Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today: HANJI Review

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
Hanji, a film about the traditional Korean papermaking, is the 101st film by the prolific Korean director Im Kwon-taek (Chunhyang, Chihwaseon: Painted Fire). It plays as part of MoMA's second annual Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, which runs 9/23-9/30.

Park Joong-hoon plays Pil-yong, a lowly government employee, newly appointed to the cultural bureau that oversees the economic revival of the hanji (traditional Korean paper) industry in anticipation of the restoration of The Annals of Choseon Dynasty: the chronological record of the last Korean empire, which is written more than 500 years ago. It is said that a good hanji would last a thousand years, hence preserving what's written on it. Pil-yong's job is to gather ragtag of hard-drinking, proud craftsmen to produce the best quality hanji for the restoration job. Without prior knowledge of paper making and facing layers of bureaucratic red tapes, it's an uphill battle for our hero. It's also no easy task while taking care of his sick wife at home and dodging advances from a beautiful and aggressive documentary filmmaker (Kang Soo-yeon).

Unlike other Korean films that showcase blind national pride steeped in sentimentality, Hanji actually makes the case with scientific facts. The world's oldest surviving printed Buddhist sutra (Dharani sutra) dates back to A.D. 751 from Shilla Dynasty, printed in hanji. From certain mulberry pulp, to the right glue, to the purity of water used, a lot of ingredients are factored into making the best quality paper. It literally needs to be fit for a King.

Im's style may not be seen as flashy and hip as other Korean filmmakers, but he has been quietly chugging along, dipping into various subjects and producing quality films since the early 60s. Lately taking an anthropological approach to the filmmaking, Im has been chronicling the disappearing Korean culture- namely, pansori (traditional singing/storytelling in Seopyeonje, Chunhyang and Beyond the Years). This time, it's hanji, the traditional Korean paper.  

The film is not without melodrama. Pil-yong's infidelity and the financial difficulties haunt him and his wife. But for him, hanji making becomes something that is bigger than himself. Im doesn't let the characters bogged down in their fears and insecurities though. The life goes on, so does the film. With well rounded characters, Hanji is a solid and mature film that celebrates the passion for something you love, even though that passion might seem a little nutty to others. As the couple and the documentarian follow one eccentric papermaker to the remote waterfall deep in the mountains under the moonlight, trying to recreate the old method of papermaking to a T, one character says to another, "We all must be little crazy to be here."

For tickets and more info, please visit Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today at MoMA website.


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be seen at www.dustinchang.com
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