Today I attended part of the London Korean Film Festival in Covent Garden and saw Bitter, Sweet, Seoul, an intriuging documentary about the city of Seoul.  The conceit of the film is that it is composed almost entirely of film clips submitted by the public, which have been cut, arranged and set to music by the director, Chan-kyong Park, and his brother, Chan-wook Park.  Together they form ‘PARKing CHANce‘, so called because it is very difficult to park in Seoul.  The film was followed by a Q&A led by Katie Taylor and with a translator providing the English for Chan-kyong Park’s responses.  Around half of the audience had been to Seoul before.

Bitter, Sweet, Seoul trailer

The film was deft; no attempt was made to create some false narrative out of the various film clips.  Rather, the documentary was bookended by an operatic performance of Simcheongga, a Korean folk tale, on one of the rivers flowing through Seoul, the only clips to be provided by the directors.  The clips were then further subdivided by season to give us a sense of time passing, and divided once more into thematic sections such as ‘religion’, ‘industry’ and ‘travel’.  We saw, for example, the friendship between a Buddhist and a Christian, while in a nearby clip we heard the Muslim call to prayer and saw a Chinese lady inviting people to love Christ, immediately before meeting a shaman atop a hill.

The ‘PARKing CHANce’ brothers played well with balance between loud and quiet, light and dark, fast and slow clips; I was reminded in intent and style of ‘Diaries, Notes and Sketches‘ by Jonas Mekas, who chronicled his New York life via video diaries in the 1960s.

The clips that make up the documentary were supplied mostly by Koreans, followed by Chinese, followed by the rest of the world; Chan-kyong Park said that there was a noticeable contribution from fans of K-pop.  There were clips of Seoul in 1954 after the Korean war, when the city was in ruins, and there were clips of bridge collapses and enormous fires; given that the funding for the project came from the Seoul metropolitan authority the filmmakers plainly had considerable artistic freedom.

I am glad I saw this film.  A dear friend of mine is about to move to Seoul in the new year and I am glad that I got to see something of it – it looks like a vibrant city, and it looks like Hongdae is the place to be for live music.  I’m now curious about Chan-kyong Park’s other documentary, Manshin, which is about a woman who becomes a respected shaman.

Thanks, London Korean Film Festival!  You look like you have a lot of cool stuff going on!