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Drawing After Dark

Action Drawing HERO performing in the courtyard of the freer Gallery.

Action Drawing HERO performing in the courtyard of the Freer Gallery (photo by Cory Grace).

Natalie Creamer is an intern in the office of development at Freer|Sackler.

Korean art-performance group Action Drawing HERO fascinated an enthusiastic crowd at last week’s Asia After Dark: Korea Seoul Train. Combining drawing with synchronized dance and mime, the troupe captured elements of contemporary and traditional Korean art to create a tiger out of charcoal and a portrait of South Korean musician Psy in vibrant watercolor.

Prior to the performance, I had the opportunity to sit down with the four members of Action Drawing HERO—who call themselves the Jackson team, after Michael Jackson’s iconic moves—and a translator from the Korean Cultural Center. None of the Jackson team has ever attended art school. As a result, the group adheres to a strict rehearsal schedule that can sometimes last from 10 am to 10 pm.

The members of Action Drawing HERO have performed together for five years, mostly at private theaters in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and China. They utilize innovative art techniques such as light scratching, dust drawing, and cube art, which was showcased at the Freer. Occasionally, they also incorporate modern technologies such as video projections.

I asked the actors what they liked most about being on stage. They replied, “We love to show audiences how art can be created in new and entertaining ways.” The group’s live art performances have helped it cultivate a successful international following, including an extensive Facebook fan base. After their success at Korea Seoul Train, we hope they’ll come back for more!

Can’t get enough Asia After Dark? Get ready for Chinese Martial Arts on Saturday, August 17. Details will be posted to our website soon.

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Jiseul Shines Light on a Dark Past

A scene from the award-winning film, Jiseul.

A scene from the award-winning film Jiseul.

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea, has been called “Korea’s Hawaii.” A favorite destination for honeymooners and other vacationers, the island is famous for its natural wonders, luxury resorts, and “black pork,” a delicacy so sought after that Seoul-ites have been known to make the trip just to gorge on it. (Having tasted it myself, I can attest that it’s worth the trip.)

In 1948, however, Jeju was the site of a horrific crackdown by the Korean military on its own citizens. Following an uprising during which protesters were fired upon by soldiers, Jeju residents were ordered to report to the authorities or be executed as communists. It has been estimated that some 30,000 people died in the strife, which lasted until 1954—with the full knowledge of the American military forces stationed there.

Director O Muel dramatizes this little-known tragedy in his elegiac film Jiseul, which will screen at the Freer on Sunday as part of both the Korean Film Festival DC and the Environmental Film Festival. A Jeju resident himself, the reclusive O Muel crafted his film from starkly beautiful black-and-white images of the island’s snowy winter landscape, and even had his actors speak in Jeju’s dialect instead of standard Korean.

When Jiseul premiered at Korea’s Busan International Film Festival last year, experts opined that, despite its undeniable power, the film would never appeal to audiences outside of Korea because its subject matter was too local. (Screen Daily‘s assessment that “international viewers are bound to find it perplexing” was a typical response.)

But the experts were proven wrong when Jiseul won three awards in Busan and was invited to the Sundance Film Festival, where the jury took less than a minute of deliberation to unanimously make it the first Korean film to ever win the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Harvard Film Archive curator Haden Guest named it one of the best films of 2012 in Film Comment, and the director of a major American film festival told me over dinner that it was one of the best films he saw in Busan.

I agree with him. The only thing perplexing about Jiseul is how a nation could slaughter its own citizens, but you certainly don’t have to be Korean to wonder about that.

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Kim Ki-duk Comes Down from the Mountain

Jo Min-soo in Pieta.

Jo Min-soo in Pieta.

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

In 2008, fed up with his recent films’ poor reception in Korea and a series of what he considered professional betrayals, director Kim Ki-duk publicly declared himself through with the Korean film industry and retreated to a rustic house on a mountainside. He lived for nearly four years in a tent in the living room, with a wood-burning cook stove as his only source of heat, and a cat as his only companion.

He may have abandoned the film industry, but he didn’t stop creating. Alone in his primitive abode, Kim made the extraordinary documentary Arirang, a one-of-a-kind cinematic self-assessment that is so operatically self-absorbed it’s impossible to look away. In it, he drunkenly interviews himself, lists his grievances against various Korean film industry people, agonizes over an accident on the set of one his films that nearly killed an actor, and weeps while watching his younger self in one of his old movies. He also proudly shows off his homemade espresso machine, which he cobbled from spare parts using the skills he earned in his pre-filmmaking life as a mechanic.

Kim has come down from the mountain bearing Pieta, his first dramatic feature in nearly half a decade. And, true to form, he stepped right into a controversy when it upset Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to win the coveted Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. At the time, my Facebook newsfeed lit up with equally impassioned enthusiasm and outrage. Kim’s fans saw it as vindication. His detractors called it a travesty. One friend, a professional film critic, even went so far as to rant that the entire international film festival jury system should be scrapped. (It is a sad symptom of opinion-slinging in the Internet age that many of the people on both sides of the debate had yet to see the film.)

Controversy aside, Pieta is Kim’s strongest work in a long time. In the years leading up to his self-imposed exile, his films had begun to lose some of their raw, visceral energy, and were starting to feel a bit arched and contrived. Pieta is a return to form: as disturbing, haunting, and impossible to shake as the best of his work. Interestingly, its themes of betrayal and revenge echo those he obsessed over in Arirang. And, like Kim during his time on the mountain, the protagonist only eats food he kills and prepares himself. Kim has channeled his real-life obsessions into fiction in a quite imaginative way.

After seeing both films, my first thought was that every mid-career filmmaker in need of rejuvenation should make an Arirang. What worked for Kim might work for others.

Pieta will be shown on Friday, March 22, at the Freer as part of the Korean Film Festival DC.

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Tom Vick in Korea: Now it Gets Interesting…

Seoul’s brand-new City Hall

This is the second post from Tom Vick, our curator of film, about his recent trip to Korea.

I’m back from Korea, after one more night in Seoul and four days at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Seoul is a gargantuan, overwhelming metropolis in which every building seems to be vying for your attention. While trying to work in my hotel room I could be distracted by no less than three huge video screens beaming advertisements from nearby rooftops. Adding to the city’s already jumbled skyline are more and more avant-garde, deliberately incongruous buildings dubbed “aliens” in architectural circles. Across the street from my hotel sat one of the most notorious: Seoul’s brand-new City Hall, which looms like a giant wave about to crash over its soon-to-be dismantled, Japanese occupation-era predecessor, in a perhaps deliberate reference to the Korean Wave (hallyu) that has inundated Asia with Korean pop culture in recent years.

Puchon, a small satellite city near Seoul, is a different experience entirely: a jumble of lights and garish signs enticing the visitor to all sorts of temptations. Indeed, Puchon has a somewhat seedy reputation, making it the perfect setting for PiFan, a festival specializing in the extremes of genre cinema: comedy, action, horror, sex, and violence. The fact that festival guests (your correspondent included) are put up in the city’s notorious “love hotels” only adds to the atmosphere.

Bright Lights, Big City: Puchon at Night

In addition to the new releases, I was very intrigued by a special retrospective section devoted to Korean comedies of the 1970s. That decade is generally considered a low point in Korean cinema history, but PiFan’s program, along with Udine Far East Film’s 1970s series dubbed “The Darkest Decade,” indicate, if not a revival, then at least an attempt to understand the ways filmmakers reacted to the political censorship and public indifference of the time, ideas that were illuminated during an interesting panel discussion following one of the screenings.

A panel discusses Korean comedies from the 1970s at PiFan.

Having sampled these films at both Udine and PiFan, I can say that most of them may not be “good” by traditional standards, but watching a loud, silly comedy from the ’70s can be as much a cultural learning experience—in its own way—as gazing upon the Buddhas in the National Museum.

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Curator of Film Tom Vick: Korea in Five Scenes

Historic streets of Bukchon

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

I am in Korea, currently as a guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) and next week as a guest of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. Each year, KOCIS invites 18 people from around the world to participate in a cultural exchange program. For my visit, I chose to combine business meetings and visits to museums and cultural sites in the hopes of enhancing my understanding of Korean history and culture. I have spent the last week crisscrossing Seoul with my official guide and interpreter, who have enthusiastically embraced the Korean government’s recently imposed relaxed dress code.

My official government guide and interpreter in Seoul

Early in my trip I was treated to a personal docent tour of highlights from the National Museum of Korea. The tour included a room of Buddha sculptures that shows off not only the sophistication of ancient Korean sculptors, but also the influence of other cultures via the Silk Road nearly 2,000 years ago.

Buddha from the National Museum of Korea

That same day I was treated to lunch by filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, who visited the Freer a few years ago to show his films, and Hanna Lee, producer of Chang-dong’s masterpiece Secret Sunshine. He showed me around another site where cultures mix: the Bukchon section of the city (top photo), where picturesque old streets have become the settings for wildly popular Korean television dramas, which in turn attract tourists from all over Asia seeking to walk the same streets as their favorite Korean TV stars.

Hanna Lee, producer, and Lee Chang-dong, filmmaker

After a week of enriching cultural experiences, productive meetings, and reconnections with old Korean friends, I write today from Gyeongju, city of burial mounds of ancient kings. For everyone I’ve met who loves Gyeongju, I meet someone who complains about obligatory middle school field trips there to be force-fed ancient Korean history. I even saw an installation at Samsung Museum of Contemporary Art lampooning this tradition. But even though Gyeongju dresses up its burial mounds with piped-in mood music and a nighttime light show, it’s hard not to be awed by being in the presence of massive graves that have been left undisturbed for nearly two millenia.

Burial mound in the city of Gyeongju

Next week I will experience another kind of spectacle, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, where far-out films from around the world meet an enthusiastic audience of movie geeks. Stay tuned!

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Kimchi, Drinks, and a Movie

Director Na Hong-jin in the Freer courtyard before a screening of his film “The Chaser”

Popcorn and a movie? I don’t think so. Following on the heels of the popular event Noodles and a Movie, Freer|Sackler presented “Kimchi, Drinks, and a Movie” last Friday night. Guests nibbled on savory jeon pancakes and sipped makgeolli rice wine in the Freer courtyard, mingled with director Na Hong-jin, and then watched his film The Chaser in the Meyer Auditorium. On Sunday, Na Hong-jin returned to the Freer to introduce another of his films, a thriller titled The Yellow Sea.

Enjoying kimchi before a screening of ”The Chaser”

Stay tuned to the F|S online calendar for more fun, film, and food-filled events!

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