Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom begins with a language teacher, Kwon (Young-hwa Seo) collecting a parcel of letters from an ex-lover named Mori (Ryô Kase). She begins to read – learning that Mori has travelled from Japan to Korea to visit her – but after only reading a fraction of his story, she is overcome by a coughing fit and the undated pages are scattered along a flight of stairs. They are recollected and rearranged, and thereafter Mori’s story is recounted in un-chronological order, interpreted by Kwon – and the audience – in the order they were collected.
This kind of non-linear, reconstructed approach to storytelling is found all throughout the 2014 Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival program. Another Korean film, Revivre, tackles a similarly fragmented narrative, while programmer Kiki Fung’s introduction to Hill of Freedom motivated me to see Ayumi Sakamoto’s directorial debut, Forma, making its Australian premiere at the festival.
Kiki emphasised Forma’s narrative experimentation in her recommendation, but the unconventionality of its structure doesn’t become apparent until well over an hour into its runtime; where Hill of Freedom wilfully reshuffles its constituent elements willy-nilly, Sakamoto returns to flesh out both the specific details of her muted thriller and some hitherto hidden character connections. It makes for difficult – and divisive – viewing, but barring Tokyo Tribe it’s the highlight of my festival-going experience thus far. Sakamoto’s direction is astoundingly accomplished for a first-timer, demonstrating a patience and confidence that reminded me of Lav Diaz paired with a deep understanding of the complex hierarchies and histories connecting her characters.
At first glance, there would be seemingly little to connect these two films and Crossroads of Youth, one of the big drawcards for the festival. Crossroads of Youth is Korea’s oldest surviving film – and only silent film to have survived the Korean war – having been recently discovered in the basement of an old cinema. The film’s appearance in the program is exciting not simply because of its historical significance, but because of the unique presentation of the film. Per the BAPFF website: “the film has been re-scripted with a live performance directed by award-winning Korean director and APSA Academy member Kim Tae-yong (Memento Mori).The result is a mesmerising cross-media film/performance which presents the film just as Korean audiences would have experienced it when first premiered in 1934.”
That description is a little misleading, and herein the link to Hill of Freedom’s scattered letters becomes apparent. I walked into Crossroads of Youth with my understanding of the film limited entirely to the BAPFF blurb, and quickly realised that the experience on offer was less “just what Korean audiences would have experienced,” more Hercules Returns. In case that reference has flown over your head, Hercules Returns was a 1993 Australian comedy centred on an independent cinema whose opening night film – Samson and His Mighty Challenge – arrives in unsubtitled Italian, ready for a packed audience (including Margaret and David, natch). So, the cinema operators do what any self-respecting Aussie comedian would do, and ad-lib the dialogue entirely, interspersed with broad, crowd-pleasing jokes (It’s a fun film, though hardly champagne cinema).
Crossroads of Youth is, as it turns out, in exactly the same vein. A historically accurate production was impossible: the film’s original script and score are lost, and only seven of the film’s eight parts were recovered in storage (more synchronicity here with Hill of Freedom, with Sang-soo implying that one of the dropped pages is not retrieved by Kyon). Hence, much like Kyon reinterpreting her ex-lover’s missives, Korean director Kim Tae-yong was charged with re-editing and re-scripting the film (after watching it “two hundred to three hundred times”, according to his comments in the Q&A that followed the screening). The result aims for accessibility over authenticity, replete with contemporary gags that reference, variously, the actors’ exaggerated makeup, the actors’ exaggerated performances, overt anachronisms such as references to ‘credit rating’ and even a brief quotation of “Gangnam Style” (the latter was, I suspect, a live ad-lib).
It was an impressive performance to behold. The live music – performed entirely with instruments that were popular in 1930s Korea – was warm and engaging, as were the intermittent live vocal performances from Pil-suk Kang and Heevon Park. Narrator Byung-hee Yoon was the star of the show, with a committed, crowd-pleasing performance that had a good chunk of the Gallery of Modern Art crowd in hysterics. I’ve never quite experienced a film like this, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so. It was especially instructive to see how risqué the film was – the violence and sexuality on display would make pre-code Hollywood films of the same era blush.
And yet, something felt off about the whole proceedings. There’s no reason to regard the original reel of Crossroads of Youth as a work of great cultural value; by all reports, it was a mid-range action melodrama that would likely be forgotten if not for the sheer fluke that it’s the only surviving film from the era (though, side note: one wonders if Kim Jong-un’s private collection has a stash of pristine Korean silent films, given that leftists of the era – including the lead actress of this picture – flocked to the North prior to the Korean war). But to make a mockery of the film feels like it’s a disservice; the idea of someone doing the same thing with, say, a miraculously unearthed print of lost American silent film London After Midnight is inconceivable.
Tae-yong’s comments regarding the film certainly don’t suggest a great deal of respect for the source material: he described it as a “cheesy melodrama” and mentioned that “It’s not my taste. I don’t like comedy.” Kiki pointed out that the re-cut film is “laughing at the corniness of that style.” The reconstituted Crossroads of Youth feels somehow disrespectful – not just to the filmmakers who produced the original film, but to the very notion of respecting older cinema. It reminds me of people who laugh at the exaggerated acting or awkward cuts of older films, rather than attempting to understand the work in context.
That said, I’m not sure I – or any of the other attendees at Crossroads of Youth – would have gone to see the film if the original footage had simply been allowed to unfold (even with an awkward introduction clarifying that the original dialogue had been lost). That would have been more historically accurate, sure, but far less accessible. Similarly, the story that is pieced together in Hill of Freedom seems to be a lightweight, occasionally awkward comedy of manners with a happy ending; but as Dan Sallitt proposes, there’s a darker story to be found in the margins of Mori’s letters. Similarly, we can tease out the earnestness of Ahn Jong-hwa’s original Crossroads of Youth within Tae-yong’s interpretation. The original work shines through, no matter the extent of the reshuffling.