[Monographs 2023] Silence is an island (or breathing caves, wounded mountains and a drifting dog)

By Sun Park

If you would like to listen to this essay, you can do so by playing the audio here:

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I’m an unreliable narrator of my own memories. The moment I think I finally have them all puzzled together, they are shattered into fragments. But I keep collecting them, creating different configurations that might hold them tighter.

In which language do you dream? A question that follows a confession: my tongue speaks Korean, and my mouth speaks English. As if it is impossible, unfathomable, to have a body that speaks two languages at once. I’m asked to gauge my proximity to them—mother tongue or foreign land—tell me which one sleep talks. I wonder if the question should be:

In what language do you remember? I often wake up with the feeling of having dreamt with no recollection of the dream. Only the imprints of the fantasy linger as fatigue. Maybe in one of those dreams, I met Trinh T. Mihn-ha, who said silence could be a language, “a will not to say”[1], a mode of speech that carries the past and moves towards the future. And I wonder what it might sound like to remember in the future tense—an echo of wordless memories that outlives the listeners.

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Image Description: A heavily grainy film photograph captures a sky bathed in a muted, ethereal purple hue. The sky stretches down to meet the murky horizon near the lower edge of the frame, with wisps of clouds just above this boundary. In the foreground, rugged mountains peek into the frame, offering a glimpse of their presence.
Photography by Sun Park. Courtesy of the artist.

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So it seems that a film is, first, a confined space, at which you and I, we, a great many people, are staring.[2]

Some tunnels are vessels, not for mobility but for stillness. In Minjung Kim’s film, “The Red Filter is Withdrawn.” (2020), the camera inhabits the empty spaces of coastal caves and military bunkers embedded in volcanic craters across Jeju Island, the largest island in South Korea. Static with a firm intention, Kim’s frame centres on the rectangular openings of these sites. Through these double frames emerge the oceanic backdrop surrounding the island, clouds floating in the sky, a silhouette play of trees and white light beaming through the holes, animating a pair of rectangles like anthropomorphic eyes. Breathing. 

Frames are interposed with sentences from Hollis Frampton’s A Lecture (1968), a study on the darkness, light and four walls that constitute a film. Words are taken out of their native context and operate with new meanings. 

A film within a film—a film looks at a film that sees. The question of the political potential and limitation of the filmic rectangle is activated.

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The projector is turned on.[3]

As the Second World War ended in 1945, Korea was liberated from the Japanese Occupation. Swept up by a blinding joy, people on the peninsula marched toward liberation —to the south and the north, only to find themselves divided in two, under the occupation of the US and the Soviet Union. It was Independence Movement Day on the 1st of March, 1947, when a crowd gathered to commemorate those who resisted the Japanese occupation on Jeju Island. There was police brutality, there were incomprehensible deaths, and there was anger and grief. History remembers that this moment ignited an insurrection on the impoverished island, and motivated the ruling regime backed by the US force to order a military crackdown on insurgents by branding them communists (also known as the “Red”, 빨갱이 [ppalgaengi]). The complexity of the 4.3 Jeju uprising and massacre, which lasted until 1954, is pronounced as a hesitant record on the National Archives of Korea’s website. It attempts to summarise this splintered history with uncertainty: 이 사건의 배경은 극히 복잡하고 다양한 원인이 섞여 있어 하나의 요인으로 설명하기는 매우 어렵다.[4]

No truth can describe the entangled seven years on the island. Instead, an accumulation of truth, lies, conspiracy, propaganda, betrayal and innocence—the sum of many untold stories—has created an opaque haze around the historical records and the environment. The island breathes haunting memories of violence and survival.

Kim and I talked about the inability to speak, or in Kim’s case, to make a film during her artist residency on Jeju Island. The island was laden with stories of the past, yet she could not turn the camera to the stories.So the camera points at holes, primarily from within the caves. Some of the caves are shot from afar, across the ocean. The artist’s body knows: some voids are too dense to hold another body. A remembering body resists an intrusion because it knows beyond what the eyes see. I look to Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of La facultad , a simultaneously destructive and creative force that is “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.”[5]

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In The Red Filter is Withdrawn.”, there are moments reminiscent of James Benning’s Ten Skies(2014), an epic film that captures ten skies for a hundred minutes. Despite the film’s simplicity in its concept and structure, it conjures up a myriad of emotions and reflections, as well as sublime linkages between the earth and the ethereal. While both films allude to the fact that a landscape is not innocent, Benning’s Ten Skies “depends absolutely on the camera’s capacity to indiscriminately record reality”[6], whereas Kim’s The Red Filter is Withdrawn.” believes that the camera discriminates and excludes. Kim interrogates this limitation and the questionable intention of cinematic frames through the words of Frampton:We can never see more within our rectangle, only less.[7]

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We have come to watch this[8]

[…] by choosing to work on archival footage only, Farocki positions himself […] not as a producer of images but as a (critical) spectator of the ‘images of the world’ and of the world as image. He thus places himself in a position from which he can create a dialogue and intellectual exchange with an audience that is equal to him, to the extent that it shares with him the same perspective and (almost) the same cognitive position.[9]

Kim becomes a spectator of the world outside an image by working with the exclusionary nature of a frame. Its ability to create, show and reveal one reality is always at risk of erasing another. Her frame refuses an enclosure and surges forward with a possibility. A renewed attitude towards the production and consumption of images: a movement from what to showto what not to show.

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I had never considered air as a landscape until I returned to Seoul from Boston in 2016. I rushed out as the automatic glass doors of the airport opened, and my throat gasped, inhaling air but not enough oxygen. Air is now a filter tinted with dusty yellow, obscuring the spiky highrises of Seoul as if a rubbing thumb has smudged the top part. Air is now felt in my body through its grainy texture.

Kim’s conceptual and structural work is, in a subtle way, always about a body. In “The Red Filter”, the body, without being visible on a screen, is central as a mediator, or medium, breathing the air of the emptiness, exhaling through a frame. The bodily engagement—the mediator’s exhalation—manifests as an intervention into the structural framework, such as the red filter suddenly dropped in front of the camera or a jolting, shaky handheld camera movement that renders the presence of “I” palpable.

The red is both a filter and blood that flows from the past into the ocean, a blood vessel in your finger blocking the lens. The red is a body.

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In my memory, the spring of 2014 is like a dream within a dream. Two parallel realities follow and overlap with each other. In one memory, I was attending a creative writing class at a college. Just outside the school building was the Boston Common buzzing with a crowd. Mourning takes many shapes. As the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing neared, the collective grief materialised as an unstoppable strength, a will to reach the finish line. Boston Strong! Voices were muffled like I was underwater while scrolling through breaking news: a ferry with hundreds of passengers on board sank in South Korea.

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I first saw Youngmee Roh’s Invisible Sleeping Woman, Capsized Boat and Butterfly (2016) at Lotte Cinema Broadway in Seoul. The awkwardly hybridised name of the cinema mirrors the identity crisis of the city that has been hastily moulded by soaring capitalism and an aspiration to Western modernity. It also tells a story of gentrification: Lotte, a mega-conglomerate that owns a multiplex chain, acquires an independent cinema named Broadway. I walked up to the box office in the remodelled cinema and climbed up another flight of stairs only to walk down, turn right and walk up again to enter the screening room, or this memory might be entirely flawed by the already disorientating reality.

On the screen, the lyrics from the song ‘A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes’from the Disney animation Cinderella (1950) appear white on a black background in the absence of Cinderella’s mellifluous voice.

No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true
[10]

We enter the dream as a woman wakes up. She is unable to light her cigarette, and her mouth feels dry. She climbs hilly mountains, where she encounters a series of unearthly mishaps, fantastical creatures and mythical destinies. Against the mountain as a symbolic and visual placement for a plot structure with an arc, the film unfurls micro acts that never develop or progress. A few minutes into the film, a miniature red mountain collapses. “All will be ruined with an unexpected disaster”, says an invisible prophet.

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“To love a particular mountain or stream is not to love the motherland or fatherland in an abstract sense. It is instead a mode of passionate inhabitation which often runs contrary to the imagination of national interest, as witnessed by the struggles of indigenous people across the world against large modernist development projects that propel them into a homogenous empty time.”[11]

Mountains occupy an ironic place in the Korean language. There is an idiom, “too many captains will take a boat to a mountain”, which is equivalent to an English one, “too many cooks spoil the broth”. It is common to hear this expression without its head: one might say “going to a mountain” in a phrase as a metonym for a digression. Suppose the evolution of language can trace the transformation of social climates; it is worth noting how a mountain is characterised as a non-destination or diversion in the Korean vernacular.

My conversation with Roh “went to mountains” many times. One of the diverging paths led to her ongoing interest in fairy tales and the irresponsible optimism reflected in their narrative structure: a hero’s journey is confronted by a struggle, escalated to a climactic conflict, and resolved with a victory and reward, happy ending. We shared the tales we were told growing up and how they instilled a collective belief in us, driving us to keep on enduring. When our faith betrayed us, we became speechless adults. In a society fueled by false hope, belief manifests as a symptom. And it is painful, but it tells you where the wound is.

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On another path to a mountain, we went back to the day when we witnessed the unflinching brutality of belief. It was quiet. It was the image of a ferry, half of its lopsided body submerged in the ocean as if it was exhausted and needed to rest. While we were sharing the weight of shattered belief, our mundane and irrelevant moments on that day in April 2014 were woven into a whole, held by helplessness and guilt. We mapped fragmented contexts for what was transmitted on our respective screens: a belly of a capsized ship, a false report that everyone was rescued, seven hours of silence and the resting ocean after it engulfed everything.

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Two spiralling narratives propel Roh’s dreamlike images; a voiceover narration that describes the woman’s actions and captions that foresee the consequences of the situation. The two voices distract and betray one another. And through this tension between the action and warning (or hope) emerges Roh’s fable, like the apparition of the past, like déjà vu. The film adapts a technique of a poet whose material is the gaps between words, embracing multivocality, speaking in multiple tenses. I dwell on one passage in the film that reads as a poem or a history.

She pulls out a candle
(Something you ask will be achieved)
Sound of thunder from all directions
(You will receive help from many people)[12]

This time I am watching the film on my laptop, and I slow down one sequence in which the woman continues to climb up the same hill, looping like a glitch. What animates the images into a painterly stop-motion film are disjointed colour separations, smudged ink stains and varying textures of paper, visible on each frame. Originally shot as a live-action video on a mountain, the footage was later printed on different types of paper, frame by frame. The printed images were soaked in water, dried, destroyed and manipulated by hand. The resulting images are unworldly, yet they are incredibly truthful to the imperfection of human action. Roh’s fantasy world is made of fragile realities: hopes that easily fail, uncompensated struggles and unfair deaths, all made palpable in its material reading.

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The ending is death. The woman’s eyes are closed. Her face is scratched, her dress drenched in blood, lying flat. Death is also the beginning as the camera tilts up to the woman who is now standing, looking down on her own dead body. Another dream begins.

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Above all the beauties and sublimity Korean mountains could offer, I was most close to mountains through their tunnels.

70% of the Korean peninsula consists of mountains. On this land, the movement flows in rhythm with a contoured vista. A path is never straight, replete with hidden depths and unknown peaks. Once utilised as an invincible fortress, the mountainous landscape became an obstacle for post-war South Korea, creating detours in its ambitious plans for rapid economic growth. To cut through mounds of earth between cities, tunnels were built in quick succession.

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Driving through a tunnel is like being inside a flicker film. I used to pass through a tunnel at least twice a day to commute to school. This tunnel is a two kilometre-long puncture through Hwangnyeong Mountain that spreads across four neighbouring towns, and at that time, the tunnel was drenched in a sci-fi orange hue. I would stare at a rectangular sodium vapour lamp flickering into a dab and morphing to draw a long beam stretched to infinity. I saw all sorts of things: hallucinatory optical illusions, glimmering reflections, ghostly shadows. Things that make up a film, I learned later. It transported me from one side of a mountain to the other, from past to future, wiping out what was on the other side of (or above) the tunnel.

The absurdity and violence of the man-made holes came to my consciousness when the rainfall brought about a landslide. It destroyed the tunnel, broke the roads and swallowed cars. And people complained about the traffic.

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The essence of Ellie Kyungran Heo’s film Island (2016) might reside outside the film. So when she is asked to choose a still image that represents the film, she sends you an image that is not in the film. Heo’s gesture is gentle and unyieldingly precise; nevertheless, it lingers with a question, why.

The image of the back of a white dog on an open green field looking out to a tranquil ocean and spotless sky blurring into a canvas of silky blue. The dog seems big, but my mind sees it small against the vastness of nature.

A film that looks at the back of a dog looking. I am drawn to see what the dog might see, beyond the horizon, outside the confines of the flatness and four walls. I let my attention expand to reach the horizon’s vanishing point.

Island begins with the dog sleeping under a gazebo bench where a group of tourists are chatting. They soon move on to their next tour destination, leaving the gazebo in silence. Over the droning silence and loneliness of Mara Island, with a population of fewer than 150 people, a swarm of tourists washes over and withdraws. The transition repeats. A refrain that pulsates throughout the film.

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2014, somewhere in the South Sea, the Sewol ferry was heading to Jeju Island. The ferry was at full capacity, and most passengers were high school students on a school trip. Heo was on Mara Island, a few kilometres off the coast of Jeju, for a project with the last remaining student on the island. She spoke of the paralysing fear she felt when the news of the ferry disaster reached the island.

Fear. Again I borrow the wisdom of Gloria Anzaldúa, who illuminates the generative power of fear, the force that shifts perspectives so dramatically that one starts to see through and “reach the underworld”. “As we plunge vertically, the break, with its accompanying new seeing, makes us pay attention to the soul.”[13]

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On the island, Heo quickly learns the white dog is a stray but has a name. The dog belongs to no one yet is present in everyone, like a sea breeze that leaves salty watermarks wherever it touches. Heo stops looking for a subject and starts drifting with the dog that barks in dissonance with domesticated puppies; weaves through tourists who are busy taking photos, sometimes, of the dog; and meanders the edges of the island.

I say the film follows the dog because it makes me follow the dog. Disparate moments flow like a stream of consciousness, but you will not be lost as long as you keep a white dot in sight. Loose associations emerge in a slow timescape built upon unassuming attention to everyday moments. And I begin to feel the sticky air of an island and how familiar that feels. The saltiness that makes the skin itch, the taste of tears. The film becomes an impression of a climate you only remember as quotidian details that cohere into feelings.

There are scenes when the dog is not in the frame, and it’s when the camera stays with the residents individually; a woman with an army of dogs; a lonely policeman who seems to be off duty most of the time; and a drunk monk, the only person who addresses the camera. His speech commences in the future tense but abruptly returns to the past, expressing regret. “We will remember our sin with deep, eternal resentment. We were wrong.”

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One time the tension builds up: the dog wanders off the frame behind the uncontrollably fluttering flag, and the camera looks, for a while, at the shivering grass while we hear a cacophony of violent barking and squealing. With a sonic relief, the screen is filled with a white furry surface that subtly and slowly rises and falls. Then a step closer to red flesh: we arrive at the wound. The film never resolves this tension if the resolution means knowing how and why.

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The last time I met Heo in person, she left me with a quote (or another question): “There is no island on an island, passed onto Heo by her mentor Kim Hakmyun. It lingers.

In Island, there is no island but many lives. And if I have to describe what life looks like in Heo’s films, I will invite you for dinner. Eating plays a crucial part in many of Heo’s films. Sitting at a table and sharing the same pot of stew. We have learned, in cautious clarity, that eating together is a daring commitment toward being together.

However, sharing a meal is a part of a mundane routine, like a reflex, nothing more significant than asking, “Have you eaten?”, which is akin to “How are you?” in English. The film brings us back to the pavilion; now, the dog is limping with a bandage around its foot. A family walks into a gazebo and sees the dog. “What is that puppy doing there?” a sympathetic voice asks. They observe and speculate. A ship horn. They are distracted by the sea, where the ferry is coming from. Let’s go — a return to silence.

Back to the image of the back of the dog. It’s still holding me, and I’m not ready to turn away.

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January, pandemic-stricken Seoul. It’s dark. I open my curtain to a wall of an apartment building identical to the one I am in quarantine. A wall of windows—it’s the only view that I have had in many bedrooms of South Korean apartments. A dog barks. By the time it reaches my ear, the sound has bounced off too many walls, and it is impossible to locate the source. The faint reverberation hovers and evaporates into the sky. I’m left with the familiar hollow silence, non-diegetic to densely-stacked lives on display blinking with ceiling lights and TV glare, drawing a different archipelago of glowing rectangles every night. I hear my phone buzzing. Heo’s message, wishing me a happy new year. Another bark echoes. I look out. And there is a dog. There is an island.

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Image Description: A greyish-blue sky blurring into a gentle, subtle pink hue as it nears the mountain range at the lower frame. The mountains host groups of apartment buildings. In the foreground, a streetlight's light bulb dangles from the upper frame, softly out of focus.
Photography by Sun Park. Courtesy of the artist.

Footnotes

[1] Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Far Away, From Home: The Comma Between,” in Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (New York: Routledge, 2011), 12.

[2] Hollis Frampton, A Lecture, presented at Hunter College in New York on October 30, 1968.

[3]ibid.

[4] “제주 4.3 사건 (Jeju 4.3 Incident),” National Archives of Korea, 2007, https://www.archives.go.kr/next/search/listSubjectDescription.do?id=004400&pageFlag=&sitePage=1-2-1.

[5] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 38.

[6] Erika Balsom, Ten Skies (Berlin: Fireflies Press, 2021), 36.

[7] Hollis Frampton, A Lecture, presented at Hunter College in New York on October 30, 1968.

[8]ibid.

[9]Laura Rascaroli, How the Essay Film Thinks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 59.

[10] “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”, a song from Cinderella (1950), Disney. Written and composed by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston.

[11] Lawrence Liang, “Ultranationalism: A Proposal for a Quiet Withdrawal,” e-flux, no. 56 (June 2014).

[12] Youngmee Roh, Invisible Sleeping Woman, Capsized Boat and Butterfly, 2016

[13] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 39.


About the Writer

Sun Park is a South Korean artist and cultural worker based in London. Through moving image and writing, her practice explores the silence, emptiness and fatigue produced by structures of power. Her work takes the form of ongoing conversations, unfinished sentences and poetic translations. Currently, she works as an Events and Marketing Manager at LUX, a moving image agency in London.

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer