“The past is not just the past. It comes back again and again, it affects our time. If the present cannot be changed then the future threatens to be the same as the past.”
In any other year, South Korean artist and filmmaker Jung Yoon-suk’s films could not have screened at the London Korean Film Festival, noted curator Tony Rayns as he introduced Jung’s films at the festival. Under the previous government, led by the now-imprisoned Park Geun-hye, Jung’s work—licentious and overtly political, even if the director wouldn’t describe it as such—would not have met the standards of that government’s officiators, whose notorious blacklist was alleged to contain nearly 10,000 names of artists whose work was deemed unfit for the state-controlled funding programs. It’s not clear how much influence that same government held over the activities of the UK’s Korean Cultural Centre—organizers of the always interesting, if usually more restrained, London Korean Film Festival—but the appearance of Jung’s work in this year’s edition suggests any such sway may have now seceded. Jung Yoon-suk, speaking at his screening, said the blacklist didn’t matter to him as he wasn’t going to be getting any funding anyway. He was, however, annoyed to not find himself on the list regardless. “All my good friends are on there.”
Asked by Rayns to introduce his film, you might expect Jung to be pleased about having his work exhibited to British audiences for the first time. His response: “I don’t know why they selected my films and I want to die”—cue raucous laughter. Answering a question about his future as a filmmaker, he shouted gleefully, in English despite having answered all other questions through an interpreter, “No money, no future!” A slippery character in person, sporting a mischievous grin and a sense of humor befitting that wry expression, he avoided classifying his work where possible, and dodged questions that would have provoked answers that would pin him down. Best then, to let his work speak for itself, which, judging from his first two tenacious, provocative documentary features, it most certainly does. Quite vocally, in fact.
Jung Yoon-suk’s contentious, complex first feature, Non-Fiction Diary (2013), takes what he calls in his introductory text a “crucial watershed moment” in South Korea’s recent history as its focus, before spiraling dramatically out from it, encompassing a whole lot more than the specificities of that single moment or even its direct consequences. His starting point is the shockingly violent case of the ‘Jijon Clan,’ five young men and a ringleader—“angry at an undefined enemy”—who tortured and murdered five victims in 1994; but the director’s scope spans a national decade, roaming from the downfall of the military dictatorship in 1988 through to the IMF debt instigated economic crisis in 1997.
Described by the case's chief investigator as “something out of a comic or novel,” the Jijon case was—as Jung reveals through a mixture of on-screen expository text (limited and leading, by design), inventive employment of archive, and storytelling from his participant interview subjects—South Korea’s first serial killer case, and one of the more vicious (non-military, non-governmental and non-corporate) acts of violence in the country’s history. Working entirely with representatives from the various institutions that dealt with the murderers—police officers, lawmakers, prison guards and clergy members—Jung takes the violent act as a basis for a wider investigation, the centrality of this incident in the early stages of his documentary acting as a misdirection for his real interest.
The murderers claimed a political motivation for their acts, stating their desire to strike out at the inequality in the increasingly consumerist, neoliberal Korean society of the 1980s by near-literally “kill[ing] and eat[ing] the rich”, as one of them puts it. One incredible piece of footage sees them addressing the media recently after their arrest and lapping up the attention, making claims like “I ate the flesh, I gave up my humanity” with expressions somewhere between a grin and a grimace.
The irony of this motive, Jung later reveals, is that their victims were far from the wealthy elite they hoped to target, just “small to medium business owners” or individuals of a lower economic ranking still. The group assessed the victim’s wealth by their ownership of a Sudan branded vehicle, a far from failsafe way of identifying privilege that typified the wanton nature of the murders and the futility of asserting any clear logic over them—especially when it’s noted that some of the victims were renters. At the point of their arrest, the Jijon Clan were far from reaching their target of $1 million in stolen assets, and nowhere near undermining the society they claimed to be reacting against.
After fleshing out the details of the case (this is not a whodunit, the film begins with their arrest and contains no real attempt to identify what exactly led to these vicious acts), Jung moves quickly onto the immediate fallout of the incident, the public response, reaction of the media industries and the government’s attempt to forge a position, looking at how all three became entangled. Clips from Korean chat programs and news items show, unsurprisingly, a frenzied and moralistic media circus keen to commodify the crime, complete with regular exclamations over “the moral crisis in our society” from teleprompter regurgitating hosts, and cameramen literally clambering over each other for access to the group of murderers or anyone related.
As Jung outlines it, public opinion is rooted somewhere between dismay and panic, which then-president Kim Young-sam’s government is seen to leap upon, activating a thinly disguised authoritarianism under the guise of the realignment of national morals, itself an insidious justification for the manipulation of public mood. Hypocrisy as policy. Sweeping this singular act of murder in with the condemnation of a wider moral malaise that constitutes everything from student activism to youthful partying, Kim Young-sam exploits tragedy, almost instinctively. Constructing a smart and convincing essay largely from layered images and interjected voices, the moral policing Jung observes emerging from the Jijon incident acts not just an indictment of the actions of his government, but of all administrations that see disasters as opportunities, as the chance to enact pre-existing policy decisions or justify the further destruction of civil liberties.
It is from here that Jung takes the focus of his essay a step wider, carefully allowing his subjects to make connections for him, to verbalise the opinions expressed in his construction and contrast of the various voices and employed footages. The police chief interviewed at the start connects the Jijon case to the disintegration of the Seongsu bridge that occurred in the same year, and to the collapse of the Sampoong department store a year later, events that held death tolls of 32 and 502 respectively. As he explains, the Jijon act is murder, classified by the media as the work of the “devil’s offspring,” and declared punishable by death by the government; whereas those other two events are civic administrative neglect and corporate manslaughter, respectively, bringing fines or minor jail sentences, if that.
Jung’s multifaceted, slyly contentious (and indeed, contestable) film becomes an investigation into the act of murder, whether direct and personal: a human hand forcing a knife into flesh; or distant and impersonal: a body crushed under concrete as a result of the negligence by the various arms of capitalism itself. Both murderers had a motive, the police chief—present at both crime scenes but considerably more haunted by one than the other—admits, the accumulation of personal profit with human life as the cost. What does it mean to take a life, and how does the perception of that act change depending on the context of its occurrence, the response to it and its interpretation?
Jung’s second feature, Bamseom Pirates, Seoul Inferno (2017), pulls off a similar trick, starting in one place before arriving somewhere else, making a midway shift that is even more seismic than the one in Non-Fiction Diary. Named after an album from drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon’s two man band The Bamseom Pirates, Jung’s film has both a great title and a really good tagline: a film about two musicians who “try to give Korean society the music it deserves.” It quickly becomes clear what sort of music Jung believes that to be, as a sardonic, slightly on the nose title card from Jung proclaims that “the sounds in this film were left unbalanced to help you experience the imbalance in Korean society.” So begins a brash, noisy, if initially a somewhat relatively conventional affair, laced with the suggestion of something stranger afoot.
The Bamseom Pirates, Jung reveals—again without involving himself directly, leaving the storytelling to others, his deft editorial hand acting as guiding force—were a grindcore act that began with a humble intention, “to create noise and make trashy music,” but found themselves embroiled in something considerably more complicated. In making this film—staged more contemporarily this time with material from around 2010 to 2016—Jung experienced that which all documentarians pray for: the transformation of the situation being observed into something greater than the sum of its parts. This this change comes at the simultaneous benefit of the narrative line of the documentary, and the expense of its participants, is a source of tension in the film, and one that remains unresolved.
The film’s first half follows the band through public performances’ interviews with the band members, friends, fans and other commentators’ and interjected manically shot, creatively cut music videos that display both Jung’s affection for a trashy, art-punk aesthetic and his knack for generating energy through his montage. “We make shitty music that is also cheap to make,” one of the self-effacing, extremely personable duo announces early on, before adding that “it doesn’t sound good because your ears are shitty, but our ears are even shittier, so we like it.” Playing mostly at universities, in street shows, or in spectacularly derelict buildings, the band’s music is fundamentally political, but imprecisely so, every politician an enemy and every institution a target, stances hard to pin and ideologies more so.
Their inter-song jokes and statements form as much as the experience as the music - short duration, high intensity speed-punk tracks with fast, sloppy instrumentation and absurdist, largely indeterminable lyrical content. Using found and constructed instruments, and employing Microsoft Powerpoint slides to accompany their shows (so the audience can follow and try to make sense of the lyrics), they might not be the best band in Korea, but they are certainly one of the most inventive. A particularly great sequence sees the two musicians “outsource their music”, handing their instruments over to audience members and having them perform under their direction.
It’s not clear initially what Jung thinks of these two men, though he evidently appreciates the duo’s creativity as much as their anarchic spirit, showing interest in their songwriting process and treating their work with a seriousness that music of this type is rarely afforded. Jang is described at one point by an interviewed academic not as a musician, but as a “contemporary avant-garde poet”, and within the context, it’s impossible to tell if his inclusion is serious or sarcastic. This is music made on the fringes, a truly underground art made outside of the possibility of any kind of commercial context, and as large a contrast to the manufactured pop music for which Korea is best known as can be imagined. Another scene sees the band shooting the cover of the album in the slapdash studio of their friend, producer and makeshift manager Park Jung-geun. Jang, dressed in his signature “kill all communists” helmet and brandishing an unlit Molotov cocktail, is an absolute goof, emblematic of their style of indiscernibly confrontational, absurdist politics.
It is here where the shift occurs, dramatically and entirely unexpectedly. Early on, Kwon states that “in today’s world, North Korea is scarier than Satan,” a line that proves prophetic when the duo’s posturing and provocation catches up with them. Producer Park finds himself under arrest, charged for breaching South Korea’s National Security Laws, having committed "acts that benefit the enemy.” This charge falls not on Kwon or Jang for any of their confrontational lyrics or protest activity, but for a seemingly innocuous action (retweeting some pictures from a North Korean propaganda account that he thought were funny) from their producer. Though they’re made to testify about their work—Jang explaining to bemused prosecutors that their song ‘All Hail Kim Jong Il’ is in fact a ballad about all the other men who shared that now-tarnished name in Korean history, not a celebration of North Korea’s leader—the duo are largely off the hook. Meanwhile, as Park faces very serious charges, the seriousness of consequences of the rising tide of Korean conservatism are brought astoundingly close to home.
The case becomes convoluted and this underground duo—ignored for their work but made the center of attention by something unrelated to it—become unwilling representatives for an post-2010 amoral youth, much as the Jijon Clan were in 1990s Korea. As in Non-Fiction Diary, the media and public reaction, hyperbolic and farcical, is a source of fascination to Jung. In a piece of footage that almost beggars belief, a panel show speaker discussing the case asks Korea’s youth, without any trace of irony, “how much freedom and democracy do you all need?” Quite a lot, or at least a little more than this, Jung—vacant as a presence in the documentary but very present in the edit, in his selections, his juxtapositions and his instigations—seems to be saying. How long is a piece of string?
Interrogated and forced to explain their political positions, verify their protest activity, and to justify their music to a degree of specificity that they hadn’t intended when making it, the two young men and their forlorn producer are made to look hopelessly inept. The alluring bravado displayed in the film’s first half is all but lost, heads sunken, joy lost, their naivety revealed and the immaturity of their politics exposed. Jung, however, is sympathetic. “We are just two guys who make loud music,” Kwan says bashfully, before Park announces he has been sentenced to 10 months in jail and 2 years probation. A remarkable end credit sequence shows the two band members in a makeshift recording studio recording even more discordant, preposterous music, screaming, growling and spluttering abhorrently into a microphone, wide grins stretched across their faces. Despite it all, you’ve got to carry on. No matter how daft it starts to seem.
In Non-Fiction Diary, Jung surveyed an oppressive society, one that jumped brashly upon public mood to enact preconceived conservative ideals and an authoritarian intent. In the world of Bamseom Pirates, Seoul Inferno, set two decades later, it might be presumed that the situation would have improved. Instead, it seems that further regression has occurred. In the version of 1990s South Korea that Jung depicts, it took murder to shock an authoritarian government into delivering grave retribution. In his version of the country in the 2010s, it only takes a press of a button or a word out of line to face similarly intense punitive measures. Since the shooting of Bamseom Pirates, Seoul Inferno, then President Park Geun-hye has been impeached and jailed, and a new government elected, one hoped to be less controlling. Time will tell, but safe to say Jung Yoon-suk—a vital, incisive artist and talented documentarian—will be amongst the first to address any grievances that do occur.