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UNICA - the amateur film festival where nations compete - visited South Korea in 2006. Every UNICA festival is a mix of fun (outings and events) and films. For details of the films - click here.


Usually a UNICA festival lasts a week, but this time an optional extra was a week's tour. The offer was for two weeks in South Korea, including flights, accommodation in top-class hotels, a five-day tour, most meals and the UNICA Festival itself all for around £1700. Bookings were needed more than a year ahead, but the event promised a lot ... and boy was it a special trip! Each of the 23 British delegates will have their own memories of it ... these are some of mine ...

Day One

We left home at 8am, drove to Bristol and flew to Amsterdam where we began to meet fellow delegates. We had allowed plenty of time in Amsterdam and take-off for Korea was at 6.30pm. The long-haul flight itself lasted over 11hours. So though we reached Inchon airport at lunchtime, we had been on the move for more than 21 hours. We emerged to be greeted by Korean student volunteers and guided to the UNICA registration desk where we got the usual bag of information and goodies. What's more there were hundreds of UNICA friends there too. And it was hot. Very hot. And humid. Thank goodness for air-conditioned coaches.

Eventually we were shepherded into seven coaches and set off ... not for the hotel, but for lunch and some sight-seeing! We had our first Korean meal on the upper floors of a duty-free shop which specialised in Korean Ginseng. I was a bit too zonked to take much in but enjoyed greeting people. Then back to the coaches for a drive to Seoul itself which took an hour. There we stopped at the National Museum - an imposing modern structure which was delightfully light and welcoming inside. Here I had my first experience of dispensers which served up little envelopes of cool drinking water - not so much as our plastic cups hold, but much easier to dispose of and recycle.

The museum has an amazing collection of art and archaeological finds. It has a special place in Korean hearts because so much of their country was devastated by war in the last century that remnants of the past are not so readily found.

Jan Watterson and Romi van Krieken at airport.

Korean volunteer welcoming us at the airport.

Inside the Korean National Museum.

Inside the Korean National Museum.

Jan Watterson (UK) and Romi Van Krieken
(Netherlands) greeted by a student volunteer.
Susanne Sturzenegger (Swiss) at the National Museum.

Then we went to Insadong street market for a stroll round stalls selling fans, letter seals, paper, sweets, statuettes, jewelry, fruit smoothies and so on. It was blessedly free of hawkers and beggars pestering you as can happen in some countries. Then on to our evening meal ... and our first try at eating Korean style on tables only a few inches above the floor. We kicked off our shoes and folded ourselves down before trying the food. It was about 9pm and we still had not reached our hotel! Maybe that is what made it difficult to handle stainless steel chopsticks and to appreciate the joys of kimchi - a form of pickled cabbage in red-hot sauce which is a very popular Korean speciality.

A shop selling paper fans and postcards. Fruit drinks stall in the Insadong street market.

Jan Watterson, John and Jane Gibbs in the Insadong street market.

John Gibbs sitting on the floor for a Korean meal.
Insadong Street Market stalls with Jan Watterson and
Jane Gibbs (UK) seeking bargains.
John Gibbs (UK) at a low table
for the evening meal.

We finally got to the hotel about 10pm - around 30 hours after we set off from home - and collapsed. The Tower Hotel was very nice, but a handful of delegates were told the news no one wants on checking in: no room at the inn ... but we've booked you in at another place. With sinking hearts they let themselves be taken there ... only to find it was Seoul's most sumptuous hotel and that they were getting umpteen-star service at no extra charge.

Day Two

After a jolly breakfast with a mix of Korean and "international" cuisine we hopped into the coaches and set off for the old Royal Palace (Kyungbokkung) and the changing of the guard ceremony. This was an impressive performance and covered by around a hundred camcorders. 275 Europeans had made the journey, far more than had been anticipated when the idea of coming to Korea was first mooted. Most couples had at least one camcorder between them and some had two. The palace resembled the Forbidden City in Beijing with elaborate wooden buildings, brightly painted.

Large ceremonial drum. Ceremony of changing the guard. Val Ellis with camcorder. Richard Rouillard with camcorder.

Huge drums ("Ho-ko"). Their
sound symbolises the calling
name of Amida Buddha
that sounds throughout the ten
directions of the Universe

Changing the guard at the old royal palace.
Seoul is mainly a skyscraper city now with
23 million inhabitants - about 46% of the
country's population..

Val Ellis and Richard Rouillard record the scene.

We went on to visit Bongeunsa Temple (founded in 794) one of the few Buddhist temples in an urban setting. There we had remarkable freedom to look, film, touch and ask questions. We had lunch there and then visited a huge hall lined with hundreds of statuettes of Buddha. A friendly English-speaking monk explained to us all a bit about his daily routine and led us in a short mediation. We also enjoyed a formal tea ceremony there with a detailed explanation of the procedures. Among the special treats here was an all-girl band of Korean drummers playing energetically for the cameras.

Our next stop was a pause at Yongsan electromarket (the largest in Seoul) where some enterprising souls set off to buy bargain batteries and memory chips. The less resolute of us allowed ourselves to be diverted to a Dunkin' Donuts shop for sticky buns and hot chocolate. That evening we visited the Seoul Tower which offers panoramic views over the city. Among local couples it is a favourite place to "pop the question"so there were scores of young people twined round one another.

The all-girl Korean drum band. A formal tea ceremony. Paper lanterns. The Seoul Tower.

All-girl drum band.

The tea ceremony.

Lanterns with prayers attached.

The Seoul TV Tower.

Day Three

We packed our cases onto the buses for our time in Seoul was over. The morning visit was to a National Folk Village with buildings from various parts of South Korea brought together and restored. There were good explanations of rural life and society. We ventured over a river ford and thrilled to the acrobatic dancing of guys with long tails on their caps which make fascinating patterns. After a good look round we had lunch and headed off to the airport.

A horse in the folk village. Crossing a ford. Piper playing for dancing. A folk dancer.

Jane Gibbs, Jaak Jarvine and
Henry Metzger on the ford.

Long silk tassles on their hats make fantastic patterns
during the acrobatic "peasant dances".

The flight from Gimpo airport to Jeju Island went smoothly though it offered the only few minutes of cooling rain of the entire trip. Jeju is the southernmost island and something of a resort island for South Koreans. When we arrived there was time to make a quick excursion to see "dragon rock" before the evening meal. Korean meals tend to be similar: a cooking pot simmering on a gas ring on the table will have vegetables and pieces of fish or meat sizzling. Each person gets a bowl of sticky rice and another of cold soup. Then there is an array of dishes filled with pickles, vegetables, tofu and other garnishes. You mix it all up and do your best to eat it with Korean stainless steel chopsticks which are round in cross-section! In fact a spoon was usually available and restaurants would supply forks on demand. The Koreans love fiery tastes and a red sauce is always on hand - brave souls who try it also need a bottle of the good local beer to cool their mouths.

Then we headed for the hotel. Here we hit a problem - it was a tower block with only two public lifts and 300 of us arrived at the same time complete with luggage. Some of us sniffed out the service stairs and carried our bags up ... we needed the extra sleep time!

The Dragon Rock on Jeju Island. A good Korean meal set out for us. Nora Serra sitting down to a meal. Korean volunteer tour guides.

See the dragon's head?

An upmarket Korean meal.

Nora Serra (USA)

Jini and other student guides.

Day Four

This was the hottest day of all. We loaded up with suncream, spare shirts and hats - then off to the buses. In a hectic day we saw strange polygonal basalt rock columns, tried shellfish and silk grubs from street vendors, visited Samgemburi, a volcanic crater which has now greened up totally, had a peaceful couple of hours in Bunjaewon Park - filled with bonsai trees and sculptures and dedicated to world peace. Finally we climbed 500 steps up a volcanic outcrop in the sea, determined not to be outdone by Korean honeymooners who managed the ascent looking fresh and beautiful ... while we plodded up sticky, red-faced and panting. The soundtrack to all this was a cascade of insect buzzing which hit a crescendo then died away completely for several minutes before restarting.

Shellfish vendor. Basalt columns in polygon form. Silk worm grubs. Rolf Mandolesi climbs the hill.

Shell fish stall.

Natural rock formations.

Silk worm grubs
- taste of peanuts.

Rolf Mandolesi (Italy)
tackles the climb.

Day Five

We started early and the tour guide was slightly mystified when he apologised that we will only get a packed lunch to day, "just a sandwich" - and there was a great cheer from Europeans who had been deprived of bread for several days. The sandwich was good but few of us risked the sushimi (raw fish) dish packed with it. We made a brief visit to Dokkaebi Road which is what Scots call an "electric brae". The land makes it seem that the road slopes one way, when in fact it slopes the other. Balls, bottles and even cars set on it appear to roll uphill. It was very difficult to photograph though there were lots of willing camera people trying. Then we spent an hour at an arboretum which offered plenty of welcome shade from the fierce sun. Volunteers dished out bottles of cold water which we sipped while watching in amazement as Koreans jogged along the paths and exercised in open-air gyms among the trees - all the time wearing what looked like a full set of pyjamas and bee-keepers masks. We were told the latter helps stop them swallowing insects as they run!

Korean flower. Art sculpture in Bonsai Park. Korean jogger in full gear. Part of the outside of Hotel Inter-Burgo.
Not being a bonsai fan I pictured other parts of the garden. Just a jogger!

A short flight to the old imperial capital, Daegu, and we checked-in to the luxurious Inter-Burgo Hotel. This was very civilised and opulent, though alas we spent just one night in it. But what a night! It was the opening of the festival itself and was a spectacular event. The opening night and first day of the festival were staged there. Then we moved to Concorde Hotel in Kyongju for the rest of the week. It seemed on paper an odd idea but the Inter-Burgo was probably too expensive for the whole week. The Concorde was a good, comfortable hotel in a purpose-built resort town and at the end of the Korean holiday season offered a good deal.

Opening Night

The Inter-Burgo was huge, all marble floors, fountains, dark polished wood, deep plush sofas and attentive staff. The ground floor lounges included a grand piano, a pipe organ and a small stage where in the evening a young woman sang Western standards accompanying herself on guitar. Bizarrely there were also sherry casks, suits of armour and a museum of Spanish history - reflecting the taste of the hotel's Spanish owners.

The escalator to the banqueting suites passed under the most enormous chandelier, tv crews were working in the lobby interviewing people from many nations. Then we were greeted with a bow by Korean ladies in the Han Bo (traditional, colourful dresses), flower displays, and an ice-sculpture featuring the UNICA name before entering a vast ballroom set with tables. At the far side was a stage and above it three huge projection screens. There was a very professional MC for the evening. Though he only spoke in Korean his confidence and charm took us swiftly through formal speeches, the handing over of the UNICA flag and the entertainment. Mr. Chan Joo Chang, President of the Korean Visual Arts Association, and our host for the event, welcomed us. Max Haensli, UNICA President, replied. Then we were treated to displays of traditional Korean music. The event was covered by professional tv cameras and beamed to the screens so that everyone had an excellent view.

The Inter-Burgo Hotel giant chandelier. Flower arrangements in Hotel Inter-Burgo. Rolf Leuenberger interviewed for tv. Dave Watterson greeted by Korean ladies in traditional costume.
The huge chandelier. Floral displays. Rolf Leunberger (Switzerland)
does a tv interview.
Dave and some of the
Korean ladies.
Mr. Chan Joo Change, President of Korean Visual Arts Association. Mr. Max Haensli, President of UNICA. Traditional Korean flautist. Traditional Korean gong player.
Mr. Chan Joo Chang,
President of the Korean
Visual Arts Association
Max Haensli, UNICA President
- the livewire who encouraged
so many Europeans to attend.
Two of the musicians playing traditional instruments and
music - they were persuaded to do an encore
which is most unusual in Korea.

In the week of the film festival there were two planned outings and an extra one was organised for those not attending the UNICA AGM. During these outings we saw, among other things, the biggest statue of Buddha in Asia which is dedicated to the reunification of Korea and a traditional village much of which is a working community. The Closing Banquet included more music and dance, the prize presentations and ended outside the hotel with beer, dancing and fireworks.

Temple. Tombs. Church in Gyeongju folk village. Reunification Buddha.
Bulguksa Temple Chomsungdae Tumuli park -
tombs of emperors filled with
relics and treasures.
Church at Gyeongju Village, Reunification Buddha at Daegu.
About 25% Koreans are Christian, 25% Budhist,
1% Confucianist, 1% other and 46% unaffiliated.
Dancers with fans. Traditional percussion player with gong. Frank and Shirley Brown dancing. Fireworks at the closing ceremony.
Dancers and musicians gave lively, colourful
performances at the closing ceremony.
Frank and Shirley Brown (Scotland) danced on the terrace and
fireworks lit the sky above.

For details of the festival films click here.

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Page updated on 16 January 2011
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