By Lauren Seo
The film rolled in the summer heat as Austin Park â10 witnessed a meat patty flipped by the owner of the only fast food joint on Ullung-Do, South Korea. As the quotidian actions committed themselves to film, the ownerâs story was gradually added to the patchwork of other indigenous lives Park had spent a month on the island collecting. Supported by the Junior Summer Fellowship he won last spring, Park devoted June to documenting the hidden beauty of this land obscure to most of the western world.
Although now the focus of his documentary, this isolated islet was never a place where Park planned to stay for over a day.
Originally, the project was intended to focus on Dokdo, a group of small islets between Japan and Korea. The dispute between these two countries over the sovereignty of what are essentially two floating rocks has gone back centuries, but only in recent years has it inflated into its current magnitude of public and heated controversy.
As fervent as the debates grew, though, what intrigued Park more were the lives of elderly octopus fishermen Kim Sung-do and Kim Shin-yeol, the islandâs sole inhabitants.
“This kind of thing just doesnât exist in the world, itâs a fantasy to me,” Park said of their living situation.
After obtaining special permission to stay on the island via multiple meetings with government officials, Park embarked on his assignment.
However, unforeseen setbacks caused him to leave the island after a week. Kim Sung-do had been evacuated from the island for medical care and his wife changed her mind about cooperating.
Park decided to head back to Ullong-Do and stay with an official he had previously befriended before figuring out what path to take next. Upon reaching the rocky isle, however, he found that his next move came effortlessly.
“Suddenly the whole movie came to me,” he said. “I realized all the stuff I loved about my trip was right there.”
For the next two and half weeks, Park recorded 250 hours of footage capturing the island and all the people there, subjects he felt were just as compelling as the two octopus fishermen.
Since he had previously stayed on the island, Park was familiar with the local places and people, an advantage he said he might never have again with a documentary.
“You donât often get the opportunity to go back and shoot something in a documentary,” he said, “but because I lived there, I could scout all my locations beforehand and already knew how fascinating and beautiful these people were. I was in an amazing position.”
Park said he approached his documentary as a portrait, using the lives he captured on film as his color palette.
“Iâve got all these stories and Iâm hopefully trying to build a picture of Ullung-Do for people whoâve never been there and probably never will,” he said.
At first glance, this remote island off the eastern coast of Korea may seem an unlikely source for beauty. Essentially the remains of an extinct volcano, this remote isle is separated from the mainland by 75 miles of water and is only accessible by boat from two different harbors.
To the average tourist, there is scarcely anything to do. Even the locals, who speak a dialect different from that used on the mainland, showed confusion as to his extended stay on the island, Park said.
However, it is exactly this isolationist nature that fascinated him. According to Park, being so obscure and disconnected from the modern world allowed the natives to develop a different, more simple mentality and rhythm of life. The days, as Park describes them, are slow, with not a lot to do.
When Park first stepped foot on the island, he had intended to stay there for no more than a day or two. On paper, he said, the area was simply an intermediary stop, just as it is for the many tourists traveling through to visit the famed island of Dokdo.
“You can make all the itineraries you want, but you can never prepare for what happens, which is scary, but also kind of nice,” Park said.
Park, who has described himself as “crazy about film”, has been directing narrative films with friends Graham Parkes â10 and Will Hellwarth â10 since their freshman year. This was his first experience filming by himself, which he said forced him to act more instinctually in terms of his filmmaking.
“When youâre shooting everything by yourself and you donât have anyone to ask for opinions, you canât be neurotic or self-conscious about every decision youâre making,” Park said.
While Park considers himself “literate” in documentaries, he admitted they have never been his passion. Filming one was just something new for him that added greatly to his experience, he said.
Recording a documentary was not the only new experience Park gained on his trip. Not much of a traveler, a facet of himself he wishes to change, he also embarked on his first trip to Asia.
“I definitely saw the fellowship as a big opportunity for me to travel,” Park said. “Itâs still so surreal, I canât believe I actually went there.”
Park is still in the early stages of editing his film, and hopes to have a cut done by December.
“I need to figure out the rhythm of each of the people, and structure it,” he said. “I want to give an experience.”