Through film and video, Jeamin Cha tells tales of the specter that haunts present-day Korea. Some of the stories that Cha narrates are that of a brazen South Korean woman named Lim Su-kyung, who, in 1984, illegally travelled to North Korea (in It is not a question but a balloon, 2010); a group of North Korean defectors working under the table at a South Korean food market in London, United Kingdom (in One on One, 2012); and a displaced farmer in Songdo, a city without inhabitants built as an international business district near Incheon, South Korea (in Fog and Smoke, 2012). These are real-life accounts of people living in a divided country that has yet to exorcise the ghosts of the Korean War, and still suffering from devastating consequences of rapid industrialization that followed the armistice.
The ongoing state of armistice and the division of the peninsula have laid down the psychic seedbed for all the trials and tribulations Korea has undergone since the 1950s. In a mere three decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, while North Korea withdrew from the rest of the world, South Korea’s economy grew exponentially in a globalized network. It was at the height of this period of intense and unfettered growth in South Korea—which was abruptly halted by the IMF crisis in 1997—that Cha was born. She does not take for granted the current socio-economic and political conditions. For her, recounting the lives of individuals featured in her films is a way to examine the underlying political and cultural problems that stem from South Korea’s adoption of democracy and capitalism. Cha strains to understand and embody these individuals’ struggles in the face of larger political forces. This text focuses on one such effort, her film It is not a question but a balloon.
In 2010, Cha turned 24—the age at which the radical sojourner Lim Su-kyung headed to North Korea. Cha sought out Lim, who was then well into her 40s, and convinced her to read a script that was put together by pulling extracts from newspaper articles published between June and August 1989. Various facts, first-person testimony, and poetic and exclamatory remarks made by Lim are jumbled in mixed tenses—past, present, and future—and constitute a tension-filled and non-linear narrative. In the voice-over, Lim talks about making phone calls to book airplane tickets, recalls falling ill from a hunger strike, and provides words of assurance to her worried mother. It is intentionally unclear whether the voice is coming from the future, haunting Lim’s past actions, or whether it rings from Lim’s past, casting a shadow onto the present. Cha magnifies and presents this temporal confusion as a symptom of living in a country where the old adage “history repeats itself” feels palpable. After all, South Korea has recently elected as president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the fascist leader Park Chung-hee who ruled from 1962 to 1979. Criticized by the left and revered by the right for re-presenting versions of her father’s policies while he was in tenure, Park Geun-hye and her political ascendance exemplify par excellence how the knotted history of modern Korea actively continues to shape the present.
Cha’s interest in Lim’s story does not stem from a desire to reiterate the past. Rather, she is concerned about the future of her generation that is so burdened and weighed down by the ideological conflicts of her forbearers. Pairing this audio component is a video in which Cha mimics right-wing political groups in South Korea that send pro-capitalist and anti-communist propaganda leaflets across the heavily militarized North/South border using improvised balloons—polyurethane tubes filled with helium. Cha is concerned with the right-wing instrumentalization of what has been more commonly used as a symbol of peace and innocence in popular culture. Recall, for instance, the films The White Balloon by Jafar Panahi and The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse, or the German band Nena’s anti-nuclear song 99 Luftballons. Cha seems to suggest, however, balloons are not always bearers of hope and optimism. Even as she detaches the propagandist literature from the balloon and lets it fly away at the end of her film, she acknowledges the difficulty of making space for her own inquiry through the title that hangs over the reading of her work.
“It is not a question but a balloon” is a stern declaration that demands that “it” be seen for what it is; a balloon in her film is a vessel that is used to bear and transmit words that carry so much conviction and certainty that it leaves no room for questions. The statement echoes René Magritte’s famous phrase “This is not a pipe,” which provokes fundamental questions about signifying practices in the field of visual representation. Cha’s title has the effect of returning us to reality from the realm of symbols.
As a consummate story-teller, Cha leaves her viewers wanting more. But just as the title forcefully interrupts a comfortable metaphoric reading of the balloon, Cha does not grant them the satisfaction of a resolution. Real, raw, and haunting are the stories that Cha narrates of South Korea’s transmogrification into a neoliberal state at war with its nominally communist and equally transmogrified counterpart. These stories are all the more resonant because Cha actively draws attention to how they continue to unfold beyond the frames of her moving images.
—Liz Park, Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow