Spring in My Hometown (1998)

D: Kwangmo Lee
S: In Lee, Jungwoo Kim

As the war rages distantly in the background, a young boy grows up in a small Korean village. In a world torn by divided loyalties and the presence of the U.S. Army, he begins to learn that growing up involves saying goodbye to many of the things he has known as a child. Sad, moving drama directed by Kwangmo Lee in the slow-paced, painstakingly photographed manner of an Ozu film. At times more like a series of paintings or woodcuts than a motion picture, the film nonetheless builds to a powerful emotional climax. Though it is frustrating to find yourself so distant from the action that the performances are difficult to appreciate, Hyung-ku Kim's breathtaking cinematography makes the most of the long-shot style to root its characters in their physical environment.

The film begins with a suspected communist sympathiser being dragged from the bottom of a well where he has been hiding only to spark debate among the villagers as pro-U.S. militias threaten to beat him up, and anyone who disagrees with them. As it progresses, the film ambiguously details rising local tensions as intertitles explain the big stories of the war. Sung-kee Ahn plays the father of the young boy at the centre of the drama (In Lee), whose family benefits directly from the American presence, though the film speculates upon the cost. The boy and his friends chase U.S. jeeps along the road and steal equipment while observing the prostitution of local women to American soldiers, a combination of innocence and impishness which eventually turns to tragic discovery and disaster. Large scale political and social events are shown to impact upon lives which seem so removed from them, which proves to be the film's most powerful rhetorical angle.

Though it is tempting to see the film in terms of metaphor, it is actually quite specific, inspired by the real-life death of the director's father during the war. It places terrific weight on physical detail, especially the rituals and rhythms of rural life. It revels in scenes of domestic and community behaviour. That these are then transformed or otherwise interrupted by events and circumstances beyond the realm of village life is demonstrated by the contrast between the families of young Lee and best friend Jungwoo Kim. The intervention of U.S. soldiers affects both, albeit in very different ways. Both families are eventually lost to the world of traditional culture and values, which results in irreversible change, but perhaps also in growth. Young Lee begins to glimpse a world beyond the domestic, and despite the tragedies which have befallen him, it seems obvious that he has grown from the experience.

Yet the film does not necessarily lay all the blame with the U.S. per se. The conflict between communism and community is central to the film, and Lee creates an ironic counterpoint between the vehemence of local anti-communist forces and life in the village, an interdependent rural idyll with traditions predating both communism and democracy. Tradition itself is seen in a state of uncertainty, with Lee's father espousing discipline and 'correct' behaviour while using his own daughter to achieve influence in with the army. It carefully establishes a great deal of character activity, yet by choosing to keep distant from the actors, Lee forces us to think in terms of landscape and country rather than the individual. This dialectic between the personal and political drives the film, and the oscillation between pro and anti communist themes creates a sense of hesitation which defines the central character's sense of the world as he emerges from the comforting shadow of family and community and begins to establish his own parameters and his own attitudes to life, death, and moral values.

This is a serious and thoughtful film destined for festival and limited audience screening. It is not necessarily surprising, though it is interesting given its country of origin. There's nothing here we haven't seen before in the way of technique or theme, though its particular cultural and political articulation is, as noted, interesting in and of itself. It is far from essential viewing, but if you are predisposed to its pace and style, it could prove a rewarding evening's edification.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.