September 27, 2011

Hanji: Paper! Paper! Read All About It!

It's a good thing, I didn't read the synopsis of Hanji in the MoMA Korean Film Festival brochure beforehand. I never would've gone to the theater. A film about the challenges, setbacks and rewards encountered by a local government official helping to revive the traditional method of papermaking hardly promises the stuff of high drama. And funnily enough, within this movie itself, are snippets of what appears to be the dreaded documentary we'd expect from that description: a clunky primer on the fine art of Hanji that pans reverentially over intricate antiques while a droning voice-over puts us summarily to sleep. Crafting a new copy of the Annals of the Chosun Dynasty may be a momentous occasion to scholars but most of us are not going to perch on the edge of our seats, desperately waiting to see if the undertaking succeeds. Will they master the old craft? Who cares! Director Im Kwon-taek does a little, perhaps, but at the same time that's not the story that he's set out to tell with Hanji either. Im's sublimely understated film is based on a real story but doesn't relate history so much as it distills  reality. (That's much more interesting!) His Hanji quietly conveys how the lives of people of no historic note are deeply impacted by something as unexpected as a well-meaning civic restoration project.

The movie's central character is  Pil-yong (Park Joong-hoon), a womanizing bureaucrat incapable of advancement and burdened with a wife (Ye Ji-won), whose severe disability was caused in part by his last extramarital affair. As he works to incite the masters of the local paper-making community to participate in the project, he strikes up a friendship of sorts with a divorced female film director (Kang Soo-yeon) who makes the aforementioned documentary, in part because she can't get funding for a feature film. No major love triangle emerges. Throughout Hanji, conflicts are small; treacheries, minor. What distinguishes Hanji is not its ability to extract tragic consequences from a historic footnote but rather its acknowledgment that a story with little razzle dazzle can nevertheless be the biggest thing to happen in some people's lives. Im's blunt depiction of cubicle culture, stroke rehabilitation, and petty crime as nothing but a part of daily life, any life, every life, underscores that the familiar and the pedestrian can still be quite deep. There's a beautiful passage in Hanji during which one character talks about the moon being a source of light that you can stare at continually without danger. Like the moon, most of us will not be as radiant as the sun but our insignificant lives are no less worthy of uninterrupted, loving attention.

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