Talking Architect catches architect Jeong towards the end of his life. He is suffering from cancer and had recently had surgery. He lost his voice and speaks in a raspy whisper, often augmenting his voice with a microphone and speaker. But he is still running around giving lectures on architecture and is coordinating with a museum that is hoping to present an exhibit based on his life and works. The film also spends a little time revisiting buildings that Jeong designed both with and without him, presenting older video footage taken by and of him in the past, and interviewing both Jeong and his colleagues on Jeong, his philosophies, and architecture overall, including a round of takes on Zaha Hadid's futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
These asides help ground audiences in an understanding of the perspectives on architecture, showing that Jeong Giyong stands in a rare place in Korean architecture, focused specifically on working with the environment to find solutions to architecture problems. This results in his building a children's library around a tree rather than tearing out the tree and also in building stands around a field where the shade for the stands is actually provided by trees that have been guided to grow around a skeleton. And throughout all this, we listen to architect Jeong wax on philosophically about what he's been trying to do with architecture and how he's especially interested in how it organizes and solves spatial problems for people.
And Jeong Giyong is rather magnetic because of his solutions oriented approach and zeal for his work. Granted, this isn't a hagiography as it does show Jeong getting a little cranky about adjustments to his work, like the placement of solar panels near the aforementioned stands or on top of an elderly community center he designed, as well as in the later part of the film, getting a bit picky and ambitious about the museum exhibit, leading to some conflict with the museum and exhibit directors. And there is also the potshots taken by Jeong and his colleagues at Hadid's work, which does belie a bit of petty envy as it was certainly a huge contract.
But I think what helps make Talking Architect so compelling, aside from the earnest personality of architect Jeong himself, is how director Jeong investigates and observes him. While she does observe his interactions with the museum staff as the exhibit becomes a major part of architect Jeong's late story, in many ways we follow him in smaller moments as well, giving us a look at his character outside of architecture. This includes watching him take a bath at the community center he built, decide that he wants to go to lunch at a particular restaurant he likes, or playing back old home movies he took of a beach trip or riding in the car with his son. This the same natural observation that director Jeong used in Take Care of My Cat so effectively and it serves the documentary purpose well, filling in architect Jeong as more than just an architect, but as a human being.
And it's because of this dedication to fleshing in architect Jeong's character that I found myself moved when at the mid-point of the film, he reappears, dressed in a thick coat, sunglasses, and hat, disguising his hair loss likely from chemotherapy or radiotherapy and looking even more gaunt. And by the time we reach his final moments, which director Jeong was present for, I also felt a sense of loss like his family and staff nearby, as through this film, I felt like I had actually come to know the man.
Talking Architect's ability to make its audience know its subject as well as present his place in his profession so well is what makes it such a compelling biography. It feels natural and while director Jeong is usually simply a fly on the wall, she also has a few behind-the-camera conversations with architect Jeong during the film, helping us to realize the relationship without making herself a subject. This adds an element of personal viewpoint here, helping us to be reminded that documentaries are not objective, but subjective and that we are seeing what director Jeong finds so interesting and fascinating about architect Jeong. And after watching Talking Architect, I have to thank Jeong Jaeeun for sharing with me her perspective on this admirable Korean architect. 9/10.