In 1995, the film director Yoshida Kiju produced a short film utilizing the original cinematograph camera of the Lumière brothers to commemorate the centennial of cinema. In it, Yoshida faces the camera and says that people think the cinema and images can explain everything, but in fact, cinema cannot show anything and then declares, “and this is what I’ll try to show you.” Yoshida’s short depicts the paradoxes of film, culminating in a scene that overlays a scene of ground zero of the Hiroshima bomb blast taken in the current day (1995) with audio of the bomb dropping. The scene then cuts to a close-up shot of faces — children of the bomb in their sixties at the time of the film, staring plainly into the camera. Yoshida’s voice is laid over this image, asking us if cinema is capable of depicting the instance of the bomb?
“Seeing is believing” and the epoch of the camera, whose arrival came to define truth, defined the epoch of modernity and the terms of reality.
Since the rise of modernity, however, we have met the post-modernists, and now are even reaching some kind of post-post-modernity, but have not separated from the imperative to witness and to see “truth.” The rise of digital technology has, on the one hand, interrupted this imperative with the new contemporary mantra of “fake”. Everything is fake but also brought us to a world completely saturated in the image and the camera. The conceit (deceit) of cinema that Yoshida pointed to was that cinema “cannot show”, that the image fails and that the camera cannot see truth or at least cannot show it to us. The next question then, is what does it (cinema) show? What am I seeing (when watching cinema)?
The “Drawn Closer” shorts programme consisted of 11 animated short films. All these pieces were fantastic (is it even possible for animation to ever be anything but of fantasy?), but we will focus on the following three in this essay: WEST QUESTION EAST ANSWER (2018) — Dal Park; WHERE I WAS BORN (2018) — Jungmin Cha; and THE LEVERS (2018) — Boyoung Kim. All three pieces come from Korean female directors/animators at relatively early stages in their animation careers, and each film has a clearly distinct style and signature.
I love animation. I have loved animation for as long as I can remember. Animation has always shown me reality(ies) that are way better. Dreams and souls. Shown… Me? Like Goku flying on a yellow nimbus cloud.
Walter Benjamin wrote on the distinction of the painter and the cameraman as follows:
If the camera captures a framed cutting of reality, a painting is a total world that is manifest from within the painter, a single form that is manifest from the decisions of the painter. Cinema without the camera as cinema through painting, that is to say, animation, maintains a total reality formed from the artist, what we see is the artist’s representation entirely.
These three films put lush visuals onto canvas, feelings I’ve held onto tightly for so long.
WEST QUESTION EAST ANSWER
WEST QUESTION EAST ANSWER begins with this voiceover introduction by Dal Park:
Dal Park speaks to her grandmother in German. Her grandmother responds in Korean. Both voices are exasperated. Park asks her grandmother to speak of personal connection, their family and her personal life. Her grandmother responds with references to the Gwangju uprising and massacre, the political turmoil of Korea over decades, or tells her to read it all in her autobiography. Park’s frustration culminates, “You are my grandmother. Can’t you just… In your own words… Tell me about your past?” Her grandmother reprimands her while trying to tell Park she thinks she understands everything, but in order for her grandmother to say anything, she needs to refer to these stories. Stories like the Gwangju massacre that happened in Korea 20 years after her grandmother left for Germany. Eventually exasperated, Park’s grandmother, pleads with her, “Listen to me. You cannot use this now… Why… You’re supposed to believe my words…” and Park responds with a sigh.
Each hand-drawn frame is intentional, detailed and tells the story so beautifully.
Grace M. Cho writes in her book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (2008), on the experience of haunting expressed by frustrated diasporic children of survivors of the Korean War (an entire generation of Koreans that lived through it, all our grandmothers, grandfathers, and elderly):
“This experience of the children of Korean War survivors — having been haunted by silences that take the form of an “unhappy wind,” “a hole,” or some other intangible or invisible force — reflects the notion that an unresolved trauma is unconsciously passed from one generation to the next… the haunting effect is produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden. It is precisely within the gap in conscious knowledge about one’s family history that secrets turn into phantoms.”
The frustrating conversation in WEST QUESTION EAST ANSWER, where neither member is able to see the other’s needs or blocks, occurs across two languages but is presented in a third language to us, the audience, through voiceover narrations and subtitles. This language presentation shows the different positions in the story, Park asking questions from the West and speaking through its language (German) to her grandmother, her grandmother speaking from and through the opposite of East (Korean), and then Park again speaking to us in another West (English). The end of the film culminates in Park’s grandmother reaching out to Park again, saying in Korean that if Park wants to know more she will tell her. We aren’t shown what this telling more looks like, however, as Park shares recordings of her grandmother singing in German instead.
Unlike the audio recorded dialogue which represents a “captured” reality, the visuals of the short are presented in surreal forms. Characters like a large green frog, whining mosquitoes, and a three-headed gossipy neighbour, interrupt the sequence of Park and her grandmother having their conversation with stretching fingers, morphing chairs, and squiggling lines. What we see is a continuous series of Park’s painted drawings extended from her hand. What we are shown is a world extended from Park as painter, a world where the frog and stretching fingers are fundamentally hers. What her world shows to us is a story of Park and her grandmother, communicating across generations, locations and positions, grappling with the inability to tell, the frustration, the willingness to try, and the singing that can happen anyway.
WHERE I WAS BORN
On a quiet Tuesday in November, I felt like a visitor observing multitudes of worlds, imagined and brought to life on a blank white wall of the small and intimate theatre.
The squishy green blobs, Youngchul Kim’s 2018 trot song “Andenayong” [안되나용], and the well-paced delivery of a dempsey roll combo of gags and punchlines in Jungmin Cha’s WHERE I WAS BORN left me laughing throughout. WHERE I WAS BORN shows Korea(ns)(ness) without human bodies through a mash of cultural references we know or don’t know: sitting in a booth drinking at a company team-building after work party and slowly succumbing to red-faced defeat, standing on the scale in a public bathhouse, an overcapacity transit system, electric heating pads, and skincare face masks.
The screening room was full and throughout this short, you could hear both mystified and knowing laughter.
A little past the midway point of the film, the introduction of another reference brings the mix of mystified and knowing laughter to a screeching halt. Spliced in as rapidly as the rest, the texture of the scene is grating and pausing, and the tension in the room palpably, free falls into a big goopy pudding of wriggling discomfort. I hear myself mutter “Ah, fuck” the moment it appears — a tiny blinking red dot hiding in the cracks of the screw of a bathroom stall facing another green blob character sitting on a toilet. We are then shown another green blob hunched over a desk, watching a recorded image of the toilet stall through the camera hiding in the cracks of the screw.
Digital sex crimes in Korea have been a serious event in contemporary Korea. The rise of digital spycam and hidden camera “porn” reached a climax of awareness and cultural significance in 2018 when the outcry from women demanding action from the government and society to do something about digital sex crimes was loudest. Since 2018, the absolute shitshow that is digital sexual violence and misogyny in Korea has come back again with the appearance of the nth room group chats, in which at least 260,000 men paid large amounts of money in exchange for videos of sexual exploitation, violence, blackmail, and extreme abuse.
In January this year, I met up with a friend who is part of a Korean feminist collective based in Toronto. She had just returned from Korea and we excitedly exchanged hellos before she handed me a business card she’d gotten made for the collective which featured a transparent red strip on the bottom. She explained that if you placed this strip over your phone camera and took a photo of a room through it, the strip would reveal if there were any camera lenses in the shot. She told me she wasn’t sure how necessary it would be here in Toronto, but even so, on the off chance that it might be useful, she’d included it on the card.
The red strip appeals to me as a way of thinking through Cha’s film. In viewing through the unfiltered camera or human eye we see and interact with vision in an individual’s particular subjectivities—all the relational nodes of context extending from such an image and referents according to an individual’s personal history. As we take a photo through the strip, we see the room we occupy with a different vision. When we look at a room, we see in a way particular to our own eyes, but the red screen over the camera allows us to see what was there but invisible to us. The red strip reveals camera lenses; others looking at it.
Cha’s animation showed something that could not (and in many cases should not be shown out of respect to the victim) be shown through the camera: a green blob sitting on the toilet being watched by another green blob sitting at its laptop. The camera captures and delivers reality to us, cutting out a vision and delivers it in a packaged form such that when we see it, we experience it through our eyes as though it is our reality. But violence is one of the impossibilities of film. Just as Yoshida Kiju speaks of the impossibility of film in depicting the bomb, to depict the violence of the digital sex crime of “molka” [몰카] pornography is to enact the very violence itself and thus the film cannot properly portray such an event. Thus, much like how the red screen over the camera obscures our vision of other things—the rest of the room—for the sake of showing whether cameras pointed at you are there or not, Cha’s animation distorts the bodies of the Korean people it depicts to show us something else. In this specific scene what we are shown is digital sex crime as cultural norm and lived reality in South Korea; we are shown violence through witnessing one of the ways it happens as performed by two green blobs living in Cha’s world.
But this was just one scene in a wild ride of things that I (don’t) know and (don’t) feel. It was so good to see (be shown) where Jungmin Cha was born, and sit with both the lightness and weight of how she literally draws that statement. “WHERE I WAS BORN” is an entire politics within Asian diasporic communities: where are you from, where I am from, where I was born, blah blah blah. Thinking about Cha’s animated short and its presentation at the Reel Asian Film Festival, I return to my stubborn position that too often the Asian diaspora jumps to the accolade of “representation”; a director succeeds in showing “us” and tears fall as “we’’ celebrate how good it is to see “us” on screen. The world of green blobs and fast-paced gag references can be read as a framing of universal Korean reality, and in this reading, the insertion of darker aspects of contemporary Korean society may even be read as jarring, or perhaps even flippant. The politics of representation and identity matter, but this film is not about where “we” were born. This is about an “I,” just as the title declares from the outset. By extending the drawings of Cha’s animated world into the realm of allegorical reality so quickly, and thereby claiming it as also “our” own, we deny ourselves the opportunity as viewers to experience another reality, i.e. the world manifest of the painter. To claim something as the same first is to deny ourselves the possibility of new realities, and impedes a fundamental motivation of cinema.
The transformation of other humans into mirrors is something I wish we would refrain from if at all possible. Seeing others appears to be far more pressing and crucial right now, I hope for “us” to consist of many others as opposed to a single “we.”
Boyoung Kim’s THE LEVERS tells the story of a man whose shitty economical living conditions improve after being offered a job where he just has to pull the levers he is instructed to. The moral stakes of the story are simple, and the narrative arc itself is predictable enough: the levers kill people and the protagonist is the final actor in a chain of events that kill people at the behest of others. The protagonist is asked repeatedly at the end of his work shift if he will return the next day, and the climax of the film occurs when he accidentally becomes aware of what the levers do. He sees the violence that he had been committing unknowingly and had been invisible to him. In the end, the protagonist decides to continue working and tells the man who repeatedly asks him if he’ll return that he no longer needs to be asked that question anymore. He chooses to continue working, aware of the violence but now refusing to see it.
The plot of THE LEVERS moves through a sequence of positions: the man lives poorly but separately from violence, becomes implicated (unknowingly) within violence kept behind a curtain and hidden from him, then sees behind the curtain and must reckon with seeing this violence and his own position within it. The plot ends with him choosing to close the curtain and continue to function as part of the machine. The critique of capitalism in the narrative depiction of a person’s relationship to their work as a cog within a death machine is clear and explicit. The path the story takes feels familiar and predictable. It feels like we know what will likely come and what the protagonist will do. We understand our capitalist realities and we know what Kim is showing us.
The gritty grey palette adds to the heavy and bloated feeling of her film and its characters are drawn with large heavy heads and obscenely thick necks.
Hearing the voices of the characters speak Korean brings me to a particular read of the film however, as I think to myself, ah, of course, I know what will happen and I know what is being said. The weight of and critique of capitalism has been a consistent thread in contemporary South Korean film and storytelling. What is to be appreciated and valued in Kim’s film is not that it tells us anything new, but that it shows us the same something delivered now through her hands. The same stories still hit. This well-known story presented in the moving paintings of Boyoung Kim still impacted me and reminds me of my own desperation, bringing my anxieties to me once again. We have not moved past the problems of this (old) story. Watching the film and knowing what came next was the strongest part of this film for me, and Kim’s living paintings carried that unbearable weight well.
At the bottom of the image above, Boyoung Kim writes the following: “주인공 보니까 엉덩이가 타들어가도록 책상에 앉아 그림그리던 때 생각나고.”
Here is my inadequate translation: “Seeing the protagonist brings me thoughts and memories of sitting at the desk and drawing until my ass became smouldering ash.”
Ryookyung Kim (They/Them) is a multidisciplinary artist with a focus in tattooing and visual storytelling. Through a queer, racial, and non-binary lens, their recent personal work has been all about grieving, acceptance, and radical love. They strive to explore and honour their personal growth by creating space for thoughts and feelings to exist that often reside in realms of sadness, uncertainty, and nostalgia — even when it feels uncomfortable. They are also a creative director at giant doma, where they mostly shoot the shit and nibble on snacks all day. You can find their work at ryookyung.com
Grayson Lee (He/Him) is a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where he engages in critical media studies. His work looks at transnational digital culture industries/economies, world building and storytelling, and focuses on Korean webtoons. He is a co-founder of giant doma, where he produces podcasts, makes digital collage art, and stuff.