Dubbed “the father of Korean cinema”, Im Kwon-taek has directed 101 films. The 77-year-old auteur is best known for his Oscar-nominated Chunhyang (2000), and Painted Fire (2002), which earned him the best director prize at Cannes.
But Gilsotteum (1985), which despite being screened at the 1986 Berlinale and Chicago International Film Festival, did not make much of a splash outside South Korea.
In Im’s homeland, this drama dealing with the familial separation and national division brought about by the Korean war achieved some commercial success – but, for those who consider it his “hidden masterpiece”, not as much as it deserved.
Kim Jee-mi who stars in Gilsotteum, is known as the “Elizabeth Taylor of Korea” owing to her resemblance to the Hollywood actress and similarly huge popularity.
But there’s no question that this is a serious work whose subject continues to matter a great deal for Koreans living on both sides of the 38th Parallel.
Set in 1983, the year that broadcaster KBS hosted a “Campaign to Reunite 10 Million Divided Families” telethon that ran for 453 hours and 45 minutes, the drama tells the story of a woman urged by her husband to look for loved ones she has been separated from for decades.
As Hwa-young drives to the KBS station, childhood memories start flooding back.
Among the earliest are those about her family moving to the small village of Gilsotteum at the end of the Japanese occupation – only to see all her kin perish from a cholera epidemic soon after.
Adopted by her father’s friend, tragedy befalls the schoolgirl again. After she and her adoptive brother, Dong-jin, fall in love, she becomes pregnant.
Banished from Gilsotteum by her adoptive father, months pass before he allows Dong-jin to reunite with her. As fate would have it, the day that Dong-jin sets off to get her back is the day the Korean war breaks out – and it will be 33 long years before the pair see each other again.
But while Dong-jin spends decades pining for Hwa-young, what appears to matter more to her – and director Im – is the issue of a possible reunion with her son, whom Dong-jin has never seen.
As part of the preparations for Gilsotteum, interviews were conducted with families reunited by the telethon. The way the main story develops and concludes reflects what the majority of those interviewed felt in the aftermath of the reunions. And the fact that the film’s outcome will shock most viewers says much about the situation’s complexity.
Gilsotteum, October 25, 6.30pm, Asia Society, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, HK$30 (non-members), free for members, tel: 2103 9511. Part of the Women on Screen: Asia Society Korean Film Series programme