Deep within the heart of cinema is an understated language, transcribed by the moving image, and interpreted on an emotional level by the audience. What some people may not know is that virtually every country with a prominent film industry has seen a revolution; an era in filmmaking which brought about significant changes to the way movies are made. Putting all of this into context begs the question: What do we really know about the history of Korean cinema?
Enter Korean filmmaker Chul Heo, along with co-director Chung Ji-young, and their documentary feature, Ari Ari the Korean Cinema. Their film is an insightful barrage of information; an ambitious documentary which attempts to encompass all of the emotions that are felt throughout the tumultuous periods of Korean cinema’s history. Ari Ari explores this through conversations with every significant and influential director imaginable. These conversations are candidly staged and shot, paced to accommodate each and every personality. This was no easy feat for director Chul, who collected his footage over a two year period, with an initial working cut that clocked in at roughly six hours.
“When I watch the film, I feel like there’s just so much information. With everything I have, it’s clear we need more room. So this is just the introduction to a journey…a road map of what’s to come,” Chul says, as he discusses how he plans to use his footage to create a series of films.
When Chul explains that approximately 120 people were interviewed, with six months of editing done in post-production, it’s easy to see why he wants to branch out beyond a single film. Of course, what’s more fascinating are the people and stories that are accentuated by this labor of love. Pioneering Korean directors, like Im Kwon-taek, dominate the screen with their presence; when they speak, not a single word is wasted.
Curiously, Chul entertains notions of free stylistic expression, which he trustingly places in the hands of his camera operators and various other collaborators. “When I’m working on films with anyone; people in charge of music, my editor, my camera operators, lighting…I tell them to feel free to experiment.”
Chul’s freehanded approach also applies to the sound in the film. The director had no qualms with entrusting the sound design and music supervision to his longtime friend and colleague, San Francisco native, Jim Batcho. Jim’s insights into Chul’s creative mindset provided him with the confidence to oversee crucial aspects of the soundtrack such as music supervision, sound design, editing, and mixing. Placing the multitude of sound duties in the hands of one man is not only unorthodox, but also extremely taxing for the person in charge. Needless to say, Batcho had his work cut out for him.
With Jim’s creative guidance firmly in place, he was left to hand-pick musicians from Busan’s diverse and eclectic music scene to collaborate for directors Chul Heo and Chung Ji-young, who are based out of Seoul. This proved to be a profound and remarkable meeting of talented artists which is clearly defined in the soundtrack. It is through Jim’s intimate knowledge of Chul’s personality and tastes that Ari Ari found its music composer, Poko Lambro co-vocalist and songwriter Violet Lea. For the soundtrack, Violet was asked to compose her melodies which were prompted by various emotional themes. This results in a soundtrack which lends itself to the rustic and earthy feel of the images, giving credence to Chul’s attempts at conveying the emotions that are felt throughout the journey.
Lending their talents are many other notable musicians from Busan’s musical repertoire which include Gino Brann, who contributes two tracks, Michael Laveck who helped with some of the engineering and mastering and adds an original song of his own, and venerable Busan musician Gordon Bazsali Jr., who was approached for the important task of doing the critical string arrangements for Violet’s composition, which were performed by the Kyungsung University Student Orchestra. Anthony Garcia, Poko Lambro’s second vocalist and songwriter, generously allowed one of the band’s previously unreleased songs to be used in the film as well. The collective efforts of some of Busan’s most prolific musicians can be found in Ari Ari, the results of which are resoundingly cohesive.
Ultimately, it was the use of the traditional Korean folk music staple, ‘Arirang’, which ends up being the crown jewel of musical contributions. Together, Jim and his selection of artists devised their rendition for the end credits, giving the song a modern edge, yet retaining the soaring and graceful qualities of the timeless folk ballad. It’s a fine balance between pop music update, and respectful homage; one that could presumably set the bar for future renditions.
Interestingly enough, according to Jim Batcho, Violet was initially against providing the vocals for ‘Arirang’: “Violet tracked the vocals for what was assumed to be a replacement singer, because she was convinced her own vocals were lacking in both power and her pronunciation of the Korean lyrics. When we handed it to Chul with Violet’s vocals in tact, he immediately gave it his blessing and insisted that it be left as is.”
As it stands, Ari Ari the Korean Cinema is an orchestration of historical images, conversations, and music that celebrate the power of films as a language. Korean cinema has a storied history behind it, one that is plagued with conflict and doubt, yet bountiful in the fruits of labor that have been produced by some of the world’s most talented filmmakers. Chul’s documentary also serves as a reminder that film is, first and foremost, a collaborative process; one that knows no cultural or ethnic boundaries.
Chul’s passion is made abundantly clear, and it is effectively communicated through Ari Ari. “This is a good way to show studios and other filmmakers that, yes, you can take the risks and work with non-Koreans on your films…because it’s all art, and music and cinema go hand-in-hand.”
Photos by Mike Dixon
From BIFF Site
Ari Ari the Korean Cinema
Actress Yoon Jin-seo and director Chung Ji-young set out on a journey to diagnose Korean cinema’s future. They meet with and listen to many industry professionals, reading various tensions in their talks. The work derails the conventions of documentary filmmaking. It pauses at times on Korean cinema’s long and winding road, freely interweaving personal spheres and public discourses, there by fashioning itself a history travelogue written not from the perspective of an outsider but on the basis of‘ our’people’s experiences. Its inherent Koreanness becomes clear when subtle conflicts between Yoon and Chung are exposed. What approaches they take, and what stories they want to listen to are as different as what stances they take. As the film goes on, differences between the two turn out to be a piece of history. The director grows hopeful about the new generation’s passion; the actress is optimistic about learning what a film and documentary are. [Ari Ari the Korean Cinema] is a straight forward film that reveals the self-reflective aspects of Korean cinema in the context of both form and content. (LEE Seungmin)
Dr. Heo holds a Master’s Degree from Brooklyn College as well as a Ph.D. from University of Iowa and is a professor and has taught communications at San Francisco State University and Korea University. He has been producing and directing for 15 years. His films include the award-winning documentaryBetween Two Worlds (1998)
Chung Ji-young was born in Cheongju and studied film at Dongguk University and later at Korea University. He has been an active within the industry on issue such as censorship and the Korean screen quota. His filmography includes Mist Whispers Like Women (1982), North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1989), White Badge (1992), and Life of Hollywood Kid (1994).