Filmmaker O Muel comes from the province of Jeju, South Korea, which was the site of the Jeju Uprising in the late 1940s, wherein tens of thousands of communists were killed or outright executed by South Korean police and soldiers. Jiseul, his fourth feature, is based on one of that conflict’s most harrowing events: a small village’s pillaging by soldiers and the subsequent slaughter of all of its inhabitants, having been presumptively suspected of being in league with the Workers Party of South Korea. Though his use of a black-and-white aesthetic is utilized at least partially as a distancing effect, Muel’s outrage is apparent from early on, and his anger slowly elevates to a near-unbearable pitch by film’s end.
Just as the soldiers are preparing to enter the village, a large contingency of the villagers retreat into an underground cave, where they live tightly knit with almost nothing to eat as the soldiers rape, torture, and kill their fellow villagers and family members who’ve decided to remain outside the cave. Muel shoots in a style that engages playfully with shadow and gray scale, often making his actors blend into his landscapes, and in the cave, they often look like they’re gossiping in oblivion. And when he takes us into the village where the soldiers are staying, the director invokes the great madness of men who are trained and practiced in killing. The long take in which the soldiers prepare a dead pig to be boiled is worthy of Béla Tarr.
In form, Muel’s film is invigorating, even striking, but it feels ill-matched to his attitude, if not necessarily his subject matter. Muel depicts the soldiers as a sort of traveling asylum of ultra-sadists; one member of the outfit derides some deeply unsettling pleasure from rubbing his back against the muddy ground and cackling. When contrasted and eventually interwoven with the naturalistic tone the director affords his soon-to-be victims, they seem to be from completely different movies, and his abstracted imagery only further distinguishes the differences.
It doesn’t help that as the innocent villagers are arbitrarily murdered, Muel employs a more histrionic tone and focuses on the desperation and suffering of the town’s people. The film may never feel as violently indecisive as when the long and totally crass climactic scene of villagers being suffocated, soundtracked by what might be the world’s largest violin, is followed by a quietly moving, elegant epilogue. The filmmaker nails the quotidian humor and subdued panic of the situation gracefully, but can’t bear to define his soldiers as anything but homicidal maniacs. By not granting the soldiers their own complex notions of humanism, he makes the elemental humanity of the victims feel utterly alien.