Tuesday 17 September 2019

London Korean Film Festival 2019: Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels (South Korea 2018: Dir Kim Tae-yong)

Kim Tae-yong's fourth feature couldn't be more different to his previous directorial output, beginning in 1999 with the elegiac and spooky Memento Mori, followed up by dramas Family Ties (2006) and Late Autumn (2010).

Described by the director as tapping into the "warmth and nostalgia" of his own childhood, a 'kokdu' is a carved figure attached to a Korean funeral bier that guards the body on its passage from one world to the next.

Two children, brother and sister Dong-min (Go Choi) and Sun-min (Su-an Kim), come across a street trader who they refer to as 'Mr Junkman' selling a box of puppies. Having little money, the puppy vendor is prepared to barter, asking the children to bring items from the family home for trade. Dong-min and Sun-min collect various items, behind the back of their distracted mother, including a pair of floral patterned shoes from their grandmother (Jeong-suk Park), who is very ill.

Exchanging various items, including the shoes, for the puppy, they are clearly immediately besotted. But when they arrive home, grandma has fallen gravely ill and has been taken to hospital. Her only request is that her favourite shoes - the same ones traded for the puppy - are taken to her, so the now regretful children visit the junkyard of the dog vendor to retrieve the items. While searching Sun-min finds a battered kotku discarded among the rubbish: seeing the shoes deep in a tall cylindrical pile of abandoned items, the children reach in but fall into the garbage. And when they emerge on the other side, they find themselves in another world.

Tae-yong's single trick here, and one which requires some patience to adjust to, is to shoot everything we've seen up to now in the real world, and locate the kids' journey to the underworld as a performance in an actual stage play, featuring four adult kokdu - functioning as caregiver, entertainer, guard and guide - who mistakenly believe that Dong-min and Sun-min are dead. The quartet do their best to persuade and cajole the brother and sister to travel from the land of the living, across the mythical Samdocheon river and into the underworld. Most of the film is spent in this theatre bound environment with the kokdu using their various strengths to erroneously escort the siblings. Tae-yong never lets us forget that this is a theatrical production: stage hands are glimpsed, and indeed it is the production's director that initially finds the kids sleeping back stage, after falling through the garbage, and introduces them to the action, which they enter confusedly.

Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels takes its stage cues from a successful production of the story performed at the National Gugak Centre in Seoul, and the film is rich in traditional gugak music and dancing: a performance of the ancient Korean 'ganggangsullae' dance is a visual highlight. The magic realist touches extend to footage of grandma, back from the dead and wandering the country roads, flanked by impossibly vivid green fields of grass as she searches for her shoes. She sings of dreams, and of fame being useless, and eventually her character becomes enmeshed in the stage play as she prepares herself to cross over to her final resting place

Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels may not always satisfy dramatically, although Su-an Kim should be singled out for a very moving performance as Sun-min and Jeong-suk Park is graceful as the grandmother - and the stage elements, outside of the big set pieces, feel decidedly like community theatre. But what it does successfully achieve is, as Tae-yong intended, a lavish, playful but bitter-sweet attempt to plug into both the director's own cultural upbringing and the visual history of the country: it's also no coincidence that the film in format directly references Korea's oldest (and now lost) film, 1919's Righteous Revenge, in its mixed use of film and stagework. Slighter than I would have liked in some places maybe, but also quietly powerful in others.

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