An impressively-realised historical drama from Korea sadly let down by weak characterisation
Widescreen and monochrome, expressively lit and chapter-headed, O Muel's film is a piece of cinema with a subject to match. In 1948 American influenced Korean troops brutally stamped out perceived communist activity on the southern island of Jeju. Jiseul vacillates between the soldiers sometimes zealously, sometimes reluctantly hunting various villagers down, and the villagers quite literally holing themselves up.
Yet as the film tells its horrible tale, moving between different perspectives, sometimes the focus seems weakened by its shifts from one character to another. Occasionally this aloofness indicates mastery, especially in one scene where the islanders are hiding in a cave and O Muel uses the full width of the frame in a long take to allow the characters to talk among themselves as the firelight dwindles. This suggests the director's power resides in the image more than characterisation, with the latter sometimes broadly drawn and too undeveloped to create individuals.
Some filmmakers can manage historical sweep without character specificity - for example Eisenstein's great twenties work, Gillo Pontecorvo with The Battle of Algiers and Ousmene Sembene in Camp de Thiaroye. O Muel's film, for all its formal elegance, seems much weaker. Its often compositional beauty and sensitivity fail to elevate it into a major work, and perhaps its general approach to character might leave it a minor one even in terms of audience reception. Anything from Braveheart to The Patriot, Michael Collins to Black Book, shows that you can write history with lightning when you hold closely to central characters; with the film arriving at a pulpy immediacy that whips viewers up in an hysterical historical frenzy, and often caring little for the factual compromises involved. There are hints of this desire to play up audience indignation here (a young soldier reluctant to kill the islanders shivering naked in the snow, a soldier raping a woman with a knife playing along the ridge of her nose) but the director is understandably too respectful to generate easy audience disgust as he details a subject that remains contentious in Korean history. But the result, to Jiseul's detriment, is that it is neither one thing (pulp history) nor the other (an examination of an historical moment socio-politically delineated).
Jiseul is showing at Cineworld Fountainpark, Fri 28 Jun as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2013.