“I will never film my family again,” says director Ku Bon-Hwan in the early going of the world première of Finding Tiger Kim. That’s a good thing, for while Ku makes the camera sing and has first-rate editing chops, he can’t take himself disinterestedly out of the picture, which shifts the film’s early promise to the backlot of despair (i.e., so much talent, so little substance) about 20 minutes in.
As a young boy, Ku and his family made regular pilgrimages to the extra-large burial site of Kim Sok-yun the “husband of my mother’s elder sister.” Years later, film student Ku begins following his grandmother’s quest for details of the numerous medals “Tiger” Kim received from the Korean government. It seems the senior police and security officer was a hero who only lacked an official record of his feats to assure his immortality.
But before you can say “family secrets,” Ku discovers his beloved distant relative was a blood thirsty power monger—responsible for hundreds of deaths of captured Communists (the jails were too full) and fellow citizens who’d become expendable. Notably, the 1948 massacre—execution style, as witness the horrendous actual footage—of Yeosu citizens in the innocent confines of a school yard is frequently revisited—most interestingly through the eyes of present-day children.
Ku then begins to search out the survivors of the dead. One stoic sibling wonders aloud “What was he [brother] thinking when he died?” Ku has no reply except to out himself as having a few drops of Tiger blood in his veins. In every confession, the neophyte documentary maker doesn’t get the “dramatic” reaction he shamelessly craves. The old men are too worn out by the never-ending calamities of the world to heap their wrath and scorn on the baby-face director who almost wears Tiger’s atrocities with flagellant pride.
With no movie there, the lens zeroes in on his cancer-ridden grandfather’s last days. A new quest begins: finding the remaining print of the metaphorically titled Before the Sunset. Ku’s grandpa produced the romantic flick. It sold thousands of tickets, but after the bills were paid, there wasn’t a won left over.
No worries. The distraught mogul took to drink and continued his own romantic passions. His indefatigable wife chose to “abandon him [emotionally], that’s how I survived.” Along with her son and grandson, the palliative trio cares for the expiring lush with tenderness and devotion that seems hugely disproportionate to his deeds: Nobody Loves Grandfather.
Throughout the unstoppable demise, Ku dredges up some more “victims” and finally nerves himself to confront his grandfather with Tiger’s murderous deeds. Taking a cue from Michael Moore’s entrapment techniques, he confronts the drugged-up old man on his death bed. Not surprisingly to anyone but Ku, the laboured response is the epitome of denialism, complete with the marvellously rationalized assertion that “The Republic of Korea would not exist without Kim.”
Like a growing number of filmmakers in today’s tell-all, bloggy world (cross-references below), Ku can’t get his ego out of the picture and we’re left with a nasty piece of soiled family laundry rather than a dispassionate look at unchecked evil. On to the next! JWR