The Old Garden (오래된 정원) is a 2006 South Korean film. It is directed by Im Sang-soo and stars Yeom Jeong-ah, Ji Jin-Hee and Yoon Yeo-Jung. It is adapted from a best-selling novel by Hwang Suk-young. It premiered at the 2006 San Sebastian Film Festival.
The plot of the film involves the a couple during the turbulent policital landscape in early 1980's South Korea, and the events surrounding the Gwangju Massacre.
This is the picture of a young happy couple, yes, but also an image of unbearable irony. Behind the glamorous beauty of the couple, played by Yeom Jung-Ah (an ex-miss Korea) and Ji Jin-Hee (not too shabby himself), lies the ugly legacy of a long era of military dictatorship and one of the darkest chapters of South Korea’s recent history.
The commercial success of the soberly entitled?May 18th, by Kim Ji-Hoon, this summer (the CJ Entertainment film took the top spot at the box office with 1.45 million viewers, taking in US$ 10.1 million in its first weekend) shows the enduring impact of the event on the country’s collective memory, and its lasting,??symbolic and emotional importance.
On May 18th 1980 and during the very long days that followed (the event is?often referred to in Korean by the date on which it began, 5. 18, or?o-il- pal),?the unspeakable happened in Gwangju, a city located in South Cholla, a southwestern province that has always been considered a proverbial den of dissent and discontent and (cause or consequence?) the secular object of discrimination.??
Originally a mere student demonstration?against the closing of?Chonnam?National?University, the protests that took place on that day were met with extreme violence. The brutality of the paratroops mobilized to crush the movement was such that the local population formed a “citizen army” that was able to stand up to the professional soldiers for a short while.?But this victory could only last for so long and after a few days of an uncertain peace, the enraged military indulged in a proper carnage and quelled any kind of resistance for good. During those tragic days, military repression claimed a heavy toll on the civilian population, resulting in as many as 200 victims and a 1000 injured according to official figures.?Estimates today range from 500 to 2,000.
The uprising, a turning point in the painful path to democracy, is at the center of the best-selling literary masterpiece by Hwang Sok-Yong,?The Old Garden, which provided?Im Sang-Soo with his source material for his fifth feature film, a first for a director who has always worked with original scripts.?Hwang Sok-Yong was one of the first writers to mention the subject-matter openly, in a collection of documents and testimonies entitled?Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Times, published in 1985 and banned until 1987. In?The Old Garden, published in 2000, his ambition was much greater. He did not only content himself with the depiction of the Gwangju uprising (sometimes referred to as the “Spring of Seoul”, in reference to the events of Prague), he inscribed it in the greater context of South Korea’s contemporary history, immersing the reader in its tumultuous flow and in the personal lives that were taken away with the tide of events.
Im Sang-Soo’s reverential adaptation of the novel keeps the fragile balance between the political and the personal that could be found in the book, and turns out to be, arguably, one of the most original (and quite oblique one as well) cinematic treatment of the national tragedy, represented on screen before by Jang Sun-Woo in 1996 with?A Petal?and Lee Chang-Dong, with?Peppermint Candy?in 2000. Im Sang-Soo, who confirms here his status as a political filmmaker, in the highest sense of the word. picks up the contemporary history of?South Korea?at the precise moment when his previous film,?The President's Last Bang(his best work to date), left it: after the murder of President Park Chung-Hee, on October 26th 1979. The peninsula has fallen under the heel of General Chun Doo-Hwan, who lead the Coup d’etat of December Twelfth (1979) and left a gaping wound in the?history of?Korea?in the form of the Gwangju massacre.
The Old Garden?opens with the release of Oh Hyun-Woo, after 17 years of incarceration. Involved in the insurrection and all sorts of guilty socialist activities, he was relieved of his freedom for his political activism. The film proceeds to map out his reconstruction, after this long spell in prison.
Since his arrest at the peak of the repression following the Gwangju massacre, his world has profoundly changed:?South Korea?has entered a new era, as a democratic post-industrial power. His family has reaped the benefits of the capitalist ideology that he ironically fought against, thanks to his mother, who has become a queen of real estate speculation. Han Yoon-Hee, the woman he loved and whom he sacrificed for his ideological fight died a long time ago. hypothetical greater good?Hyun-Woo has lost much, but must now find his place in society. No matter how narrow the path, he has to forge ahead. He could easily reform and lead a cozy bourgeois life, as comfortable as the designer jacket that his mother gives him upon his release. His comrade in arms have survived prison, torture, or madness… but they are not left unscarred. They seem sour and disillusioned… damaged, offering the sad spectacle of a bitter generation whose ideals were betrayed.
As Hyun-Woo comes back to the village where Yoon-Hee used to hide him, the film moves from secret to secret, following an undulating curve between past and present, without actually privileging one timeline over the other. The love story between the young political dissident and the art teacher is methodically explored and put in perspective through a series of intercutting flashbacks. Each psychological knot, each drama is dissected in sequences that traverse the linear chronological order of historical events like an unseen high voltage wave.
Instead of dealing with History directly, Im Sang-Soo focuses on individual trajectories, and their twists and turns.?The Old Garden?is neither a straightforward representation of the Gwangju tragedy, or an expression, or an indication of a truth about history, it is rather a disposition, a way of waiting for a truth.?If the Korean director seems to offer a more classical treatment, a more orthodox vision than is customary in his sometimes provocative works, it is in adequacy with his subject-matter, which he actually subverts by staying at a distance from both the personal and the political. He exploits the melodramatic matter of the love story adroitly, without ever indulging in the omnipresent temptation of sentimentalism, and the romance is just about enough to bring a touch of acute poignancy.
The love story is not only doomed (a archetypal trope of Korean melodrama), it is made possible??solely insofar as it is thwarted.?Hyun-Woo, the central character is forced to lead the clandestine life of a “submarine”, to quote the expression that was used at the time to allude to the exiles from State repression, but there, away from the world, is the place where he finds a utopia he did not seek, in the company of Yoon-Hee. While they stay at the periphery of the political conflicts, as if it was produced by and in the margins of history, their love grows, but it also history that will make this love perish.?
What remains is the remote idealism of a long-gone youth and a vague but almost overwhelming nostalgia, as the “old garden”, always sought, but never attained, turns out to be an Eden that actually took place but was forsaken for a hypothetical (and perhaps chimeric) greater good. This idea of a paradise lost is suggested in one of the most moving scenes of the film, Hyun-Woo’s departure for?Seoul. In an endless, heart-wrenching moment, the activist leaves his mistress alone in the rain. The most trivial details contribute to the composition of the valediction sequence?: the pouring rain, the impatience of the bus driver, and the silence of the couple, weighing heavily on the action, often relinquished, most of the time suspended, like a plumb line.
What remains is also the beautiful portrait of a woman: both at the heart and at the edge of the story, Yoon-Hee is left with only the possibility of living, painting and perpetuating (her memory/desire) with dignity, suffering the fate of an era that destroys her love, happiness, and condemns her to an existence of solitude and regret. But beyond the grave, Yoon-Hee is guiding Hyun-Woo with her notebooks, drawings… the testimony that she did live. That she was?there?and all of?it?was real. In contrast, Hyun-Woo, an ordinary victim of State repression (the doctors diagnose his post-prison state as “typical”), whose individuality was flattened into submission, fades into the nocturnal urban mass, bringing this poem of?unfulfillment?to a fine closure. Perhaps that’s why he film leaves the viewer with a curious sense of incompletion in the end, as well as the bitterness and beauty of unfinished sentimental business and elusive women.
From?Girls’ Night Out?to?A Good Lawyer’s Wife, for Im Sang-Soo (too), woman is the future of man.