Dir: Mun Jeong-hyun. South Korea. 2007. 90mins.
The political is transformed into the intensely personal in South Korean documentary Grandmother's Flower, a powerful first-person family essay by Mun Jeong-hyun. Mun's technique is sometimes shoddy and his aesthetic decisions questionable, but the content proves so absorbing and miraculous that it overrides the stylistic limitations.
The director's fourth documentary feature sees him go about excavating his family's secrets in an almost forensic manner, his startling background yielding long-held, anguished secrets. The narrow focus of the film will likely restrict it to film festivals (it premiered at Pusan and moved on to Berlin), public television and DVD, but it clearly demonstrates how the emotional scars of events from nearly six decades ago still reverberate in today's Korea.
Grandmother's Flower shares other Asian filmmaker's recent concerns about the human costs of social, technological and ideological change. The 32-year-old Mun meticulously collates family photographs, written documents, archival footage and direct-to-camera interviews, adding primitive animation where recollections turn especially raw. Structurally, the movie is shaped by his own self-exploration, coming out of the guilt he felt over the recent death of a great-uncle.
In his route to discovering why the older man suffered mentally, Mun also takes in the class and ideological conflicts that still separate the three distinct villages which make up his family's South Korean town.
In particular, Mun draws out the remarkable story of his maternal grandmother, an indomitable and fearless woman who raised 11 children. The movie relates the bitter conflicts of the three-year civil war between the capitalist South and communist North, specifically the suffering, death and state-sanctioned torture endured by Mun's maternal relatives as a result of their left-leaning political sympathies.
Mun is both interloper and family historian here. He sometimes works too hard to yield emotional results, such as the extreme close ups he uses on the face of his aunt when informing her that the man who fired the fatal shot that killed her father was a family friend.
Mun also treats too cavalierly his own family's interesting dilemma, the profound political differences between his leftist mother and rightist father. At one point interviewing his parents sitting side by side, they reveal conflicting political opinions on multiple issues although Mun never adequately explores how people of such different political temperaments managed to marry, raise a family and stay together.
But even given its flaws, Grandmother's Flower is strong and varied, a potent and powerful meditation on the tragedy and darkness that has scarred modern Korea. 'Don't tell this story anymore,' one relative admonishes the filmmaker. Thankfully, Mun resisted and the result is a spare and powerful historical record.
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