RADIANT CIRCUS went to see A PETAL (1996) at the Korean Cultural Centre UK. Introduced by Asia film expert Tony Rayns, the event was part of an ongoing series of free film nights, Korean Novels On Screen. Here’s our writeup.
How does a nation deal with the horrors of injustice at the hands of its own government? What are the fractures in the social fabric that result? What fresh pain is caused by ripping back the concealing screen of censorship? How will we heal?
These are just some of the questions asked by A PETAL, a 1996 South Korean film directed by Jang Sun-woo and adapted from Ch’oe Yun’s short story, There a Petal Falls. The film shows in graphic yet impressionistic detail the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 – where more than 600 people may have died as government troops fired on protesting students, prompting other horrified citizens to take up arms – and its dreadful aftermath.
Introduced stoically by Asia film expert Tony Rayns, we were warned about the journey ahead. Not to enjoy it. But to experience it. Whilst the massacre had been covered in earlier, underground film works – agitating, zero-budget affairs that screened on campuses to bypass draconian cinema censorship – changes in censorship laws in the early 1990s finally allowed Jang Sun-woo to hold a mirror up to South Korean society, a visual motif that he repeats in the film.
Lee Jung-hyun plays a slender fifteen year old – credited as ‘Girl’ – who is emotionally shattered by the loss of her mother in the massacre and the profound trauma of having been gathered up with the dead. Her agonising account of being taken to a mass grave in a truck full of corpses – bodies torn and mutilated, some ‘without faces’ – is made even worse by fear that her mother may be somewhere in the pile beneath her.
Having also lost her brother in mysterious circumstances of his national service, Girl latches onto vagrant construction worker Jang (Moon Sung-keun). He treats her in the worst ways imaginable. Rejecting her howls of distress, he repeatedly rapes and beats her, eventually dressing her up like an adult doll to domesticate his abusive relationship with the innocent child. She stays, unable to find any other solution to her crisis, before continuing to hunt for the graves of her family.
The distressing violence rained down on Girl is almost Beckettian in its abstraction. Without flinching, Jang Sun-woo shows us characters absolutely stuck in the horrific shadows of history, unable to move forward or heal, forever reliving and repeating the crimes of past devastation.
Flash-backs, actual found footage of the massacre, historic reenactment, horror movie ghosts and hand-drawn animated sequences are all thrown at the audience, making this a difficult watch. The tone lurches as violently as Girl’s frail body. When she stands with her back to the camera, repeatedly self-harming with a shard of mirror, it is almost too much to endure.
As time heals, there have and will be more nuanced versions of this story (e.g. A TAXI DRIVER, 2017), ‘handsome’ dramas examining the massacre and exposing its architects (who aren’t seen here). But Jang Sun-woo’s anger – at the state, at the impotent intellectuals searching for the missing girl, at a wider society keen not to care yet ready to blame the victims – rips through the polite fabric of history and exposes its inherent ugliness. Resonant of Arthur Miller’s legendary epitaph, the film concludes with a simple call to a very different kind of arms:
“Just take some time to show a little concern.”
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- The Korean Cultural Centre UK hosts the London Korean Film Festival.
- There is an annual free programme of Korean Film Nights. Currently playing – although very booked at KCCUK, there may be tickets at Deptford Cinema where they host mirror screenings – Korean Novels On Screen. The next events you can get tickets for (at the time of posting) are: THE UNFAIR (07 JUN 19:00) and MY BRILLIANT LIFE + Q&A with author Kim Ae-ran (28 JUN 19:00). If you’ve enjoyed the film, you can also borrow the book!
- Latest announcements include some taster screenings for this year’s Korean Film Festival. Now booking: MEMOIR OF A MURDERER (21 MAY 19:00, Regent Street Cinema).
- Grab yourself a copy of Tony Rayn’s book about director Jang Sun-woo at the big river before exploring his favourite films over at MUBI.
- Discover more about Korean film with Darcy Paquet’s excellent site Korean Film.
- We listed more free screenings in our Spring/Summer guide, CINEMA FOR EVERYONE. Many of these events have now past or ‘sold out’, but it’s a good place to begin your hunt for more affordable moving pictures.