Stanford University documentary student Yeon Park ordered a unique present for her father’s birthday, a time travel machine. Her resulting short film describes her anticipation in giving it, and his subsequent reaction to it.
When push comes to shove, Yeon settles for a slightly cheaper time travel machine for her dad’s birthday, coming in at $180 (including postage). She could, after all, have gone down the flux capacitor route, á la Back to the Future, and spent $379 or her Ebay purchase. (I Bought a Time Machine, Opening Scenes competition).
When the device arrives, it resembles little more than a cube-shaped cardboard box covered in gold paper (measuring 8 x 8 x 8 inches). ‘Judge its function, NOT its appearance,’ she is warned, but Yeon is not to be discouraged. She has serious questions about matters temporal that need answering.
“I was brainstorming this idea of what if I went back in time. I started asking the question to people around me and this prompted them to speak about their past. Even random strangers at parties would open up to me about it,” says Yeon.
The time machine is intended as a present for her father (Youngdre) to change those aspects of his past that he may want to change. He is a talented artist living in South Korea and is obviously a kind and loving parent, but he doesn’t talk about his past. Instead he creates beautiful, expressive, monochrome paintings which hint at the pain that he and his country suffered during the 20th Century. Such as the violent suppression of the 1949 Jeju uprising, her brother Yeonwoo suggests.
“My dad used to paint more realistic landscapes, then he had a transition where he started to… mix this reality with his subjective feelings and thoughts,” says Yeon. “He worked with the historical tragedies that took place in Korea. Like this massacre that happened on the island [Jeju] and he spent quite a few years [there] and in other places… He is kind of traumatised by these events, so he… takes photos and processes the scene within his memory, and mixes his emotions with actual events that happened.”
When Yeon asks her mother, on the other hand, what period of his life Youngdre may look to change, she answers his teenage years. He was a boy who was repressed in his emotions and desires, she says.
(When she can’t sleep Mother herself goes back in time, she explains, by concentrating on a painting of an idealised version of her life that she created 30 years before, replete with butterflies, billowing dresses and blossom-laden trees. A care-free tableau. “I still live in the painting,” she says.”)
So the birthday scene is set, but in the end Yeon’s father doesn’t get to actually sample the machine. She is in California, he is in Korea and one suspects that the flimsy device would never survive the journey.
Nevertheless Yeon has set a process in motion and Youngdre feels ready to open up about his life, at which point the film shifts register.
Against a background of South Korean military archive footage from the 1970s and 80s, he offers a sobering, moving and thoughtful account of his past which, he confirms, was highly troubling. “I lived through a violent time. It has affected me tremendously to this day,” Youngdre admits.
He tells how at school, which was run along quasi-military lines, he was publicly beaten and humiliated for questioning the point of the choreographed exercises he was asked to perform with other pupils. Yes, he still dreams about that event, but doubts that going back in time would change anything, if indeed he would even wish to embark on such a journey.
“For me, as time passes the past comes into sharper focus,” he says. “Even though I have no control over the past I can change my relationship to it. The past is only one element of who I am.”
Adds Yeon: “Seeing the paintings he was working [on], I was speculating that he would have a lot to say. So his paintings became the medium for me to understand where he was going, and to know which questions to ask.”
“He also knew that I wanted something from him, so that kind of motivated him to talk more and talk about something that is important,” she continues. “It became a prompt for him to go to places he wouldn’t normally [go to] on his own. I think in a way the film became the time machine for us to talk about the past.”