A search for roots starts with old taleHendrik Hamel was a wanderer trying to escape Korea in the mid-1600s. Annemiek Nam was a wanderer searching for her roots here in 2002. Filmmaker Jan Hendrik de Hartog brought together the stories of the Dutch sailor forced to live in Korea and the Korean-Dutch adoptee in “Hamel’s Horizon,” a documentary that screened here last month.
“Hamel’s Horizon” was first shown at the Rialto Theater in 2003 in Amsterdam, then Govinchem Museum, in the area where Hamel was born. The Netherlands Embassy hosted the first showing in Korea at Seoul Art Cinema.
While many of the expatriates who attended the showing at Seoul Art Cinema expressed delight with the scenes of the Korean countryside, the documentary has yet to be distributed internationally or be screened at an international film festival.
Yet “Hamel’s Horizon” is slowly building an international fan base, charming audiences with its rustic cinematography, the journey of an adopted orphan and the depiction of the kindness of strangers.
Mr. Hartog, 31, is working to raise his work’s profile and is now briefly in Korea after filming a documentary in Vietnam about an orphanage.
The story behind the making of “Hamel’s Horizon” actually begins centuries ago. On June 18, 1653, Hamel boarded the ship Sperwer (Sparrowhawk) with a crew of more than 60 men and headed for East Asia.
On July 30, the ship was sailing to Japan, only to be blown off course in a sudden storm. After several days of harrowing winds and rain, the ship hit rocks near Jeju Island and splintered apart. Only 36 survived.
The Koreans gave the survivors food but kept them captive while the governor of Jeju awaited the decree of the Korean king.
In Jeju, the sailors met an older Dutchman, Jan Janse Weltevree, who in 1627 had left his ship with two other sailors to find drinking water in Korea. They were captured and not allowed to leave. The two sailors died, leaving Weltevree to live out the rest of his life in a strange country.
Hamel and his crew found themselves facing a similar situation. They left Jeju for Seoul to meet the king, who said none of his countrymen would help the crew leave. The Dutch were given the surname Nam, for “south,” where they had come from.
For 13 years, the crew was forced to eke out a living in Korea. On Sept. 14, 1666, Hamel and seven others escaped to Nagasaki, Japan.
Hamel later wrote “Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea,” the first European literature about Korea to be published. For years, it was the authoritative account of Korea, but in time, the book faded from people’s memories.
Centuries later, Mr. Hartog came across the book as a young film student at the University of California in Los Angeles looking for a project in Asia. “I knew if I went [straight] to Europe, I would stay there,” he says.
Initially, he thought of doing a film in Thailand or Japan. And then one day, he found “Hamel’s Journal” in the UCLA library. “Of course, the Dutch have lived in Japan and Thailand, but I didn’t know the story of Hamel in Korea,” he says.
He flew to Korea in 1997 to learn more. He met the Dutch ambassador at the time, Hein de Vries, who encouraged him to meet Jean-Paul Buys of the ecumenical Taize community. Father Buys, of the Netherlands, had lived in Korea and Japan, and translated Hamel’s book into English.
Mr. Hartog decided to do his own translation, but obtaining 80,000 euros in funding and gathering the perfect crew proved difficult. He returned to the Netherlands to further develop the story, seeking a modern twist to the old tale.
At a high school reunion, he met an old friend and began talking about his ideas for the project. The friend told him about another friend, an adopted Korean whose last name was Nam, like the Dutch sailors.
Annemiek Nam, now 28, was a young child when her father left her at an orphanage with her younger sister. He said she couldn’t be sent to the United States, so a Dutch couple adopted them when she was five.
As an adult, her memories of Korea revolved around smells. She had no interest in a country once infamous for “exporting babies” and had no desire to participate in a documentary filmed in Korea. But as she continued to speak with Mr. Hartog, her interest in the film grew.
Meanwhile, in Korea, interest in the Netherlands had increased after the 2002 World Cup, with Koreans revering Dutch coach Gus Hiddink after the Korean national soccer team’s unexpectedly strong showing.
The Netherlands Embassy was also gearing up for the Year of Hamel in 2003. The embassy helped him get in touch with the Korea Foundation, and other sponsors joined, such as Gangjin county in South Jeolla province, LG Philips LCD and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Hartog gathered a Dutch crew, including a musician who recorded the sounds of Korea ― birds, wooden gongs, traffic ― to compose a soundtrack. In September 2002, they began filming, which lasted a month.
The crew followed Hamel’s journey in reverse from Seoul to Jeju, visiting eight cities. “We wanted to begin with all these impressions that were very intense, and then become quiet,” Hartog says.
But they ran into some problems along the way. Ms. Nam was reluctant to open up emotionally before the camera, and many crew members, who were on their first trip to Korea, had some problems getting accustomed to the new food and language.
As they retraced Hamel’s journey, Mr. Hartog also wanted to cover some of the same topics in the Dutch sailor’s book, such as Korean traditions. One of the memorable moments in the film is a countryside funeral.
“I know it’s cruel, but I was really hoping I’d encounter a funeral,” he says. His friends were incredulous that he would even consider asking someone to film their funeral.
“But while we were driving, we saw [a funeral procession] walking along the street. We stopped the car and I jumped out. I asked, ‘Sorry, but can we film this?’” And they agreed.
While Mr. Hartog was the engine behind the documentary, perhaps the one most affected was also the one who held in most of her emotions.
A year after they finished shooting, it was evident that the filmmaking process had an effect on Ms. Nam. While she was having dinner with her parents, she said she had started to look for her birth father. And if she found him, perhaps Hartog could do a sequel.
by Joe Yong-hee