Song Il-gon's mise-en-scene is admired for its poeticism and arresting imagination, and his trademark qualities prevail in his first feature documentary, ``Dance of Time.''
He brings a gem of a film that, though rooted in reality, gives full bloom to romanticism, reading more like a love letter to Cubans rather than a historical account of a unique branch of the Korean Diaspora.
``I've always wanted to travel to Cuba,'' the 38-year-old cineaste told The Korea Times over a shot of espresso, in a small cafe in downtown Seoul last week.
He had his heart set on the Caribbean country as the backdrop of a new love story. But when Cuba's national baseball team visited Korea last year, he met a local interpreter and was surprised to learn about fifth- and sixth-generation ``Coreanos.''
A century ago a group of Joseon (1392-1910) laborers set sail for Cuba in hopes of returning with a fortune. But they were forced to toil away on henequen farms, never making enough money for the trip back. They would nevertheless go on to build Korean schools and even fund Kim Gu's resistance movement against colonial Japan (1910-45). They became part of the country's colorful demographics and joined Che Guevera's revolution.
After doing some research, Song had a fairly good idea of what he wanted to accomplish and headed over for a month-long shoot.
``It was something new. But the difficulty with fiction is that you must render believable something that is unreal, so, in that respect, documentaries have an advantage,'' he said. ``Besides,'' he chuckled, ``I can always resort to the excuse that I'm not a professional documentarian, so I felt less pressured.''
He simply recorded what he felt. ``Documenting is not journalism. Though Korean documentaries tend to lean toward realism and investigative journalism, I think the most important thing is to capture an expression of time and the subject matter as viewed from an individual perspective.''
Though based on historical facts and figures, the film is in essence a story about modern people and the spirit that unites them. ``It's about individual lives and happiness. The Joseon people survived and their descendants are leading fruitful lives,'' said the director.
``Dance of Time'' features interviews with subjects and both distanced and interactive observations of events. While editing 60 hours' worth of clips he decided to add narrations by actress Lee Ha-na.
But the video journal-like narrations give the film a strongly subjective color, as they invite viewers to meditatively feel warm sand trickle in between their toes on the exotic Cuban beaches and sway to the rhythm of music a la ``Buena Vista Social Club.''
The film depicts various expressions of time and space ― from the most transcendent realms of timelessness and void to the most palpable cognition of the here and now. Most Coreanos have forgotten Korean but hum outmoded Korean folk songs. An 80-something-year-old widow sheds tears for her late husband with the sensibility of a love-struck schoolgirl while a singer speaks about his three ex-wives. A man in his 90s declares that happiness lies ``in this very moment'' while a middle-aged couple is in perennial mourning for their daughters who died too young. A beautiful ballerina dances away by the sea with no regard for time.
``I suppose you can say that it was staged,'' he said about the ballerina's beach dance. ``I was filming her rehearsing in her studio and asked if she could do it outside, and she said `yes.' But that doesn't change the essence of her dance,'' he said ― Cubans dance to anything, the crash of waves or the sound of a rolling can.
Moreover a striking sense of romanticism pervades. ``Cuba was so much more romantic than I ever imagined it would be. Time flows ever so slowly and people truly value happiness. It made me wonder why we (Koreans) live such busy lives, without taking the time to compose a letter, to express our emotions to our loved ones,'' said Song.
He has two local commercial movie projects in tow, including a melodrama titled ``Ojik Geudaeman'' (Only You). He also plans to finish the script for the romance set in Cuba ― ``I'll be able to make it more realistic,'' he said ― and revisit the country to share ``Dance of Time'' with Coreano friends.
Song became the first South Korean filmmaker to win an award at the Cannes Festival with the short ``Picnic.'' He has since established a reputation with works such as ``Flower Island'' and ``Spider Forest.''
``Dance of Time'' was recently chosen as ``Audiovisual Content of the Year'' by the Korea Media Rating Board. Now showing in local theaters. Distributed by Indiestory.