Do you remember the 82-year-old woman, Kim Eul-bun? She was the main character in the film “The Way Home” which attracted over 4 million viewers in 2002 - the second-highest grossing film in the history of Korean cinema at the time.
Acting in a film for the first time in her life, Kim was even nominated for an award at the Daejeon Film Festival.
The elderly woman, who lived in a secluded village at the foot of Mount Hwa-ak in Youngdong, North Chungcheong Province, became exceedingly famous when the film became a big hit, but her fame came at an unwanted price. People would snoop around her house peeping through her windows. Her telephone rang night and day. She couldn’t even venture out without people bothering her with such questions as, “How much money did you make?”
It became so tiresome that she even thought about leaving her home - contrary to the spirit and title of her film - although she had lived in the house for 60 years since her marriage at the age of 17, at a place where her ancestors and husband were buried.
I recently grew curious to find out whether Kim really left her house, so I asked around yesterday.
When I spoke to the village chief, he said, “She is in Seoul at present,” though he said she had not moved permanently.
It is difficult for a solitary senior citizen to live in the mountains, especially during the harsh winter months, so she lives with her son in Seoul beginning in November each year and comes back in the spring.
It is a relief to know that she is able to find her way to Seoul and then her “way back home.”
Unlike Kim, the “mountain girl,” Lee Young-ja, who lived in the mountains in Samcheok, Gangwon Province where there was no electricity, failed to go back to her ordinary everyday life after her ultimately tragic brush with fame.
When the documentary on the 18-year-old girl was broadcast on television in 2000, people around the nation offered support for her. She soon had a fan club and became a model for a telecommunication company’s television commercial.
Her guardian persuaded her to move to his house in Gyeonggi and study for her high school diploma.
However, her father, who stayed behind in the mountains, was killed by a burglar who was after the money she earned from her television appearances in 2001. Even her guardian was later arrested for swindling Lee’s money.
A publishing company brought out a collection of poems which they said was written by Lee and her father, but was subsequently accused of fraud.
According to a report by the Daily Sports last year, Lee converted to Buddhism after suffering the trials her fame brought. They say the 27-year-old Buddhist nun, Do-hae, now lives in a temple in Gangwon Province.
I am also worried about the future of Bonghwa-gun, North Gyeongsang Province, where the independent film “Old Partner” was filmed. The documentary film attracted more than 1.6 million viewers as of last week, expected to rise to more than 2 million by this weekend. They say the 80-year-old protagonist, Choi Won-gyun, and his wife are growing paranoid from the scores of people trekking to their run-down farm to visit them. The provincial office of North Gyeongsang has made things even worse by promoting the area surrounding Choi’s house, the birthplace of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan in Gunwi-gun and the house of a rich local clan in Gyeonggu, as a North Gyeongsang weekend tourist getaway.
I understand that people harbor longings for their hometowns, miss old memories, and thirst for a spiritual experience in the countryside. However, do they really all have to flock to the latest famous spot and leave their disorderly footprints all over? These are the sort of people who engrave “I was here” graffiti on rocks. The ecology of the west coast has already been destroyed by so-called “ecological tourism” which is designed to provide a chance for city dwellers to enjoy the experience of catching shellfish. It is not an ecological experience; it is a plundering experience. The mountain girl Lee Young-ja grew exhausted from such visitors. She could barely find a place of comfort.
Why can’t we leave pure and unspoiled places as they are? Why can’t we be satisfied with just enjoying beautiful scenes in films without visiting their location to cut the barks of trees with “I was here” messages? If North Gyeongsang’s plan goes ahead, the villages of Hanul-li in and Bonghwa-gun will suffer irreversible damage.
The friendly and laid-back scenes that appeared in the film will probably disappear. It will be spoiled by the people who will crowd the place, leave their marks, and then suddenly stop visiting once the next film becomes a hit. Once, places where popular television dramas were filmed were the subject of passionate investment by local governments. But most of them are now treated like monstrous locations.
Our land is small enough. Let’s leave some places alone. We must stop tearing up the whole country - marching all over like white ants or grasshoppers.
It’s about time we stop the self-centered habit of disregarding the privacy of people and despoiling places of beauty.
*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun