Review: Song Il-gon’s “The Magicians”

A major trend in film is the ever increasing prevalence of digital technology. Song Il-gon’s The Magicians (2005), a 95 minute film shot in a single take, is one of the finest films in this medium. Song, one of Korea’s most interesting filmmakers, was educated at Lodz Film School in Poland, whose alumni include Kryzstof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski, and this undoubtedly contributes to his very distinctive style of filmmaking. Song previously made two digital features, Flower Island and Git (Feathers in the Wind), in both cases exploring the unique creative possibilities inherent in the medium. The Magicians was originally a 40 minute short, titled “Magician(s),” included in the omnibus “Digital Shorts By Three Filmmakers,” an annual project of the Jeonju International Film Festival, in which three filmmakers are invited to make short films using digital technology. The 40 minute version, while impressive technically, never quite shook the sense of being a show-offy stunt. However, as a feature, it gains much depth and emotional resonance, transforming into a moving and, despite its somber subject matter, ultimately uplifting meditation on memory, spirituality, and the coexistence of the past and present.

The Magicians is set in and around a bar in a wooded area far from the city, where the three surviving members of the rock band Magician gather, as they do each year, for a memorial for their female guitarist Jae-eun (Lee Seung-bi), who committed suicide three years earlier. The bar is run by her boyfriend Jae-sung (Jung Woong-in), who created this remote retreat as a way to deal with his grief. The bass player (Jang Hyun-sung) and female vocalist (Kang Kyung-heon) also reminisce and are still shaken by the loss. Jae-un herself appears as a ghostly presence, hovering unseen among her living friends. Within the film’s single take, flashbacks before Jae-eun’s suicide and the circumstances leading up to it are handled with boldly theatrical techniques: music cues, lighting changes, and a character’s movement out of the bar or up a staircase takes us back into the past. The natural setting, and the presence in the film of a fifth character, a monk leaving his monastery and looking for a snowboard he left at the bar, suggest the spiritual presence suggested by the title of the piece. By using the digital medium to evoke the past, The Magicians shares similarities to another groundbreaking digital film, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which traveled through centuries of Russian history. Song’s film is much more intimate, observing the connections between a small group of people who will never escape their past, and we are left with the suggestion that this is not necessarily a bad thing. For better or worse, our relations with others, whether happy or tragic, are part of who we are, and it is folly to attempt to hide or run from it.