You may already know this, but although I am writing the final day of this road trip sometime in February, this entire trip happened over July and August of last year. I stopped posting real time posts during the road trip when I made it to Jeju around day 16 and simply didn’t have the motivation to do it as I traveled longer and longer distances. Nonetheless, my excitement for this, the last day of the trip was so great that I did write up a long post about it on my Instagram. This more or less will be an extended version of that post. It is fitting that this day stats in Jeonju as this story starts here too, way back in May, 2019 during the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF).
Sit down…this is going to be a VERY long post
The Breathing of the Fire (불숨)
Since my first JIFF a few years back, I’ve made it a point to return yearly to Korea’s best film festival (sorry BIFF). Every year, weeks before the event, Sid and I look through the entire catalog, and pick our “must see movies.” One film that I was excited to watch was called the “Breathing of the Fire.” This documentary is a fascinating tale about Cheon Han-Bong, considered to be the greatest master potter of Korea.
Cheon has produced pottery in the “common man” style for decades. That in itself has an interesting history. While Korean historians were great at recording pottery meant for royalty like the celadon mentioned in the last post, pottery meant for the common man was deemed unimportant and never even got mentioned formally in the record books. According to the film, there are zero Korean books written on the craft during the Joseon era (1392-1897). Thankfully, the Japanese became quite fascinated with it when they conquered Korea in 1911 and to this day, more books have been published in Japanese than in Korean about this Korean style of pottery. Like any good documentary though, the intrigue lies in the characters, not the dry facts.
Master Han-Bong had aspirations to pass the craft down to his only son. Pottery is traditionally a male practice after all. Unfortunately, his son died in an accident when he was college aged and his only other child was female. His daughter, Cheon Kyunghee, also loves the craft and has spent her entire life trying to live up to her father’s expectations. Trying to break into a male dominated industry is one thing, but trying to do so when your greatest critic is considered the best at the craft is quite another. The dynamic between the two and her everlasting strength as well as her quibbles with her dad are quite fascinating.
Another main plot point is Cheon Han-Bong’s quest to replicate what is considered by the Japanese to be a masterpiece of the craft, a pretty ugly looking lopsided bowl. One thing Cheon discovered in his multi-decade attempt is that it is much easier trying to replicate perfection than purposefully seeking imperfection. He does, however, find out the current location of the bowl which he thinks may inspire him to finally get it ‘right.’ After years of requests, he is finally allowed to visit the shrine in Japan where it is being held.
The film finishes off with Cheon Han-Bong’s quest of replication still in process. However, after many years of practice, Cheon Kyunghee ensures that the family line will continue for at least one more generation as she becomes the first female master potter of this craft.
Tracking Down Master Cheon
I am not sure why, but I felt like I had to meet this guy. At the very least, I would be satisfied to see his workshop from a distance and admire it like
stalker devoted fan. However, seeing how this was a relatively new documentary on a fairly unknown practice screening in a rather minor festival, it wasn’t an easy task. English searches, as expected, produced nothing. With Sidney’s help, however, we did manage to find a single Naver Blog (Kinda like Korean Blogger) of a Korean who had the same idea and did manage to meet him. There weren’t many details, but it did have the address of his house.
When I woke up in Jeonju very early that morning and strolled through the hanok village right before sunrise, I knew that this was to be my last day. I grabbed my coffee using my hostel’s 20% discount (irrelevant detail) and started up the car. It was around 3 hours to Mungyeong so I knew I had time to chicken out if I approached and thought it was a bad idea. Besides, it was on the way to Seoul and I was just about ready to wrap up this trip. Three hours later of singing in the car and talking to myself, I decided to go for it and approached his house. After a couple of wrong terms and GPS malfunctions, I approached a rather large complex with an old man chilling in a pavilion outside. It was him, Master Cheon himself!
The Master’s Workshop
I didn’t really know if it was cool to just roll up and park in his house, but I thought it would be less creepy to make my intentions known right away. Mustering out all of the Korean I had picked up over the last few years, I tried my best to explain that I had seen his documentary, had seen him in Jeonju after the screening, and I was very interested in visiting his workshop. I really didn’t know what would happen next. Old people can be a wildcard of super grumpy or extremely nice. The documentary prepared me to expect the former, but thankfully, the latter was true.
He was a bit hard of hearing (he is like 80) but when he understood why I was there, he turned around and yelled “Kyunghee! Kyungee! we have a visitor.” His daughter comes out quickly to see what is going on. I explain to her that I saw the documentary and was fascinated with their craft. She thanked me for coming and asked if I would be interested to see the museum and have some tea. I agreed. Next to their house is a small museum with some ancient pottery he has collected over the years and all of the awards he has received. He has a medal from the last five presidents honoring his craft. It was all very impressive, but given my favorite part of the documentary was their daughter-father interaction, to me the most interesting thing was the plaque commemorating her as a master potter as well.
We had some chit chat and I decided to get myself one of his cups as a souvenir. At 30,000 a pop, these things don’t come cheap, but his daughter was kind enough to throw in a second cup for free. He mentioned that he almost never gets any visitors on weekdays but on weekends, he is definitely busy with guests. The majority of his visitors are from Japan, but from time to time, he does get people from other countries. What is striking is that Koreans almost never come as they simply aren’t interested.
After a further tour of the kiln itself (where most of the film takes place) and the storage facilities, I gave my thanks and parted ways. I made it into Seoul just in time for rush hour, but even the 15 or so cars who cut me off in Gangnam couldn’t dampen my mood. My 3000km road trip was over and it had ended on a very high note.