North Korea, catalogued: In a festival filled with archival treasures, a 2009 film about the North Korean women's national soccer team, Hana, Dul, Sed...., reminds us how important it is to preserve rare contemporary images for the future.

SF International Asian American Film Festival's Archival Tour

Adam Hartzell March 19, 2010

A theme that emerged in this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) was the importance of archives in the film world. The existence of film archives and restoration facilities all have a part to play in the films of Lino Brocka (who received retrospective treatment in the fest), Kim Ki-young’s 1960s classic The Housemaid, Ruby Yang’s documentary A Moment in Time (about Chinese American movie houses of old San Francisco), documentaries such as Aoki and State of Aloha that make heavy use of archival footage to tell their non-fiction narratives, and even an Austrian director’s film about representatives of the North Korean women’s soccer team, Hana, Dul, Sed….

Lino Brocka is considered by many to be one of the greatest directors from the Philippines and SFIAAF provided a wonderful opportunity to see four of his films. Critic Noel Vera has this praise for You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (Tinimbang ka Ngunit Kulang, a.k.a. You Have Been Judged and Found Wanting, 1974): "…Like a rock flung through a plate-glass window; the film was a herald call, officially the first in what was to be called the ‘70s Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.” (Thanks to this retrospective, San Franciscans unfamiliar with Vera’s writing on film are offered an introduction to his work in the festival catalog.) The film follows Junior (played by a young Christopher de Leon) as his eyes gaze upon the injustices of life–love betrayed, the treatment of a local leper (played by Mario O’Hara, screenwriter of this film and a prominent director himself) and the homelessness of a mentally-ill lady (played by Lolita Rodriquez and a character Vera writes is intended to be an allusion to the wandering woman in the revolutionary novel by Jose Rizal Noli Me Tangere.) The film is provided for us in the warm cinematic colors of the ’60s and ’70s, the kind that we truly feel covering our eyes along with our bodies when watching on screen.

As much as I appreciate and cherish what SFIAAF has brought for us from Brocka’s oeuvre, the collection acts as a reminder of how much of the cinema of the Philippines has been lost due to poor storage in a difficult climate with little money available to build proper facilities.

It’s equally frustrating how much great cinema is kept from us due to the difficulties in obtaining existing limited prints. Even for film festivals, prints of the surviving films can be difficult to obtain. As Igan D’bayan noted in The Philippine Star, the Brocka retrospective desired by the Vienna International Film Festival was truncated due to problems with securing prints. Whether it was related to legal or financial issues, Katharina Sekulic, head of the Viennale Press Department, said they were not able to get the assistance they needed from the Philippine cultural agency overseeing the archiving of many Filipino films. Reliance on this single source is due to the limited number of prints archived in the first place. It is a complicated issue where one cannot place single blame on one person or institution. But it is still frustrating for those who want to make important films by lesser known directors and national cinemas more widely available.

SFIAAF had similar problems. As festival director Chi-hui Yang noted during the press conference announcing the festival, they too were unable to acquire all the Brocka films they wanted to represent Brocka‘s oeuvre. Whereas Vienna resolved to show a few films on video, SFIAAF made the decision to show only four films for which they could obtain quality prints. Personally, I was happy to see what I could, but hopes are that the larger international film community is able to cut through these difficulties so that we can have future retrospectives of Brocka and others as nearly complete as the Oshima retrospective that traveled to the Pacific Film Archive last year.

From the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema in the ’70s, we step back to South Korea’s Golden Age in the ’60s with the film that initiated the luminescence, Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. If you want to know where Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and other great directors of contemporary South Korean cinema got some of their inspiration, The Housemaid would be a great place to start. The film tells the story of a music teacher father and seamstress mother who seek the comforting status symbols of a split-level modern home and a maid. Yet this maid becomes a rat in the kitchen amongst literal rats in the kitchen, successfully seducing the father and assisting the entire family in its downfall. Kim Ki-young explored a few stylistic directions throughout his 32 films, but he has received renewed attention by film scholars such as Chris Berry thanks to his chosen tactic of using fantasy and horror rather than realism to explore the anxieties of rushed modernization that South Korea experienced starting with the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. The Housemaid represents the beginning of this direction by Kim and is a wonderfully visceral, entertaining film.

Only one of the eight Kim films that preceded The Housemaid is extant. And that film, Yongsan Province (1955), is missing the final scene, which, based on reports from those who saw the film when it was released, was quite a fantastical ending. South Korea, like the Philippines and elsewhere, has lost a lot of its older cinema. Along with poor storage, much of the cinema of South Korea was lost due to destruction during the Korean War. And those that survived, like Yongsan Province and Kim’s Goryeojang (1963) have significant scenes missing or are in such bad condition as to disrupt the narrative flow and impact of the films. The Housemaid’s original print was of a similar poor condition, but thanks to the Korean Film Archives (KOFA) and support from the World Cinema Foundation (WCF), the print we had access to for SFIAAF was much better than the one I first saw as part of the 1960’s Golden Age of Korean Cinema series at the 5th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy in 2003.

Realizing the vulnerability of much of South Korea’s cinema history, the Korean Film Archives has commendably brought its archival and restoration technologies up to envied levels. Their tireless efforts have enabled those introduced to South Korean cinema following the Korean New Wave to turn their eyes to South Korea’s cinematic past and the many gems to be found there. KOFA’s dedication is no more on display than with The Housemaid. Providing support for KOFA’s efforts was the World Cinema Foundation. Chaired by cinema luminary Martin Scorsese, WCF’s mandate is to help countries strengthen archival procedures and infrastructure, as well as assist in the restoration of films within the international film community, focusing particularly on countries that might lack the facilities to do the work themselves. The Housemaid print has been improved through flicker and grain reduction, scratch and dust removal, and color grading. Also, since the original negative was found in 1982 with two sections missing, those missing scenes were filled in with footage from a print found in 1990 where English subtitles had been handwritten directly into the print. The subtitles etched into those spliced-in scenes have since been removed for the print on display at SFIAAF. Thanks to such committed efforts by organizations like KOFA and WCF, hopefully we will have even more pristine prints from Asia Cinema’s past masters at future SFIAAFs.

One of the obvious places we find archival prints salvaged are in the collections of proprietors of movie theaters. Frank and Lida Lee the 4 Star Theatre in the Richmond District have quite a few original prints of older films from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China at their disposal through their partnership as cinema owners. It is the predecessors of movie theaters such as the 4 Star that Ruby Yang investigates in A Moment of Time, a film about San Francisco Chinatown’s old Chinese-American movie theaters. Yang’s film weaves interviews of those who attended these theaters with stills and reels of operas and films performed at the four extinct Chinese theaters. In the process she threads memories of the images with the personal memories inspired by the images and the theaters in which those images were brought to their lives.

The necessity of archival footage for documentaries is so obvious that we might forget to mention it. And the treasure trove of archival footage in the United States can be seen in documentaries at SFIAAF, such as Anne Misawa’s State of Aloha and Mike Cheng and Ben Wang’s Aoki. State of Aloha has a barrage of archival images that underscore points made by the multiple perspectives included in this film that ambivalently surveys the meanings surrounding the 50th anniversary of Hawai’i statehood. Cinematographer on the wonderful film Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008), Misawa brings to the mainland’s attention that all was not paradise in Hawai’i, and such tensions continue into the modern day.

Like State of Aloha, Aoki relies on archival images to reframe the issue. In this case, Cheng and Wang are dealing with mental frameworks that have excised, if not completely left out, Richard Aoki’s role in the Black Panthers. As a Japanese American who was one of the first members of the Black Panther Party, eventually promoted to the position of Field Marshall, Aoki’s visual part in the Black Panthers is relegated to stock photos. There is no film footage of Aoki from the ’60s in Aoki. Even in the stock photos where he is present, there are moments when Cheng and Wang have to zoom in on the periphery of the photo to show you Aoki was always there. This is likely due to the ‘low profile’ he says he kept publicly at the time. However, this absence of Aoki from film footage could also have to do with news outlets not knowing how to put this Japanese American in the literal frame of the Black Panthers. Aoki disrupted the frames of reference news producers had for the Black Panthers. It’s as if the news couldn’t see him. Aoki the documentary allows for Aoki‘s part in the movement to be spliced into the moving footage without his actual body being found in the footage.

I want to end this discussion of the importance of archival footage with a mention of a documentary focusing on the North Korean women’s football team, Hana, Dul, Sed . . . (1, 2, 3 . . ., 2009). As an Austrian director, Brigitte Weich had access to what directors from the United States never would, at least we can presume as much from the anti-American rhetoric occasionally espoused by the participants in this documentary. Because of this political reality, the American viewer becomes dependent on filmmakers from other countries to get a glimpse of North Korea as it exists today, a reliance on the archives of others. Particularly poignant and necessary to better understand this remnant of the Cold War are the images Weich includes of everyday activities in North Korea. We follow one of the former soccer players as she goes to pay for her rations. And as she does, she lets us know that her status as ‘player of the people’ enables her family to acquire slightly more than her fellow country folk. We also share in a visit to the Pyongyang zoo. My friends and I have grown to find zoos depressing places of captivity as we‘ve gotten older. Even more depressing is the Pyongyang zoo, where, along with the expected tiger, cats and dogs are on display, since such animals are luxuries in a country where scarcity and poverty abound for the majority of the population.

Beyond the issues of these women speaking for themselves and beyond the exploration of how women athletes create a life after sport are the valuable snapshots of life behind this still closed kingdom. These are the images that need to be archived in our present so that we can visit North Korea’s past in its future.

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