Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni (왕십리 김종분, Kim Jin-yeol, 2021)

“I’m lucky” elderly market vendor Kim Jong-boon finally explains to director Kim Jin-yeol, having endured a long life filled with hardship and sadness but having learned to see the best in it in gaining experiences others might not have the opportunity to and thankful that her circumstances while certainly not luxurious are comfortable enough and her surviving children and their spouses are healthy and happy. Titled simply Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni (왕십리 김종분, Wangshimni Kim Jong-boon), Kim’s documentary is testimony to the extraordinary stories of ordinary people and the heartwarming resilience of those who’ve known tragedy but have resolved to remain honest and kind to all those around them. 

Born in 1939 and now in her 80s, Jong-boon is still a regular fixture running a small night stall in the lower-class district of Wangshimni in Seoul where she has lived for the last 50 years. Wind and snow, she runs her business enjoying a gentle camaraderie with a group of fellow market sellers of around the same age with whom she often goes for dinner or plays cards in her small apartment where they also come together to make kimchi. Jong-boon isn’t forced to work into her 80s because of financial penury, but because she’s become a kind of symbol with people glad and reassured to see her stall where it always is. She lends money or extends a tab to those who need it whether she thinks they’ll pay her back or not. In the closing scenes a man arrives to return some money she’d lent him 30 years previously, he nervously arriving laden with pumpkins and quinces uncertain if she’d be alive but feeling relieved to finally unburden himself of this spiritual and literal debt. 

Part of this is as we later discover an extension of her private tragedy in having lost her daughter, the middle of three children, during the democracy protests of the early ‘90s. Though the climactic events of 1987 had led to the introduction of a democratic system, the left-wing, pro-democracy vote had been spilt by infighting which allowed the protege of former dictator Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, to become the first elected leader of a “democratic” Korea leading to an intensification of political protests led by the student movement. In university at the time, Jong-boon’s daughter Gwi-jung became involved in democratic and labour activism and was killed during a protest in which police kettled protestors with no provided exit route (as had previously been the norm) leading to a crush in which Gwi-jung was suffocated. Despite the depths of her grief, Jong-boon became a prominent figure in the movement in her daughter’s memory campaigning for justice and recognition along with others who had lost family members to police violence during the protest. Though over 30 years have now passed since Gwi-jung’s death, as many as 300 mourners still come to her annual memorial service which Jong-boon and her family cater themselves. 

Though she and her husband had actually voted for Roh, Jong-boon continues to support the causes her daughter had given her life fighting for in the hope of a better world while discovering a new community not only with the other bereaved relatives but in the students themselves many of whom continue to look in on Jong-boon and accompany her as she travels to universities around the country to give talks in Gwi-jung’s memory. Despite her grief and sorrow, we later see her collapsing in tears on visiting Gwi-jung’s grave in a small area dedicated to those who died in the protests, she’s also thankful for the new opportunities Gwi-jung has given her in travelling all around the country and meeting new people. One of the reasons she continues to run her stall is for the former student protesters, so they’ll always know where to find Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni. Having endured crushing poverty in her youth, working several jobs from construction to domestic service and then running her stall at night, Jong-boon can declare herself happy to have lived so much experiencing things others might never get the chance to even if they’re things no-one really wants to experience like getting tricked out of a house or having all your money stolen by a credit union. A portrait of a truly extraordinary woman living an ostensibly very ordinary life, Kim’s quietly moving documentary is testament both to the hidden stories of those all around us and to the enduring resilience of a mother’s love.

Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)