A long time ago, director David Redman went to the National Library of France to inquire about Jikji, the first book in the world (that we know of) to be printed with movable metal type. Jikji predates the Gutenburg Bible by several decades, and yet nobody outside of Korean has ever heard of it. The obviously inherently interesting premise is no doubt how “Dancing with Jikji” was able to get funding, so it’s a bit disappointing that writer/director Woo Kwanghoon’s documentary is so…meandering.
For a sense of perspective, when “Dancing with Jikji” starts out, it seems like what we’re getting into is a story of academic indifference when it comes to Jikji. We do come back to that theme every so often. As attempts at research by the Jikji research team are frequently foiled by such villains as inaccurate information on the National Library of France’s website, as well as overworked, disinterested officials.
The possibility of politically motivated officials at the National Library of France is somewhat more interesting. Apparently the National Library of France has a lot of issues in general with how a lot of their foreign artifacts were straight up plundered from weaker countries as part and parcel of imperialism. This leads to the irony of how, even though the National Library of France claims to be protecting Jikji, it is actually not in their best interest to let anyone with possible political motivations look at it. And pretty much any Korean person has possible political motivations, unless they’re a non-academic dignitary who the French government wants to impress.
Of course, it must be noted that actually seeing the physical Jikji is not terribly relevant to the documentary’s overall purpose, which is research. The premise is, did Gutenburg get the idea of a movable printing press from Jikji? The problem with that idea being that such a premise is fundamentally unprovable, since there aren’t any accurate record from that long ago. One hilarious late stretch of “Dancing with Jikji” involves the documentary team realizing they can’t even prove that Gutenburg invented movable metal type at all. That’s how thin the information is, even if one significant breakthrough is made by the end.
But even broader historical knowledge is lacking. No one in “Dancing with Jikji” seems interested in explaining why movable metal type is important in the first place. Frequent late references to the Tripitaka Koreana do not mention that, impressive though it may be, the Tripitaka Koreana was made with wooden type, not metal type. So, what, the thesis is that the few Europeans who came to the Far East were aware that East Asian printing techniques were awesome, and talked about it in a line of people stretching all the way to Gutenburg?
While the idea is interesting the execution is way too scattershot. Evidence takes second fiddle to the adventures of David Redman and his crew, whose personal adventures are simply not all that important to the prompt. The Dan Brown style vibe created just serves to make their theory seem more dubious. The Korean title, Jikji Code, which comes from one of the documentary’s many casual conversations, only highlights these problems.
Review by William Schwartz
“Dancing with Jikji” is directed by David Redman and Woo Kwanghoon.
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