Capturing life, in all its colorsOne hot summer day in 1980, Jung Il-sung was on a journey to the countryside with his best friend, a movie camera. That same day, Chun Doo Hwan was at his presidential inauguration, taking the oath of office. To Mr. Jung, the new president on TV was little more than a military dictator who’d sent troops against thousands of pro-democracy fighters that May. On the way to his destination, Mr. Jung could not help but think that something was seriously wrong with the latest turn of history.
Mr. Jung could not throw in his lot with the young activists. At 50, he was too committed to his life as a director of photography. Instead, Mr. Jung projected his devastated state of mind onto movie screens, in neutral tones. Later, Mr. Jung would compare this effort to Picasso’s Blue Period during the Spanish Civil War.
While filming amid Jeolla province’s scenic landscapes, Mr. Jung thought to himself, “Human beings are blinded in fights, while mountains and rivers are beautiful like this.” Through his film, Mr. Jung sought to express his support for the young protesters who, in running away from the regime, hadn’t had a fair chance to enjoy nature.
Thus was born “Mandara,” a film about a Buddhist monk’s agony that to this day is considered a model of cinematography. In the film, gray and blue are the dominant colors, and Mr. Jung always leaves blank space on-screen. Along with picture-perfect scenes of nature, Mr. Jung employs unique camera movements. In one scene, he pans the camera slowly around cherry blossoms, so close that the camera literally touches them. Behind the falling flowers, Mr. Jung’s camera focuses on the lead character, suffering from inner conflict and agony.
“Jung Il-sung is the one and only cinematographer in Korea who’s reached the position of master,” says Kim Myung-woo, an event official at the Jeonju International Film Festival. “His films have earned international acclaim for his unique and oriental touch.”
Decades after its filming, “Mandara” has become a rare find at most video rental shops. But this year’s Jeonju film festival, starting today, affords even foreigners a chance to enjoy it, as it is screened with English subtitles.
The festival is paying homage to this cinematographer by showing four of his films. Also on deck are “Hwang Jin-i,” a story about a legendary Joseon Dynasty courtesan, “Son of a Man,” a look at Christianity, and “Chunhyang,” based on the folk tale of star-crossed lovers.
“Mandara” marked Mr. Jung’s earliest cooperative work with the director Im Kwon-taek. Mr. Jung, Mr. Im and Lee Tae-won, the producer, are together known as the Three Musketeers of the Korean film scene, whose friendship over two decades bore fruit in the form of a Cannes International Film Festival award in 2002 for “Chihwaseon.” Watching Mr. Im accept the award, Mr. Jung said tears rolled down his face. Mr. Jung, as the director of photography, was nowhere near the spotlight, although he was the brains behind the images, always behind the camera.
Mr. Jung’s work, which began during the Korean War and now spans more than five decades, in some ways mirrors Korea’s tragic modern history. He didn’t start out as a movie buff. A Seoul National University graduate who’d majored in mechanical engineering, Mr. Jung came to his lifelong career by chance. During the Korean War, while serving in the air force, Mr. Jung was asked to work for an older college friend who was making a public relations film for the army. From that time forward, Mr. Jung found himself drawn to film.
Mr. Jung’s techniques were mostly self-taught ― skills acquired by reading Japanese film magazines and a great many books. Devouring magazines like Kinema Junpo, Mr. Jung became enchanted with the cinema of Eastern Europe, China and Russia ― all taboo in 1970s Korea, due to their countries’ communist governments. The one benefit of growing up during the Japanese occupation, Mr. Jung says, was gaining the command of Japanese that enabled him to read such magazines. Mr. Jung’s extensive collection of books and magazines, along with sculptures from around the world, are on display in his office in upscale Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul.
Last Saturday morning, Mr. Jung, now 74, was reading “African Primitive Art” in his office, which is painted bright blue. On the other corner of his stylish black-leather desk lay his sketchbook, bearing his simple drawings of primitive African art. An elderly gentleman who carries himself with style, Mr. Jung is wearing a bright red sweater, complemented by sunglasses and jeans. “My taste for primary colors reflects my old age,” Mr. Jung says, laughing. Having suffered from rectal cancer, Mr. Jung must wear a medical device, but still maintains his joie de vivre.
The cinematographer seems relaxed, relishing the completion of “Haryu Insaeng” (the tentative English title is “Raging Years”). A tale of a good-for-nothing fellow in the turmoil of the 1960s, the latest work by the Three Musketeers is set to open May 26.
Since the 1990s, Mr. Jung has turned more and more to bright colors. “I wanted to depict hope in my films from the 1990s on, when the military regimes had faded into history. I found myself coming out of a long, dark tunnel and wanted to tell viewers that the world outside can be this beautiful.”
Strike up a conversation with Mr. Jung, and you’ll soon find he would rather discuss politics, humankind, history and culture than his filmography. Above all, he zeroes the discussion on history. “We have suffered misfortune in history,” Mr. Jung says. “In return, however, this tragic history provides powerful subjects for Korean cinema. In this sense, the local movie scene is lucky to be born in the midst of unfortunate history.”
He views the blossoming of Korea’s film industry from this perspective. “Silmido” addresses a sore spot from Korea’s Cold War era, while “Taegukgi” deals with the Korean War. “But the thing is, the success of such films does not necessarily mean that they’re of good quality,” Mr. Jung says with a grim expression. “Films have served as a most convenient leisure activity, especially in this country, where people haven’t had a moment to themselves, too busy making a living in the fetters of ill-fated history. We must not forget that, and try to make better films.”
Mr. Jung does recall a few films that he’d prefer were not among his creations. “In the past especially, I thought quantity mattered as much as quality,” Mr. Jung says. “I was young then, living in times of confusion and poverty.”
Still, he harbors no regrets about his efforts, saying he’s happy that other directors could take pleasure in working alongside him. His lengthy filmography covers a vast range of genres. Through them all, Mr. Jung has persisted in his frugal ways. “Saving has become a part of who I am. For one thing, I just can’t stand the idea of wasting film, a habit from the ’50s when times were hard for filmmakers.”
By most counts a well-liked cinematographer, Mr. Jung is proud of his career. “I don’t consider myself either above or below the director,” Mr. Jung says, “but sometimes I feel that I’m doing a more important job than a director, for I’m the one who gives films shape and style.” Mr. Jung compares the director-cinematographer relationship to that of a husband and wife. “But at the same time, in the relationship with a lighting engineer, it’s the cinematographer who plays the husband’s role,” he says, smiling. “You can call it a double life.”
Mr. Jung is content with his current lot in life. “Some people belittle directors of photography, but that only reflects their ignorance,” Mr. Jung says curtly. “And ignorance is the most fearful thing in this world.” He also considers himself lucky to work with his closest friends, Im Kwon-taek and Lee Tae-won. “I sometimes think that the three of us must have been family in our former lives. Especially Im Kwon-taek; he could’ve been my husband.”
Shrugging off his age, Mr. Jung won’t let fatigue get the better of him. “No matter how tired I may be, I have this new flow of energy whenever I hear the camera running.” New ideas continue to emerge for projects; the latest is a documentary. “Human beings cannot be trusted. On the contrary, animals, insects and plants do not lie,” he says. “I want to make a documentary film on nature, without help from directors, on my very own. This is my one last wish as a cinematographer.”
Classic cinematography and more in Jeonju
Four of Jung Il-sung’s films will be screened tomorrow and Sunday at the Jeonju International Film Festival. Mr. Jung will be a guest at the filmmakers’ forum, part of the Cinematographers’ Master Class. Along with Mr. Jung, festival organizers have invited world-renowned directors of photography Caroline Champetier of France and Walter Carvalho of Brazil. All films in this section are subtitled in both English and Korean.
Another strongly recommended offering, a special screening of 11 Cuban films, comes subtitled in English as well. Some Cuban directors will attend the April 30 screening, where they’ll field questions from the audience.
The Jeonju festival, whose name is synonymous with fine art films, this time presents a “sonimage” section, in which impromptu piano performances accompany silent movie screenings.
For movie buffs loath to have even a minute of down time in this city of cinema, all-night movie screenings under the rubric “Midnight Obsession” will please. These three viewing marathons ― dubbed Night of Cult, Taboo and Phantasm ― offer cinephiles loads of film and animation for an affordable 10,000 won ($8.60). Single-film screenings cost 5,000 won each, with the exception of the “sonimage” films at 10,000 won.
Another of Jeonju’s pleasures is digital film screenings; this year, festival-goers can enjoy “Influenza,” a short film by “Memories of Murder” director Bong Joon-ho, in the Digital Short Films by Three Directors section.
Organizers are ready to fill the small city with a festive spirit, staging performances by independent music bands (tomorrow) and a circus performance whose venues and times are being kept under wraps.
Expat-friendly organizers arranged for English subtitles for most films.
Advance ticket sales are available at www.jiff.or.kr, where you can also find information on screenings and other events in English. Jeonju, down in North Jeolla province, is reachable in three hours by the KTX bullet train; a one-way ticket on weekends costs 27,600 won.
by Chun Su-jin