For the time being, despite the international acclaim he has secured through later works, Simpan remains the earliest available title that boasts direction by South Korea’s Chan-wook Park. Two features he directed earlier, Moon is the Sun’s Dream and Saminjo (Trio), have both been denounced by the director and, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, remain unavailable for home viewing even for those willing to shop directly in South Korea’s DVD market. So with two features behind him of currently unverifiable quality Simpan, running for only twenty-six minutes, gives us the first glimpses of the talent that would later helm some of the last decade’s finest films including, but not limited to, his Vengeance Trilogy.
Opening to the sounds of a nearby radio or television we are informed that, in the wake of a devastating earthquake, a hefty compensation has been granted to victims and survivors alike. The film undoubtedly wants to raise associations with the Sampoong Department Store disaster of 1995- a building collapse caused by careless design and expansion that lead to the loss of 501 lives. It soon becomes clear that we’re in a morgue as the film’s title is tellingly overlaid against a yawning mouth. What might have seemed routine for the mortician will today turn out to be something far more bizarre. The object of controversy is the disfigured body of a young woman, a victim of the recent disaster. With a civil servant and a small news crew present alongside the mortician, a middle-aged couple tearfully identify the body as that of their estranged daughter who ran away from home some years ago. This sad scene is soon interrupted when another man arrives and, with a photograph in hand, proclaims the girl to be his daughter. Someone must be lying and, with a hefty compensation cheque hanging in the balance, the truth must be found. Despite poor relations with the civil servant, who still bears a grudge for the media criticising him, the reporter has a few tricks up his sleeve. In the end, the judgement of the film’s title comes from a more unlikely source.
While it may be true that Simpan represents a ‘minor’ entry in Park’s grander catalogue it still boasts plenty of details that should convince fans of his work to seek it out1. Many traits that can easily be linked with his later films are shown, not least of all a switch from black-and-white to colour photography, a conceit the director has utilised or thought about utilising throughout his Vengeance Trilogy and beyond. Confined almost entirely to a single room the camera skilfully ducks and dodges around the various characters whilst avoiding revealing itself in the mirror that playfully adorns the back wall. The film has a sense of rough experimentation, toying with various shots to see what might work best. More easily recognisable than the visual surface of the film is the off-kilter humour that colours the storyline. Park has always shown immense skill in deriving comedy from the most unlikely of scenarios and Simpan establishes itself as a very early example of this. A wonderful sight gag reveals the mortician’s beer stash housed under a blanket with a decapitated body- the extra head-room providing a perfect hiding place. Elsewhere, as the reporter strives to find an identifying mark on the cadaver he and the civil servant effectively grope the young woman in front of her grieving parents.
If all that seems quite crude, Park then cleverly reinforces the underlying tragedy by intercutting snippets of documentary footage from the Sampoong disaster into the proceedings. The collapse of that shopping centre was because of careless expansion, the addition of new levels and infrastructure pushing the building’s foundations to support four times more weight than they were designed for. If unchecked consumerist greed fed the collapse of the building then so too does it feed the callous designs of the inhabitants of the morgue. As more details are unveiled, unemployment, abandonment, corruption and so forth, it becomes clear that the memory of the deceased girl is the last thing on most everyone’s mind. Each figure represents an unfortunate failing of human nature in the wake of the tragedy: the reporter’s voyeuristic intent, the civil servant’s back-handed dealings, and the profiteers’ wish to capitalise on tragedy. Finally, in a poetic twist, nature intervenes to separate the sincere from the corrupt. The idea of fate and of almost supernatural judgement stand as clear precursors to later films.
If Simpan necessarily lacks the sheen of his later work it still stands as a worthy entry in Park’s career. Short, effective and often fiercely fanged it unveils many of the thematic elements that would define the director’s later work. The camera is carefully planned but lacks the absolutely assured swagger of his later work. It’s difficult to imagine that the very next year, moving on from this low key project, Park would emerge fully formed with JSA: Joint Security Area, a film that would break box-office records in its native South Korea. Park’s amazing progression only reinforces the importance of this short film while reminding us of how unfortunate it is that his earlier work seems entirely unavailable.
1 Currently the only DVD release I know of for this title is on the UK DVD release, Cinema 16 – World Short Films which came out nearly a decade after the film was originally made.