남극일기 (Antarctic Journal)

A Mirovision/Sidus Pictures Production
Distribution: Showbox
Rating: 15 and Over
Genre: Thriller
Running Time: 114 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2005/May/19

WITH 송강호 (Song Kang-Ho) as Choi Do-Hyung; 유지태 (Yoo Ji-Tae) as Min-Jae; 김경익 (Kim Gyeong-Ik) as Yang Geun-Chan; 박희순 (Park Hee-Soon) as Lee Young-Min; 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon) as Kim Seong-Hoon; 최덕문 (Choi Deok-Moon) as Seo Jae-Gyeong; 강혜정 (Kang Hye-Jung) as Lee Yoo-Jin;

CREW Director 임필성 (Im Pil-Sung) Executive Producer 차승재 (Cha Seung-Jae) 노종윤 (Noh Jong-Yoon) | Screenplay 임필성 (Im Pil-Sung) 봉준호 (Bong Joon-Ho) 이해준 (Lee Hae-Joon) | Director of Photography 정정훈 (Jung Jung-Hoon) Lighting 박현원 (Park Hyun-Won) Editor 김성민 (Kim Seong-Min) Music 川井憲次 (Kawai Kenji) Art Director 황인준 (Hwang In-Joon) 정현철 (Jung Hyun-Cheol)

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 5,478,113,500 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 871,235
BUDGET: 9,000,000,000 Won

Photo © Mirovision, Sidus Pictures, Showbox

REVIEW

8/8/2005 - Monday

Dear Diary,
It must be the first time I write you in over 15 years, I hope you'll forgive me for my negligence all this time. Back then, I probably wrote about trying to finish homework as soon as possible, so I could go out and play football with my friends. Was it maybe about a film I watched the day before? I'm not sure. It might feel like I looked for you again only because I needed your help, but please bear with me. I promise It'll just be this week, then I won't bother you anymore. I'm preparing a review of Im Pil-Sung's 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal) for this Sunday, so you'll help me organize my thoughts. Yes, organize, because after watching the film twice I feel as if I woke up in the middle of the night, images and sounds floating in my mind; images that have a scent, and sounds that have colour, even if that's only shades of white. Was it a dream, pure hallucination? Did I really watch a film, or had a nightmare, making me feel so close to that foreign, alien place? So close and claustrophobic, so stuffy. But you know what? I miss it, I miss being there, surrounded by snow, the sun shining on my face all day, the suffocating cold breeze, that sense of being alone in the world. It was like a long rollercoaster ride, with bursts of excitement followed by slower moments of anticipation.

Antarctica is like Science-Fiction right in front of our eyes. We seem to know everything about every single inch of this planet nowadays, with all the satellites and hyper sophisticated maps, yet there's a lot of mysteries surrounding the South Pole. A lot of people like to throw that nasty term, "No Man's Land," around ... but it really applies there. It's like walking on the moon, beautiful from a distance, strikingly quiet, but deadly if you underestimate it. The sense of surprise on the members of the expedition led by Choi Do-Hyung (Song Kang-Ho), when taking off their socks and seeing what frostbite has done to their poor, dark feet, is akin to an astronaut on the Moon, jumping around happy like a child, until the small rope tieing him to reality breaks. And he's alone, nothing can help him. You'd think the largest playground on Earth would be perfect for someone looking for quiet and solitude, but all you find is a claustrophobic hold on your neck and head. You walk in clear light for hours, days, weeks, and you might not know where you're going. Whiteouts might make things look different than they really are. Desperation might just do that as well. And then you begin to see things that never made sense back in your comfortable world. And you're afraid, afraid of your surroundings, afraid of your partners ... afraid of yourself.

What were they doing there? Strictly scientific reasons? National pride? Because no one else was able to do that, except a Soviet team in an era long gone? Some see this as their last expedition before finally going home to their families, a reward for their hard work. Some as a chance to make history, experience greatness for the first time. Finally, some see the expedition as an answer to all their questions, enough to give them a reason to go on. What begins as little more than a group of people sharing similar goals, trying to work as a team, becomes a nightmare. A place where fear, pain and selfish madness crush all the good intentions. Some team members fall before the others, maybe because they're weaker. Maybe because they realize before everyone else that the task is hopeless. The more the road to the Pole of Inaccessibility shortens, the more it becomes a point of no return.

Do-Hyung knows that all too well. Pain? He can bear it. The death of a fellow member? It's never an obstacle. His Machiavellian modus operandi is only exacerbated by his failure to build something out of his early promising days. What did reaching the top of the Everest do for him? A failed marriage and some money in the bank? 15 Minutes a year on the evening news? All that's left for him is that rage, that anticipation to reach the point. That will for something big to happen after that, for something that will finally change his life. He's not even prepared for what will come after that, all he thinks about is the between, getting to point B, since point A has been his entire life. Find a meaning, or at least find something to stop him. Even if that means death. More than anything else, this is a film about that uncontrollable rage inside men, setting up the moment you find a new desire to achieve something that will end your suffering. What if that resolution, that grand finale never comes, and you keep wanting for more, destroying yourself and everyone else in the process? It's not about the mysteries hidden under centuries old snow, but the monster buried inside men. The primal, brutal feelings that come out only in extreme situations.

8/9/2005 - Tuesday

Dear Diary,
I feel bad for Director Im Pil-Sung. All his career working as hard as he could, preparing for his big splash on the big screen. You spend 6 years on a project, change 3 production teams and 7 producers, shoot for months in freezing New Zealand under terrible conditions, all for that dream. To make a special film, one that will be remembered. It's your little child, precious and adorable when things are going well, painful to see and almost unbearable to tolerate when it's the other way around. The pressure on your shoulders to not "waste" those 8 Billion Won on something that won't attract viewers, the burden of a big film with a big cast and an even bigger budget. Anyone could crumble under those conditions. But one thing that distances Antarctic Journal from the rest is that it takes its chances and never looks back, like a mysterious woman with a charm of her own, distant yet strangely appealing.

Im had been the darling of many critics for his creative and interesting short films, winning him awards, invitations to major film festivals, and the respect of his peers. That must have been a huge burden, especially when you set the goal of writing a big budget blockbuster which, really, has nothing in common with the idea of blockbuster. As parts of the script and then the whole thing were circulated around the industry, a lot of people were buzzing this could turn into an exceptional film. Securing Song Kang-Ho for the role, one of the most dedicated, talented, and popular actors in the country. Yoo Ji-Tae, in spite of his popularity and image always choosing challenging roles. A team of largely unknown theater trained actors, extremely talented, perfect for those situations where ensemble acting takes center stage, even if magnificent special effects are waiting for you the moment you step out of your tent. It sounded like everything would go well: you have the budget, a great cast, people in and out of the circle are buzzing about it, all you needed to do was work hard and the result would repay all your years of suffering.

But it's never that easy. Im had to suffer through the life and death of many trends before he got a chance to work on his film. Finding funds was getting harder and harder every day, even those who usually champion diverse films refused Antarctic Journal because it was too bleak. And even when he finally got that deserved chance, it wasn't the end of his struggling. You could tell Im was incredibly stressed at the press screening. That he was trying to defend his baby no matter what, but the road to get there hit him strongly, possibly even changing him. Taking a page from the book he wrote, he was like his Do-Hyung, trying to reach his goal in spite of all the problems, only focusing on one thing; forgetting producers' warnings of spin doctoring, problems with funds and shooting, fickle audience expectations, the comfortable safety of cliches, conventional narrative and expensive special effects taking center stage. If only his film could communicate exactly what he wanted, he would have been happy. But getting to that pole of inaccessibility called audience satisfaction was harder than he thought. Reaching the end of his long, agonizing journey, he found out it was only the beginning of a new one.

8/10/2005 - Wednesday

Dear Diary,
What do the names Jang Jin, Bong Joon-Ho, Park Chan-Wook and Ryu Seung-Wan make you think about? All talented and acclaimed directors, who tend to focus their attention on stage actors to fill the names "after the title," instead of employing some pretty star from a TV Drama. This large focus on stage actors has created some of the most memorable characters in Korean Cinema, some becoming a cult. But other than good acting, what's the real benefit of casting people who have theater running through their veins? Think about the setting of the film. A tent: oppressive, small, claustrophobic and isolating; and outside the tent it's the same thing. You have all the space in the world but you're confined by your imagination, your fears. You can see for miles, but you can't follow the right path without the use of machines. This self-contained habitat asks actors to convey emotions and states of mind that are difficult to portray. And theater is the perfect way to bring out that ensemble work that uses real interaction, communication and acting skills instead of funky camera tricks or multiple takes. In a film which spends surprisingly little talking about its characters, their chemistry and delivery teaches us more about them than any flashback could.

Song Kang-Ho knows that feeling best. When he popped up out of nowhere (in reality years of theater work), in Hong Sang-Soo's debut film, I would have challenged anyone to predict he would become part of his generation's 'troika' of most popular and talented actors (the other two are Choi Min-Shik and Seol Kyung-Gu, obviously). Supporting roles that became legendary, like the gangster in No. 3, dispensing life affirming 'lessons' to his 불사파 (아닐 불, 죽을 사...the gang that never dies) apostles about that Hungry Spirit. Never transforming his image significantly, yet constantly changing roles like a chameleon. A North Korean soldier, part fabricated machismo, part human warmth ready to explode out of that skeleton of propaganda (JSA). The epitome of the everyday man, Peterpan meets Robot Taekwon V having to face the real world, when growing up means giving up all your youth for a paycheck (The Foul King). A ruthless and cold man, exploding inside and lusting for vengeance (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance). All those roles solidified Song as an icon of acting prowess, able to penetrate the screen like few others, creating memorable moments out of a few pages of dialogue. In Antarctic Journal he has a very important burden on his shoulders: he's the bad guy here. He has to convey all the intensity and egotistical nature of his character, but I can't help but feel fascinated about Do-Hyung. He's like a wandering spirit waiting for an opening, allowing him to come back to life. His face's depth evoking decades of pain. Song, simply put, is magnificent here. Not a false step, not an unnecessary word, an excessive movement. The look on his face at the end of the film explains in one instant what that Pole of Inaccessibility really was.

Even though the film ably moves from first to third person, all things considered, Yoo Ji-Tae is the real center, the focus of the story. The film moves along like a diary, an old journal. Some pages are torn off, hard to comprehend. Some are completely omitted. Some full of life and hope, but most showing fear, apprehension and anticipation. While his characterization as the 'rookie' is little more than ordinary and this is not a huge stretch for Yoo, his performance improves tenfold whenever he's close to Song. Yoo has become a really smart actor, choosing the right roles, with good people in front and behind the camera. And while some might overlook his weaknesses behind the strength of the projects he chooses, he smartly irons out those weak points by himself. He's constantly improving, and although we don't know yet how deep his acting range really is, he has finally built his own unique screen presence and charisma.

8/11/2005 - Thursday

Dear Diary,
Japan is blessed with so many great music directors: Kanno Yoko, Sakamoto Ryuichi, Hisaishi Jo. And Kawai Kenji. His scores don't have that incredible diversity like Kanno, that magical and involving feeling like Hisaishi, or that majestic tone like Sakamoto. But they are still a treat. The first sound that pops to mind at the mention of Kawai's name is that Bulgarian chorus in 攻殻機動隊 (Ghost in The Shell), or the spine chilling soprano in Avalon. God, I could watch the entire film with my eyes closed, for it's so invigorating, so drenched in ethnic nuances yet so unique. His work in Antarctic Journal is top notch: simple but effective, balancing the different genres on display, carrying dialogue-less scenes like a supporting actor, quietly helping the film move along in the background. The score in the final scenes brings new meaning to spine chilling. He conveys the desolation, desperation and loneliness of the team with one simple melody, and combined with the actors' expressions it makes for one of the film's most memorable scenes.

8/12/2005 - Friday

Dear Diary,
So what is Antarctic Journal at the end? Is it a character study, a glacially brutal horror film, a psychological thriller about the monsters inside men's personalities? Perhaps all of them, and then again maybe none. That last look in Do-Hyung's face reminds me of 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder). That look that shines in your face when you realize there's no end to ambition, that just working hard, putting everything into a desire sometimes is not enough, when you let that raw emotion cloud your judgment. When you let personal factors, prejudices, weaknesses influence decisions that do not only concern yourself. That look might have been the same Im Pil-Sung had after that maligned press screening, after reading the first reviews. All that ambition, all that hard work, all those promising signs. Were they all in vain? Was the pressure too hard, the conditions too harsh, the payoff impossible?

How can I judge a film like this is something I still haven't come to terms with. For people who truly love films, who see them as something more than filler for dates, experiencing a great film is like entering the relationship of your life: you see no faults in that person at first, no matter what other people say, you continue head on, trusting your instincts. Then, as life goes on, you learn to understand and accept that person's faults and weaknesses. To other people's eyes, all there is to see is faults, they can't find positive aspects to something they think they don't like. But I can't really say I'm at either of those stages. Is Antarctic Journal merely a great film marred by some problems inherent with the system? Just like Kim Jee-woon's delicious 장화, 홍련 (A Tale Of Two Sisters) shooting on its own feet, trying to explain what it beautifully concealed through its characters' mind for two hours? Too bleak and dark to appeal to the average masses, too fragmented and intelligent to sit comfortably within the conventions of one single genre, too in love with its atmosphere to trust characterization on the audience's ability to extrapolate it from the actors' performances? The judgment is up to you, to what kind of things you look for in a film, to how much those flashy moving pictures involve you on a personal level. I might fail my job as a reviewer today not passing yet that judgment on this film, but I'm not ready. I'm still looking for answers to the myriad of questions the movie creates, questions it never answers because it respects the viewer enough to let him or her find them themselves. I might never reach those conclusions after all, be it my or the film's fault. Call it my very own Pole of Inaccessibility, but the only thing I want to do right now is watch it again. And again.

8/13/2005 - Saturday

... PLAY ...

Originally Published on Twitch - 2005/08/15

ACTING GRADES

89 송강호 (Song Kang-Ho)
80 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon)
78 최덕문 (Choi Deok-Moon)
77 김경익 (Kim Gyeong-Ik)
74 박희순 (Park Hee-Soon)
74 유지태 (Yoo Ji-Tae)
68 강혜정 (Kang Hye-Jung)

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