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Hanji: Busan Film Review

The Bottom Line

An intriguing yet heavy going blend of fictional drama and documentary

Director

Im Kwon-taek

Screenwriters

Im Kwon-taek, Song Gil Han

Cast

Park Joong Hoon, Kang Soo Youn

Korean director Im Kwon-taek, in his 101st film, tells how bureaucrats and artisans came together to rescue Korea's traditional paper-making business in a mix of documentary and dramatic fiction.

Hanji, the 101st film by 75-year-old Korean director Im Kwon-taek, is a spry experimental piece that by all rights should be the work of a young man exploring cinematic conventions. This film about hanji, Korea’s traditional handmade paper, toys with film genres: It should be a documentary, and at times it virtually is. But Im and co-writer Song Gil Han create a fictional story that instead of presenting a series of talking-head interviews takes a viewer into town hall offices, professors’ studies, bureaucrats’ liquor-fueled dinners and papermaking factories, a journey that treats the hanji process with an almost mystical reverence.

As innovative as this unusual mix of doc and feature is, you’d really better care about hanji to fully enjoy this film. Otherwise two hours of conversation and demonstrations about the transformation of the bark of the paper mulberry tree, the mucilage that oozes from the roots of Hibiscus maniho and Korean paper versus paper-making methods from Japan and elsewhere may have your head spinning.

Im Kwon-taek, who won the best director award at Cannes in 2002 for his film Painted Fire, is of course a selling point, but even in Korea Hanji will be an acquired taste.

No doubt the product is amazing. Hanji paper reportedly can last 1,000 years. Two-dimensional hanji is for writing and creating images similar to painting. Artisans use three-dimensional hanji to craft objects such as chamber pots and tea service.

The film’s script is distilled from the many documents and stories behind the effort to restore the Jeonju Sago, the only remaining annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which was recorded on this paper. (The film was produced by the Jeonju International Film Festival.) The communitysees this as both a preservation effort and a means to promote and re-establish an ancient industry on the wane.

So you witness the in-fighting and efforts to convince hanji’s prickly artisans, each convinced his way is the best, to come together for the common good. The film focuses on the involvement of a cityhall bureaucrat and a female documentary filmmaker in this process. Naturally, they have a brief affair, but neither makes for a compelling character.

In fact, it’s a toss-up whether audiences will even empathize with them as the male bureaucrat is enough of a womanizer that he caused a stroke that has addled his pretty wife for two years and the documentarian is just a little too self-righteous and egotistical.

The bureaucrat becomes so enamored of hanji that he borrows money to invest in this process. The movie ends with him, the papermakers and a few monks making paper in the moonlight on a remote mountainside. The paper “contains our spirit,” one character remarks. There’s little doubt in these final sequences that the filmmaker firmly believes in the spiritual side to this 1,000-year-old paper.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, Korean Cinema Today

Production company: Jeonju International Film Festival

Cast: Park Joong Hoon, Kang Soo Youn, Yeh Ji Won

Director: Im Kwon-taek

Screenwriters: Im Kwon-taek, Song Gil Han

Producers: Min Byung Lock, Lee Hee Won

Director of photography: Kim Hoon Kwang

Production designer: Ju Byoung Do

Music: Kim Soo Chul

Editor: Park Soon Duck

No rating, 118 minutes