Im Kwon-Taek: Drawing Down the Moon

You've probably never seen an Im Kwon-Taek film. Though his work has occasionally graced the SFIFF's screens over the years and regularly travels the festival circuit, he is virtually unknown outside South Korea. It's almost appropriate that way -- each of his films is like a beautifully wrapped gift Im offers to his native Korea. Since the early '80s, the decade that he began making personal films after 20 years of strictly commercial fare, Im has been crafting films about Korea for Koreans -- deeply Korean subjects, sometimes on aspects of their culture and history that even Koreans don't know much about, or have effectively suppressed. While Korean New Wave filmmakers like Jang Sun-woo, Park Kwang-su, and Hong Sang-soo are shattering taboos and forging a new, incendiary Korean cinema, Im Kwon-Taek quietly goes about the business of, as he says, "translating into filmic form the rhythm of life in my country."

His genius is in making these profoundly Korean subjects searchingly accessible and absorbing. By telling his stories in unpretentious, classically melodramatic form, he invites us into his culture to make us see our own cultures in his. Sopyonje, about a nearly lost folk music tradition called pansori, is as emotional a filmgoing experience as I've had this year, an overwhelming evocation of loss, regret, and the power of song, the cinematic equivalent of listening to Dock Boggs or the Carter Family with all the lights off.

There's a scene early on in Im's 14th-century-set Surrogate Mother in which a teen-age girl is instructed in a breathing ritual that will draw procreational strength from the full moon to prepare her for pregnancy. It seems a lovely, harmless notion, at first, but is soon revealed to be the first of many tortures this poor girl will endure during the course of her life. The scene is meant to reveal, among other things, the virtual slavery to superstition and ritual that Korea operated under in those days (and, by extension, these days). But I wouldn't be surprised if Im Kwon-Taek himself draws at least a little of his mastery from that full moon. How else to explain the almost spiritual power of his work?

Im has made something like a hundred films since the early '60s, and has mostly stuck to the melodrama, an enormously popular genre in Korea. Melodrama is a nearly lost art in our part of the world, considered extremely uncool, banished to TV in the form of soap operas and network movies. It's easy to forget, though, in our film festival search for the hottest new stylists, the force of a simple, heartfelt story well told. Im's best films are just that, uncanny in their power to move.

-- Tod Booth

Im Kwon-Taek receives the festival's Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement May 3, when he'll appear and participate in an onstage interview before the screening of Surrogate Mother. Im films screening at the festival this year include:

Mandala 7 p.m., May 5, Kabuki
Sopyonje 6:45 p.m., April 18, Kabuki / 1 p.m., April 30, Kabuki
Surrogate Mother 6 p.m., May 3, Kabuki
The Taebeck Mountains 6 p.m., May 2, Kabuki
Ticket 1 p.m., April 25, Kabuki / 7 p.m., May 1, Kabuki

 
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