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Hanji - Im Kwon Taek


Directed by Im Kwon Taek
28 February 2014

Legendary Korean director Im Kwon Taek returns with his 101st feature film Hanji, which also happens to be his first filmed in HD. As with his previous film on the folk music tradition of pansori, this film again sees him exploring one of Korea's cultural arts, this time the art of making in Hanji paper attempting to combine a historical perspective with a humanistic narrative about its place in modern Korea and in defining the country’s national identity.

During the Japanese invasion of Korea, the records of Joseon dynasty were burned. This is the story of people who wanted to restore the record of the Jeonju accident, the only one that survived.

The film follows Park as civil servant Pil Yong who becomes involved in a project promoting Hanji, the traditional Korean art of making paper, attempting to raise the profile of the practice and win funding to support its preservation. Although he initially knows very little of the art, he believes that it will help to heal the growing rift between him and his stroke-victim wife, who herself comes from a long line of paper makers. As Pil Yong travels around the country meeting Hanji masters and trying to get them involved in the project, he is also given the job of taking along with him a female documentary film maker, Ji Won, who is working on a film on Hanji. As he learns more about paper-making and its place in Korean culture, it slowly but surely begins to deeply impact his life.

Although to the casual viewer, a film about paper may sound a little dry, Im Kwon Taek, masterfully brings the subject to life. In addition to portraying the painstaking process of making Hanji paper and explaining why it is so highly valued, Im also uses the subject as a means of defining Korean culture and identity. What is perhaps most interesting about the film in this respect is that this is not viewed merely from a historical perspective, but also from a modern and contemporary angle. Given the inclusion of a documentary film maker as one of the characters in this film, one can view the film as a metaphorical dance between the older and newer art forms, with Im exploring his own role and that of cinema in the greater cultural scheme of things. This is worked into the film in so subtle a manner and that it never feels forced or contrived.

Im manages to combine the film's intellectual and philosophical concerns with some solid human drama and shows himself for the umpteenth time to be a master storyteller. Thanks in part to some great acting from the central characters, the narrative keeps moving along at a quiet, though engaging pace. Im also makes good use of a lively supporting cast that includes a series of interesting and eccentric characters with different perspectives on the use of Hanji, from papermakers concerned with funding, politicians, academics and calligraphers, all of whom combine to provide a comprehensive picture that underlines the far-reaching societal and cultural links of the art. The film is an exquisitely shot and artistic affair, with plenty of loving, ornate close-ups of Hanji paper, as well as a surprising array of items and decorations made from it. The film as a whole is quietly beautiful, with some gorgeous shots of the night sky and moon, and some tranquil rural landscapes that help evoke the journey into tradition and the past. The film also occasionally takes on an almost documentary feel, combining the two art forms in a skillfully informative and contemplative fashion. It is exactly this kind of craftsmanship and depth which ensures that Hanji is a film which succeeds on many different levels. It certainly reinforces the fact that Im Kwon Taek is not only one of the greatest Korean film makers, but arguably one of the best modern Korean artists as well.

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