Spring Cleaning

I’ve hit the one-week-left point in my adventure here in South Korea. As I write I’m on a plane flying home (back to Seoul) from Jeju Island, or technically “The Special Self-Governing Province of Jeju Island.” More about my adventures on this popular Korean vacation destination – known for its tangerines and fresh air – later, but I just wanted to note that taking off, it was amazing to see the layers of changing colours in the sky. While it looked pretty clear on the ground, we lifted off into a white haze, then through a browny-yellow layer and up above it all into a level of clear blue sky with gorgeous clouds. Jeju is known for its natural beauty and cleanliness – but even there I could feel something in the air…

I have been trying to change my style of shooting a bit, moving away from interviews to a more natural, observational, cinema verité style. This is the approach I hope to take for the final project, following different people in their daily lives over the course of one hwangsa season. Eunah had told me about a friend of hers who had a baby, and who she never saw because the mum didn’t like taking the baby out often because of air quality, especially in the springtime. So eventually it became clear that she would be an excellent person to film with for an afternoon to work on the shooting style and see her preparing to go out with her baby. Here is just a sneak peek into the life of Hyung-jung and her 8 month old son.

1Y2A0797-Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) 08301609

Hyung-jung prepares for a trip to the grocery store with her son

That evening I decided to head up Namsan Mountain, the location of the Seoul Tower, to try and get some sweeping city views. And I was rewarded! The flowers were out in full bloom and the visibility was awful. I stayed and filmed the view, and caught the sun as it set over the city.


Seoul Tower through the cherry blossoms


Seoul visibility from Namsan Mountain


Ominously beautiful pink sky as the sun sets

The days previous had been like summer – mid-20s and beautiful sunshine. So I had become used to that I left the guesthouse in the morning with only a light sweater on. But the temperature dropped drastically that day, and I was running up and down the hill while the timelapse was shooting just to keep warm.

And then this wonderful hiking couple showed up and stopped beside me to take a look at the view. They pulled out some snacks and a thermos and looked over at me and said “Coffee?” So this timelapse is dedicated to this lovely couple who made it physically possible for me to stay up there in order to catch it.

And this one goes out to Emily Gan, who volunteered her wide angle lens – what a sweetheart! This wouldn’t have been possible without it.

The day after these shots the forecast was for the heaviest hwangsa in a number of years. I had my look-outs lined up and a shot-list for the day. I woke up early, batteries charged and ready to shoot. Here’s what I saw:

Sigh. This is a good lesson, though, in how challenging it can be working on a project about a natural phenomenon. It also brings to light how difficult forecasting of hwangsa is in general, and accounts for the attitude I had been running into, that people generally don’t trust what they see in the forecast surrounding air quality. In talking to the Korean Meteorological Administration, it became clear that forecasting is a real challenge that they are working toward, and that the only thing they can do accurately at the moment is monitor.

So instead of shooting, I spent the day sight-seeing. The Korean War Memorial was an interesting place. At once homage to the soldiers and Korean people affected by war, it was also homage to the war machine itself. Tanks and ships and planes.


Korean fighter plane


Gigantic military plane from the Korean War


Seoul Tower always poking its head up, this time into a clear blue sky




Korean War Memorial


Soldier in background


Compelling statues of the two sides, meant to put human faces to the fighting




Young boy


The other side


Old man


Young woman


Young men with guns

I then stopped by Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was originally constructed in 1395, then rebuilt in 1867 after having burned down centuries earlier. Seoul is full of palaces, but Gyeongbok is the largest, and was considered the main palace. The architecture here was beautiful. I love the colourful and intricate designs, think of all the detailed labour that went into creating these ceilings.


Palace through the blossoms


Changing of the guard


Enormous drum


Imagine the cacophony of this procession, amazing traditional instruments


Rooftop, mountaintop


Palace throne room


Ceiling intricacy


Amazing colours and details


Old and new


Volatile skies, getting ready for rain

My favorite part of the palace, though, was the gigantic pantry.


Gyeongbokgung Palace pantry

Called a Janggo, this part of the palace grounds housed the thousands of giant pots of fermented foods – soybean paste, kimchi, chili paste, fermented anchovies, and many other dishes and sauces.


Woman teaches about traditional Korean fermentation


Pots on display


For a sense of scale


So much soybean paste!

Just outside the gates of the palace is the Korean Folk Museum. Here I arrived just in time for a concert featuring a traditional style of singing which I found utterly moving. During this first song I was mesmerized by both the singing style and the drumming. Such complex and fascinating rhythms. They set up the concert by saying that some of their training is to walk as slowly as possible.

Intangeable Asset 1

It made me think of the film by Emma Franz, Intangeable Asset No. 82, about an Australian drummer travelling South Korea in search of shaman Kim Seok-Chul, an astounding musician and improviser. A beautiful story and a beautiful film.


This second song combines a more modern aesthetic, but I love the interplay of the three female voices.

Intangeable Asset 2

Despite the disappointment about the nice weather, it was lovely to be a tourist for a day.




Among the Gyeongbokgung Palace’s enormous gardens




Intricate architecture