Director Im Kwon-taek (임권택) continues his love affair with Korean culture in Hanji (달빛 길어올리기), a film about the traditional art of paper-making. While such a premise may initially make audiences baulk, the auteur’s love and admiration of the tradition shines through every scene, crafting a poetic narrative about a cultural trait on the brink of extinction.
Hanji tells the story of Pil-yong (Park Joong-hoon (박중훈), a civil servant appointed to a committee charged with the restoration of the only surviving record of the Jeonju Annals. Knowing little of the practice, Pil-yong researches the art with diligence and becomes increasingly passionate about the project. His dedication is in part due to guilt as his actions caused his wife Hyo-kyeong (Ye Ji-won (예지원) to suffer a stroke three years prior, while he had also belittled her former occupation as a paper-maker and never understood the sorrow of her inability to find her hometown. Yet just the project begins, the government withdraws funding and the restoration is placed in jeopardy. Reluctantly teaming with documentary filmmaker Ji-won (Kang Soo-yeon (강수연), Pil-yong battles to save the hanji industry and restore the Jeonju Annuls while proving his worth as a husband.
Hanji is very wisely positioned from Pil-yong’s perspective, a man ignorant of the history and cultural importance of the tradition which allows the audience to learn about the craft through his research and discussions with expert paper-makers on the practice. However this also leads the film to convey documentary-esque sensibilities, a feature of which director Im Kwon-taek is keenly aware and subverts through his ironic inclusion of a documentary team following the restoration project. While their addition does somewhat diffuse the educational dimension, Hanji often straddles the line between film and documentary and occasionally conveys a mild ‘preachy’ tone which is initially interesting, but becomes tiresome in the later stages. However it is Pil-yong’s desire to prove himself, discover his wife’s passion and locate her hometown that compels the narrative forward during such moments, as his responsibility for Ji-won’s illness – and desire to cure her – drives him deeper into the history of hanji, Jeonju, and Korea itself.
The heart of Hanji is the relationship between Pil-yong and Ji-won, which is allegorical of Korean history by reenacting the story of hanji through the trials of a failing marriage. As a descendant of the most famous hanji artist in Korea, Ji-won is hanji personified, while her husband symbolises an artist/author. When Pil-yong’s affair with another woman years prior is discovered, Ji-won suffers a stroke and becomes immobile and depressed, barely able to speak. This reflects the abandonment of hanji by artists, who opted to use paper less difficult to manufacture as it required less work and was more comfortable – a description Pil-yong applies to his infidelity. Yet through his journey, Pil-yong discovers that hanji – like his wife – may well require hard work but the quality of it lasts for at least a thousand years, and doesn’t deteriorate as with lesser equivalents. As a renowned professor describes, hanji is ‘honest’ paper as it reveals the skill of the artist whereas other paper conceals it, leaving a record of which that lasts beyond the grave. In fighting to restore the hanji industry and the Jeonju Annuls at great personal sacrifice, Pil-yong learns the value of identity, culture, history, and marriage.
In terms of performance, Kang Soo-yeon shines as long-suffering Ji-won, conveying an incredible physical presence through her illness. Her depression and inability to communicate are also highly impressive, particularly her evolution as she struggles to gain greater strength. Park Joong-hoon is competent as Pil-yong, conveying his fascination with hanji and his frustration with the lack of support well. In fairness, there are few scenes that actually challenge the actor as Pil-yong is generally the focal point for Im Kwon-taek’s journey through the history of the craft. That said, the marital dispute and Ji-won’s illness notwithstanding, there is an absence of chemistry between the two central protagonists that is acutely apparent, and while Ji-won’s physical evolution is conveyed the same does not apply to their relationship which is devoid of affection. As such, Pil-yong’s obsession with the history of hanji and restoring his wife’s health is conveyed more as acknowledging his responsibility than reinforcing love between them.
Im Kwon-taek does attempt to rectify this through his masterfully poetic final scenes, in which he emphasizes the importance of Buddhist philosophy and nature, particularly the moon, as integral to the hanji crafting process. It is incredibly romantic as Korea itself is is conveyed as the missing piece of the production puzzle, one that when fully appreciated allows artists to create, the sick to heal, and estranged partners to reunite.
Hanji is a film based on a genuine love of Korean culture and tradition by auteur Im Kwon-taek. While at times the film can convey a rather educational, documentary tone the film emphasizes the importance of remembering and supporting cultural traditions as they are inherently tied to notions of identity. Hanji is poetic and philosophical, conveying that diligence and perseverance are highly rewarding experiences and serves as a love letter to a dying cultural tradition.