which depicts Jeju Islanders taking refuge from the military suppression of a 1948 demonstration on the island. Thousands of island residents were massacred by the military. (provided by the Safari Film)
By Song Ho-jin, film reporter
“What led me to make this film were the souls of the Jeju islanders who were massacred,” the director said, “and I also think that their souls helped us during the filming. I’d like to share the award with them.”
O Muel, the 42-year-old director of “Jiseul,” responded to news of the film’s Grand Jury Prize not with pride in his accomplishment, but with respects for the victims of the 1948 Jeju Massacre. “I think maybe the sorrow of those souls reached the heavens,” he declared as tribute to them.
Beginning on April 3, 1948, between 14,000 and 60,000 people on Jeju Island were killed in an uprising that ensued after the South Korean military fired on a demonstration commemorating the end of Japan‘s colonial occupation of Korea. The South Korean army's and rightist group's brutal suppression of this uprising caused the destruction of many villages on the island, and sparked demonstrations on the Korean mainland. The suppression lasted until May 1949, while isolated fighting continued into 1953. Many residents of Jeju escaped from the massacre to Japan.
The film, which dramatizes the events of the massacre, earned top honors in the world cinema category at the 29th Sundance Film Festival, the most prestigious independent film festival in the world. The organizers announced the jury’s unanimous decision at a Jan. 26 award ceremony in Park City, Utah.
Sundance awards Jury Prizes for the best entries in US and world documentary and film, for a total of four categories. This marks the first time a South Korean film has won one of these top prizes at Sundance. In 2004, Kim Dong-won’s documentary “Repatriation” received a special Freedom of Expression Award at the festival.
Speaking to the Hankyoreh by telephone on Jan. 26, O said he was contacted by the festival organizers about the result the previous day while changing planes in Tokyo on his way home.
The award for “Jiseul” adds to the list of honors received by South Korean films at major festivals over the past couple of years. In 2011, Yi Seung-jun’s “Planet of Snail” won in the feature category at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, one of the world’s top documentary festivals. Last year, Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta” won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, one of the world’s top three film festivals.
Film industry insiders said the awards are an especially major coup for documentary and art features that have failed to find their way to screens back home.
Set during the events of the Jeju Uprising in winter 1948, “Jiseul” is based on the true story of Jeju islanders who hid in the caves of Seogwipo after an order from the US military designating all residents within 5km of the coast as “rioters” and ordering their execution. Shot in black and white for 250 million won (about US$231,500), it adopts the format of an ancestral rite as it pays respects to the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives at the time.
In scene after heartbreaking scene, it uses intensely powerful images to capture the islanders, whose amusingly fumbling response to their dire situation only underscores the tragedy of what follows. The title is a word in the local dialect for “potato,” which symbolizes the hope of survival in the film.
O, himself from Jeju Island, commented on the significance of the film’s reception.
“April 3 [the date of the massacre] needs to be viewed in terms of world history as a Cold War-era massacre of civilians in which the US military administration was complicit,” he said. “It is significant that a story like this was screened in the US and acknowledged by artists there.”
The director recalled a tearful US audience member at the festival, apparently in her fifties, who thanked him for making the film.
“Different countries have different languages and ways of making films, but I think all of us share the same pain that comes through when innocent people are dying,” he said.
“Jiseul” is scheduled to open on Jeju on March 1 before being released in Seoul and elsewhere around the country on March 21.
Please direct questions or comments to [email@example.com]