‘Festival’: a visual manual for deathDespite the odd scale on which Asian films are measured on the world scene, it’s almost impossible to describe Im Kwon-taek’s “Chukje” (“Festival”) without mentioning what the director’s position suggests in the evolution of modern Korean cinema.
At home, he is proudly dubbed a “national director.” Worldwide, he is one of the first Korean directors to attract critical attention for dealing with Korean identity issues in almost every aspect: culture, politics and society.
“Chukje”, which originally came out in 1996 and was recently released on DVD, is a film that delves into the rituals of a traditional funeral in a Korean home.
The story centers on Jun-seop, a respected novelist, and the death of his mother. It illustrates and aestheticizes every detail of a traditional funerary rite, which to a modern Korean audience might seem as enigmatic it would to non-Koreans.
In fact, like many of Im’s films, “Chukje” is valuable as a cultural asset. It not only traces the details of a forgotten tradition, but it states and defines the exact vocabulary for each step in the rite, adding text on screen to the visual depictions of the ritual by the actors.
On the other hand, the film evidently tries to reinterpret the lost meanings of old customs. It revives an old notion that funerals are a form of celebration. Im also tries to reexamine life by juxtaposing the death of Jun-seop’s mother with his growing interest in his young daughter, who observes the curious acts of her grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, leading to her death. Jun-seop explains to his daughter that she has shared her youth with her grandmother, as both switched ages, one growing forward and the other backward.
The film is intriguing, because it poignantly captures and standardizes what we commonly describe as “Korean sentiment” using clear-cut imagery but without overstating the subject matter.
In the end, however, Korean audiences may have supported this film the way they did when it first came out a decade ago ― the film won many prestigious awards ― simply because it was made by one of Asia’s most experienced directors who knows what he’s talking about.
Even so, not all veteran directors are lucky enough to have such support.
Directed by Im Kwon-taek
Starring Ahn Seong-ki, Oh Jeong-he
by Park Soo-mee