Filth Mingling with Moments of Grace: The Lighthouse by Lim Chulwoo

  • onOctober 12, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byJacques Debs
Le phare
Tr. François Blocquaux and Lee Ki-jung

Before filming my five-episode documentary series on South Korea, I immersed myself in the literature of this country, and in doing so discovered some major authors. Lim Chulwoo’s I Want to Go to the Island took my breath away. When creating my films, I asked to meet him, as I did with various other authors, musicians, and artists. Lim has an aura that struck me as soon as he walked into the café, and I knew that we would see eye to eye. I suggested filming him on the islands of Wando and Jejudo. It was an immense pleasure to spend an entire week attempting to capture the spirit of this vital writer—as though the gods were there with us, allowing us to record the fleeting traces of their time on earth.

Read Lim Chulwoo’s The Lighthouse and your soul will be illuminated by an incandescent light. The rays of a blackened sun will torture your nerves; your stomach will become so knotted that you can no longer breathe. You will be taken to a strange world where the vilest filth mingles with moments of grace.

The narrator, Young Cheol leaves his native island of Wando with his mother and two sisters, the elder of whom, severely disabled, is able to pronounce just two words: “mother” and “hungry.” The poor family has fled the island for the city of Gwangju in the hope of finding the father, a long-distance sailor, who has started a new family there. They move into an area on the outskirts of town and, over the course of five long years, become accustomed to the misery of urban life: its mean-spiritedness, its treachery, its craven lowliness. Cheol is plagued by the hatred he nurses for his eternally absent father, who appears only to tell him to be a good student. The disabled sister eventually dies: a tragedy for the mother and two children, but also an immense weight off their shoulders. 

And yet this destitute Gwangju existence is also replete with unexpected encounters. Cheol befriends a thirty-year-old female violinist who introduces him to poetry. Later, on the brink of despair, an old man who plays the harmonium tells him to cherish his dreams and never abandon them. His older sister wants to join a Catholic order. His mother becomes ill, and the children tell their father, who goes to find his former wife in hospital. Shortly after, she dies. The father takes the boy home, where a new family awaits, and the sister joins the Church. At the age of sixteen, Cheol goes to Seoul, then spends many years traveling the world as a sailor. He returns to visit his father in an old folks’ home.

Will he have the strength to pardon his father and assuage his own guilt?

This saga of “the destitute of Gwangju” could easily have been just another novel denouncing social injustice. But Lim uses it to craft a drama as metaphysical as it is psychological. At each turning point in the teenage boy’s life, the author summons spirits who infuse the story with the suggestion of an unreachable, and thus glorious, beyond. Cheol’s grandmother tells him: “We humans were all precious stars once. Then, one by one, we fell to earth and became babies.” When his disabled sister is in her death throes, magpies perch on the roof of their hovel, and he knows that spirits have descended on this world in preparation for her departure. When his mother finally passes away, a mass of ghosts accompany her in a funeral procession, taking her to a long-awaited paradise. 

Lim Chulwoo weaves a thread of mingled shamanic and Catholic spirituality through his story. Our fate is not merely the consequence of a given social situation, but instead results from the conjunction, or collision, of divine mysteries and our most fervent desires. Humans and gods are inextricably linked together on an endless voyage, whisked from the firmament to the outer reaches of this world, and from the magical light of the stars to the pale glimmer of our fragile condition. 


by Jacques Debs
Filmmaker and Writer
Director of the 5x52’ Series
South Korea, Country of Many Miracles