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Life on the fringe, but on his termsJeju-born director O Meul's depiction of Jeju reflects the genuine rather than the generic
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승인 2011.08.27  20:18:07
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▲ Film Director O Muel. Photo by Kim Mi Ryang

Life is a process of birth, growth, and death. For O Muel (오멸), who searches for freedom in his work, art is as similar as these stages of life. He began his career as a painter and now doubles as a representative of Japari Theater and an independent film director. Such a colorful and wide-ranging career betrays his intention to keep on broadening his artistic activities, though it was always a spontaneous process, according to O.

To illustrate, O’s paintings sometimes feel like he is fighting against himself, and his film work highlights the healing of sorrow and pain. This up-and-coming film director has been surprised by the media spotlight.

“It felt bittersweet,” he told The Jeju Weekly at a coffee shop in Seoul last week, alluding to all the years he spent working in other areas of the arts, including theater and fine arts, but without much recognition.

The main theme of his movies is not the true story of Jeju Island, though his successful homegrown films depict authentic Jeju dialect (which is hard to understand for mainland Koreans) and characters in real geographical settings. Some film buffs may argue that a Korean film that needs Korean subtitles reveals the limits of local color. However, O said he was “never concerned about that because the Jeju accent is a matter of course to Jeju people. It would be exotic only from an outside perspective.”

The unfamiliar use of Korean subtitles appears not to be a problem for audiences; what matters is drama, not form. His film “Ppongttol” (which translates from the Jeju dialect as the stone weight on a fishing line) features a main character who travels from the mainland to Jeju Island, and his inability to understand and speak the Jeju language provokes a good laugh.

O recalled in a quiet tone his experiences of being ignored and severely discriminated against as an outsider of Jeju origin in Seoul. Yet he managed to turn this negativity into the foundation for growth in his artwork. When his Japari Theater performs in Kyushu, Japan, he pointed out that though his troupe is recognizably foreign, paradoxically, it has led to them being treated more fairly. Consequently, more people turn out to watch their plays.

O also mentioned that another foundation of his work was Jeju Island’s beautiful scenery.

When asked about why his movies show the rampant and often detrimental economic development on the island, the director explained that he didn’t mean to purposely expose this serious problem, but that it naturally came out in the scenes. He said that “while telling our [Jeju] story, the reality the island is facing was obvious.”

“We make films on a tight budget,” and there isn’t enough money to fully gloss over every inconvenient detail. Instead, he said his filmmaking reflects the daily on-the-spot conditions, such as weather, locations, interactions with the actors, among other things.

O Muel’s unique comedy “Ppongttol” received a Movie Collage Award at the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival in 2011, and will be in general release from Aug. 25.

▲ Various scenes from “Ppongttol.” Photos courtesy JINJIN Pictures


Born in 1971 on Jeju Island, O majored in Korean painting. In 2002 he organized the Flower for a Jeju Head, a Jeju street art festival, and in 2004 he formed Japari Theater, a culture art creation group based on the island. Its Jeju-colored original plays such as “Island Story” and “Odolttogi” have drawn international attention through the Haki International Children Art Festival in Japan. Its success there led to opening Japari Theater’s regional office, having regular plays in Fukuoka. Recently, “Odolttogi” swept four awards including Best Drama in the 19th ASSITEJ Korea International Summer Festival (2011).

He extended his medium of work to film with short films “Flower for a Head” (2003), and “Putting on Lipstick Thickly” (2004). His first movie “Flower for a Head” was screened in several film festivals, receiving a Minister of Culture Award, and his first full-length debut film “Nostalgia” (2009) won the Judges’ Special Choice Award at the 2010 Jecheon International Music & Film Festival.

Most actors and staff members of his full-length movies like “Ppongttol” and “Nostalgia” overlap with those from Japari Theater. “Japari” is a Jeju word used to describe a condition of doing nothing productive or fruitful, and is frequently used by Jeju mothers to nag children. In O’s movie “Ppongttol,” the main character Ppongttol (a movie director himself) even refers to movies as japari.

“Ppongttol” was made with a shoestring budget of only 5 million won (US$5,000). The actors and crew were not paid and instead considered that they were making a film just for themselves. His movies are classified in a unique genre ─ Tamna Odyssey Comedy (Tamna is an ancient name for the island nation that was to become Jeju) ─ shot entirely on location on Jeju Island whith Jeju native actors speaking their native language during the entire film.

O’s latest movie “Ieodo,” which premiered earlier this year at 2011 Jecheon International Music & Film Festival, is a story about Jeju’s tragic April 3rd Massacre, in which thousands died at the hands of the police and the military. “Ieodo” depicts Jeju islanders who hide in caves to escape the chaos and carnage.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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