If any given person has seen Seoul on film, chances are they've seen it in a Korean blockbuster like Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, that tale of imprisonment, revenge, and elaborately plotted incest that earned Korea a not-especially-deserved reputation for "extreme cinema."
They can see much, much more of the city in last year's Bitter, Sweet, Seoul, an hour-long film made by Park Chan-wook, his brother Park Chan-kyong (together they form the filmmaking unit known as PARKing CHANce), and 141 different contributors from all walks of life who submitted their own footage of Seoul. The movie weaves together all these clips — of various places at various times capturing various things at various framerates into one continuous hourlong audiovisual Seoul symphony.
We see humans and animals, Koreans and foreigners, youngsters, adults, oldsters, native Seoulites and those who "came up" to the capital, tourists, urban explorers, hard-cramming students, hard-rehearsing actors, refugees, rock-climbers, army conscripts, street artists, souvenir sellers, traditional musicians, modern musicians, traditional-modern musicians, frustrated parents and struggling children, filmmakers, fishermen, politicians, protesters, freshly built neighborhoods and their abandoned predecessors, the joys of Seoul and it sorrows. My favorite threads follow a Westerner (and his pet duck) who has built a plant paradise atop his Hannam-dong apartment and a Korean girl doing what it takes to open her very own coffee shop, the latest of the city's many thousands.
I've heard the brothers Park felt a little disappointment that so few of the 12,000 video entries came from their countrymen. Foreigners, it seems, have shot Seoul more intently, at least until recently. The explosive growth of the Korean capital over the past sixty years from a ruined third-world backwater into one of the most advanced metropolises in the world, has, perhaps, prevented Koreans themselves from reflecting too thoroughly on this city where, as one interviewee puts it, "24 hours in a day is not enough."
In Seoul myself to record the Korea Tour on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, I understood that sentiment. If New York never sleeps, Seoul barely sits down (though it does, even today, often pause for cigarette breaks). This film, to a unique extent, shows all that can happen in such an ever-changing, always-moving city, home to half the country's 50 million people and their stories.
Recording one Korea Tour interview in Seoul with Michael Breen, author of The Koreans, I asked him what had made him spend the last thirty years living among the people about whom he wrote. He responded, simply, "I liked them." Whether thinking about my own experience in Korea or watching Bitter, Sweet, Seoul, I understand that too.