Based on a terrible event from history, in which Korean troops, directed by the United States (apparently, I am going by the information I have to hand for the movie and not my own knowledge of events), turned on their fellow countrymen as they launched an attack on the southern island of Jeju. It was a dark, dark time.
Jiseul shows events from that time and it doesn’t shy away from some real moments of horror – in the form of torture, rape and, of course, genocide. The decision to film everything in stark, gorgeous, black and white, however, helps to sugarcoat the pill to some degree. Nothing loses its power, but the movie isn’t as potentially bleak and unbearable as it could have been.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m familiar with any of the cast members (this is the first movie for most of the actors onscreen), but they all do a good job portraying a wide range of characters – a cold and callous commander, a conscientious soldier trying to avoid killing people, survivors hiding themselves away in a cave – and they all work well with what they’re given in terms of dialogue and screentime.
That dialogue comes from writer-director O Muel, the man who can accept all of the praise for the movie. Yes, every film is a team effort, that goes without saying, but O Muel really did a fantastic job of laying the groundwork with his script and eye for the visual style of the whole thing. Many of the scenes are simply beautiful in their composition and the use of light and dark. The camera is often locked in one position to watch the characters deal with their situation, but it also has times when it pans smoothly along to take in each member of a large group.
It may sound flippant, but I can’t remember the last time that the horrors of war were depicted so beautifully. This is a mix of mesmerising imagery and sobering moments, made all the more impressive due to the relative inexperience of most of the main players.
The one thing I will warn everyone about – the subtitling is some of the worst that I have seen. Words are missing, incorrect or misspelled and the structure is often a lot clumsier than it should be. I’m not saying this to be picky. It’s an irritating oversight. It’s also something that I hope doesn’t put people off from persevering with the movie. You’ll be glad that you did.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: O MUEL
STARS: OH YOUNG-SOON, MOON SUK-BUM, YANG JUNG-WON, SUNG MIN-CHUL, CHOI EUN-MI, JANG KYUNG-SUB, UH SUNG-WOOK, PARK SOON-DONG, KANG HEE
RUNTIME: 109 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: SOUTH KOREA