Gina Kim filmed the wreckage of a collapsed Seoul department store in 1995.
The footage was part of her attempt to retain memory of what her city was once like before it went through significant infrastructural change.
Whenever she heard about planned changes to the South Korean city, the professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television said she would film the locations that were to change to retain the memory of the city she grew up in. Comprised of home videos and film from 1995 to 2007, Kim’s footage became her documentary, “Faces of Seoul.” In late 2017, Kim turned the film’s voice-over, accompanied by images from the film, into a book. The 2009 documentary was screened June 21 at Seoul National University Museum of Arts and will run until Sept. 16. The film follows Kim’s return to her hometown and her comparison of the locations she knew as a child to what they had become.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s in Korea, it was really ugly back then, and South Korea was a really depressing place,” Kim said. “It was not like the Korea people know now, the Korea of K-pop and K-beauty – that didn’t exist back then.”
Because of the political changes South Korea experienced in the 20th century, Kim said the physical locations in Seoul are intertwined with its history and politics. One such site is Changgyeong Palace, which Kim said was turned into a zoo by the Japanese in the early 20th century to humiliate Koreans. Kim said she grew up visiting the zoo with her parents, but it has since been restored to a museum. While the change reflects the Korean government’s attempts to reverse the impacts of colonization, Kim said she feels conflicted because her childhood no longer exists as she knew it.
“I always feel that, even though those places in my documentary are painful memories for Koreans, they’re important to remember,” Kim said. “I’m glad they’re gone, but at the same time I think someone should be talking about it.”
Eun Kyung Min, an English professor at the Seoul National University who hosted a screening of the film in 2014, said the documentary reflects the contrasting nature of Seoul, presented through the beautiful city and the violent history of colonization. Though the film focuses on tourist locations, like Changgyeong Palace, Min said it unravels the tourist experience by delving into their histories.
“There’s no attempt to aestheticize or romanticize the city. In fact, the film is all about the gap between what one goes looking for and what one ends up seeing, between what is visible and all the invisible layers that lie underneath,” Min said. “In (Kim’s) documentary, you get a powerful sense that your personal history is always part of a larger historical narrative – which you are always forgetting or trying to forget.”
Amid the scenes of the changing city are footage of Kim’s family, which Kim said she included to reveal her personal relationship with Seoul. The film begins with footage Kim filmed while going to visit her grandfather’s gravesite with her father. Though she originally intended to film her father’s emotions as he drove, she said a number of factors, such as the glare and her location in the backseat, led to her filming the city as they drove by. From that moment on, Kim said she became obsessed with unraveling the city she grew up in as she connected her understanding of the city with her understanding of her family.
To further people’s appreciation for Seoul, Kim partnered with a French publisher to create a book version of her documentary. The pages have Korean text on the left pages and French text on the right and features images from the film, Kim said. Jin Jung, who designed the book, said he focused on imitating the way the film weaves together the past and the present. To do so, the images he included on the pages did not directly follow the timeline of the film. Instead, he added images from the film that he felt fit the memories that match the words.
But while Kim utilized background noise and pauses between speech in the film to guide the viewer through the bustling city, Kim said translating such effects to the new format presented a challenge, which they solved by increasing or decreasing the spacing of words and lines.
“There’s some sort of relation with the moving images and the languages we hear in the film. But then when you put that into a two-dimensional format, you lose everything,” Kim said. “We have to relay the same message without the other elements.”
Kim said there is a continued demand for screenings of the documentary, which would appeal to architects and urban planners. But it is the more personal depiction of how a person relates to the city they grew up in that seems to have stuck with viewers, Kim said.
“I always go (to film) with innocent curiosity, only to find out my expectation is almost always betrayed for better or for worse,” Kim said. “It’s about the mismatch of my memory and what’s actually in front of me as I hold the camera.”