered at this year's Berlinale, the documentary on steel manufacturing turned out to be the stuff of heartbreaking romance and ancient myths. Owing much to the director's fine art roots, it led to a screening at the New York MoMA — and moreover, signals a drastic break away from the local documentary industry's strong tradition of participatory models replete with social commentaries.

A Dream of Iron was financed through the Jeonju International Film Festival, and unsurprisingly, this year's edition of the Korean indie/arthouse event showcased this new trend in local documentaries taking new, more poetic approaches.

The Watchtower adds an uncanny, futuristic sci-fi touch to documenting a town's history. Director Moon Seung-wook portrays those trying to save the town's colonial-era watchtower as nostalgic "fugitives" that illegally travel to the past through a time machine. Filmmakers Min Byung-hun and Lee Se-young bring a lyricism to Begging Island: Let It Be, which traces the struggles of renowned photographer Kim Jung-man to save a local island and its natural environment from redevelopment plans.

"There is a very visible shift in the local indie documentary scene, where filmmakers are offering more creative and diverse formats," said film critic and JIFF's head programmer Kim Youngjin. "The tradition of participatory documentaries still remains strong, though, with most filmmakers blurring the line between documentary filmmaking and journalism. Many foreign documentaries sometimes feature dramatic or even thriller-like elements, but Korean documentary filmmakers and audiences both remain quite conservative. There is still a certain resistance to such dramatizations.

But things are changing, Kim says. "A contributing factor is the expanding pool of filmmakers. An extremely high number of documentaries are being made in Korea, particularly as digital platforms have allowed social activists and other non-professionals to helm projects."

There is also a change in the overall attitude among filmmakers. "Younger filmmakers have been endorsing the idea that the presence of a camera in recording events or subjects ultimately entails a degree of direction and subjective interpretation. This I think has really opened up new possibilities for indie documentaries."

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