9 at 38 (South Korea, 2017) [Tribeca Film Festival 2018]

On the road in a bus from South Korea to North Korea, it is 15 August 2015. This specific date marks not only Korean Independence Day, a national holiday shared by the north and south, but also its 70th anniversary. Meanwhile, a voiceover speaks in English and Korean of the beauty of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, especially in the way it articulates a force that unites the divided. Cut to Julliard-trained violinist Hyungjoon Won in an interview expressing how the 9th thus applies to Korea. When the camera holds on Won on the aforementioned bus, silent and looking off-camera, a caption appears that details his project of leading South Korean musicians to the DMZ, or 38th parallel, to perform a ‘first-ever joint concert’ with a North Korean choir. Hence the title of Catherine Lee’s directorial debut. Lee structures Won’s past and present experiences and aims in relation to this project in a smart and thoughtful manner that provokes both surprise and dismay due to the events that transpire. In the process, she shares a refreshingly different contemporary perspective of the North-South divide.

With its opening shots of music sheets and the bus in movement, one can also describe 9 at 38 as a play on the road movie, with the vibrancy of Beethoven on the soundtrack early in the film hinting at a triumphant realization of Won’s project. One could even already conjure in one’s mind the envisioned concert and the kind of dramatic, visual, and spectatorial fulfillment one would feel in the face of the 9th at the 38th because, well, that is what documentary films provide, right? And herein lies part of the film’s clever structure: the opening sequence can be read as playing with the conventions of standard documentary films that merely spoon-feed the spectator with information and provides reassuring closure regarding the subject, people, and/or events at hand. In truth, a more apt description of 9 at 38 is a not a road movie per se but a roadblock movie.*

Through a flashback structure that spans one week, one learns snippets of both Won’s life – through sit-down interviews or more often the audio of these interviews juxtaposed with footage of him rehearsing or taking the next steps for his project – and the varied obstacles encountered by the project as they present themselves leading up to Korean Independence Day. In this way, too, Lee highlights how Won’s project is simultaneously of personal and national significance, for it is one that he has been working on for the past seven years, one consequence of which has greatly impacted his life. Additionally, as he relates, an injury during his military duty that kept him off the violin for two years made him think more expansively about how he can use music in a bigger-picture kind of way. Thus, his pitch to both Korean governments for a joint concert to take place at the DMZ, with each set of musicians on either side of the border but visible to – and most importantly heard by – each other.

As the day inches closer, the obstacles seem to initiate a chain reaction of negativity that makes the realisation of Won’s project even more difficult than it has already been. But as he shares rather explicitly with the conductor Antoine Marguier, he is adamant about going through with the concert. This point is no surprise, though, given the film’s opening shots.

In keeping with a roadblock movie, one of the (two) most important and poignant moments in the film occurs at a checkpoint. As one sees Won from a distance waiting and conversing with DMZ soldiers/guards as well as a South Korean government official, Lee splices an audio interview with him (with a brief cut to his sit-down) into the footage, as if it is what is going through his head during the situation. This particular audio highlights even more the acute commingling of the personal and the national of the project for Won, surprising in its frankness and deeply affective in its content.

Throughout the film, Lee presents seconds-long shots of sit-down interviews with Won. But she reserves the film’s only extended scene of a sit-down with Won for the film’s conclusion (the film’s other most important and poignant moment), one in which he affirms the irrevocable link between his small-scale project of music and the large-scale one of reunification.

*The ‘roadblock movie’ is a recognised sub-genre of Palestinian documentary and fiction filmmaking and denotes the frequency with which Palestinian films are set at borders and checkpoints, which in turn expresses the conditions of movement (or lack thereof) under the occupation.

9 at 38 will receive its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19. It will also be shown on April 22, 25, and 28.