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O Muel scoops major award and “shares the glory” with Jeju
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승인 2013.02.04  07:42:07
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A still from O Muel’s latest film “Jiseul,” winner at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy Japari Film

Jeju-born director O Muel’s latest release “Jiseul,” a moving monochrome portrayal of the Jeju Massacre, has scooped the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Jiseul, meaning potato in the Jeju dialect, is set during the Jeju Massacre, a period of conflict between state paramilitary and local armed groups, also known as “4.3” (sa-sam), after events triggered on April 3, 1948. Between 15,000 and 60,000 people were killed during the conflict.

In a recent interview with The Weekly, director O Muel said he was committed to telling the truth about Jeju life and the award-winning Jiseul brings Jeju’s tragic past to an international audience for the first time.

In those dark days, sandwiched between liberation from Japan and civil war, Jeju locals, many opposing the division of the Korean peninsula and UN-sponsored elections, were labelled “reds,” or communists, by the government of Rhee Syngman; paramilitary groups were sent to eliminate the perceived threat with tacit US support, leaving lingering resentment on the island.

The upland “jungsangan,” between 200-600 meters above sea level, was declared enemy territory, and a scorched earth policy ensued, forcing many frightened locals to hide in the valleys and oreum of Mt. Halla.

Written and directed by O Muel, the film centers on the inhabitants of one such village who flee to a cave to escape the roving military. Potatoes from local fields provide their main food source and the film captures their grim tale in harrowing detail. Regarding the title, O told the Chosun Ilbo:

“Potatoes are considered a staple food in many countries, often symbolizing survival and hope. That's why I picked it as the title of my film."

O accepted his award in absentia - having returned to Korea a day before the ceremony - telling the Sundance festival website, "I would love to share the honor with the people of Jeju Island. I want to share this glory."

The Sundance Film Festival, held by the Sundance Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of the most prestigious independent film festivals in the world. Began in 1981, it is considered the premier platform to showcase new independent films.

Fast becoming something of a hero for Jeju people, O Muel is one of few filmmakers covering Jeju’s history and culture. Graduating from Jeju National University, O majored in painting and worked with the local arts community on the island before turning to film. O says his characters use Jeju dialect not to be “exotic,” but because “it is a matter of course for Jeju people.”

Reviews have been mixed of O’s latest work, with Craig McGeady, from “Word from the R.O.K.” website, judging the film to be, “powerful and tender, at times hard to watch because of the content and at times extremely engaging.”

Justin Lowe, of The Hollywood Reporter, reviewed the film as “Oblique, austere and remote,” but cautions its inaccessibility leaves “little potential beyond dedicated enthusiasts.”

O Muel, it seems, captured more than one side of Jeju’s elusive character.

Jiseul will premier in Jeju City on 1 March, before being released nationwide.

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