Jiseul tells the tragic and shocking true story of the inhabitants of the southern Korean island Jeju in 1948. Because they lived 5 kilometers outside the South Korean peninsula they were labelled communist rebels and on the order of U.S. troops they were to be shot on sight. The film focuses on a unit of soldiers who were ordered to wipe out a village and some of the villagers who managed to evade them while hiding in a cave for months.
This harrowing story is told in poetic fashion, shot in stark black-and-white which only heightens the effect; you have to keep reminding yourself throughout that this actually happened and not just the bleak imagination of what might have occurred in wartime. However, the commitment to the admittedly exquisite visuals can sometimes take away from the power of the story. You can’t help but feel there’s a far blunter film to be made about the atrocity, something to truly shock the senses and decency of the audience. Jiseul is instead focused on beautiful composition and framing which indeed makes for a gorgeous film to behold but not one that truly punches you in the gut as it should.
Muel O. is clearly a talented director as he composes some genuinely astonishing visuals. The raid of one particular small village, with the camera putting the audience in the scene almost in the shoes of one of the soldiers doing the horrible deed, is as elegant as it is uncomfortable to watch. While in contrast a scene in the snow is beautiful and would almost be peaceful if it weren’t for the intentions of the soldier pointing a gun at an innocent woman and baby.
This could have been something of a masterpiece had it not been for certain choices the director makes to fill in the gaps between the Korean soldiers catching up with the villagers. Perpetual sequences of the villagers sitting and talking undo a lot of the power the bold visuals and haunting themes conjure. Those sequences seek to show the normality the villagers are trying to savour even in this most dire of circumstances but they go on too long and feel distracting and sluggish. It’s the director’s first film and hopefully he can use this to grow as a filmmaker and make something really special next time – he certainly shows flashes of great ability here.
Jiseul says a lot about the power of human resilience and spirit, tackling themes of survival, regret and loss in a sombre and quietly powerful way. It’s a shame that it can’t keep that consistent throughout or present it in a much more harrowing way to truly match the story. It’s a gorgeously shot and framed film with faultlessly naturalistic performances from non-professional actors but also a bit of a slog at times to sit through, never quite attaining the heights the appalling true story demands.