In the aftermath of World War II, Korea split into two extremely divided autonomous nations: North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, and the US/UN-supported South Korea. Family members residing in the opposing regions never saw, or even communicated with, each other again. Tensions between the countries continues, as we see in the news every day. People can dream though. 9 at 38 tells the story of one such individual seeking to reunite the countries through music, even if only for a few minutes.
“…to perform the magnificent Ode to Joy…with South Korean musicians and a North Korean choir…”
Meet Hyungjoon Won, a Juilliard-trained violinist whose life’s work is to see the two sides come together with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which rests on the 38th latitudinal parallel and has separated the nations for over seventy years. Like most Koreans, his family was torn apart when the DMZ came into effect. He strives to perform the magnificent Ode to Joy on the contentious border with South Korean musicians and a North Korean choir. The event would take place on March 1, Korean Independence Day, when Korea declared independence from Japan in 1919. Fellow musicians and representatives from both governments show enthusiasm, but then an incident concerning North Korean mines on South Korean territory starts the domino effect that makes everything unravel. Musicians lose interest and government officials stop returning phone calls. When they finally reach the DMZ, the reality of Korea’s division comes to a head.
In just 17 minutes, director Catherine Lee not only documents this astounding attempt at reunification, she also reveals the toll it has taken on Hyungjoon Won. This isn’t the first time he’s tried it, and ultimately it has taken a toll on every aspect of his life. Yet he persists in the wake of mockery, apathy and politics.
“…failure is not a setback, so never give up on your dream…”
The film’s one drawback is that it is a short film. At feature length, it could both educate the West on Korean history and delve deeper into Won’s abject obsession. Of course, that would require more resources, which we all know are scarce these days. Regardless, Lee paints a compelling portrait that stays with you long after viewing while simultaneously depicting a war situation we in America always hear about but never see up close.
Ultimately, failure is not a setback, so never give up on your dream. Surrender is failure. Keep trying, no matter what.
9 at 38 (2018) Directed by Catherine Lee. Starring Hyungjoon Won. 9 at 38 made its New York premiere at Tribeca Film Festival.
4.5 out of 5 stars