By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – Before filmmaker Humphrey Leynse came to work at Washington State University in 1970, he made the movie of his dreams. The subject was a remote island 180 miles east of the Korean mainland in the Sea of Japan/East Sea: Ulleung-Do.
“Out There, A Lone Island” and more than 50 other documentaries he filmed of Asian peoples, cultures and countries in the 1950s-60s are part of a collection in WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC).
Donated in 1979 by his wife, Judith, the collection is the center of a new collaboration between the university and South Korea’s Dokdo Museum, as well as an inaugural film festival planned at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 19, in WSU’s Goertzen Hall, Room 21.
Beauty on the edge
As beautiful as Ulleung-Do was to Leynse when he saw it for the first time, the tenuousness of life there fueled his imagination more.
“The natural beauty is what impresses the visitor so profoundly, but to those who live there – some 20,000 Korean fishermen and their families – it is how to stay alive on this beautiful rock,” he wrote in an article in The Korea Times in 1964.
“To me, the steep mountain peaks and deep valleys remind me of Switzerland, its blue waters of a Pacific island and the rock formations of a wild dream,” he wrote. “To the fishermen, it is a place of utter isolation, fogbound and windswept, where one can reap a killing when the fish are running right – or slowly starve to death without anyone knowing about it.”
Cultural immersion through film
The son of Presbyterian missionaries from Holland who settled in China, Peking-born Leynse learned to speak Dutch and Mandarin Chinese before English. He studied French and Indonesian, and his talent for languages served him well during the three years he spent in the Philippines and New Guinea in World War II.
He finished his education after the war, then held foreign service jobs for the U.S. government until 1957 when he started making films for the U.S. Information Service. The job took him to Djakarta, Indonesia and Seoul, Korea.
For USIS and later his own company, Oceania Productions, he filmed documentaries that immersed viewers in many aspects of Asian culture at that time: native dance, sumo wrestling, cock fights, cattle races, firecracker packaging, opium smuggling, living in a lighthouse and the Korean April Student Revolution of 1960, among others.
WSU student Joo-Hwa Jin, who works with the Leynse Collection in MASC, was so impressed with the Korean documentaries that he began organizing a film festival on the Pullman campus to showcase Leynse’s work.
The festival on Sunday will feature four films – “April Student Revolt Korea 1960-1,” “April Student Revolt Korea 1960-2,” “Ask Me!” and “Liberty News #352” – as well as a guest speaker, Hye-Kyong Shim of Korea University in Seoul.
“The Humphrey Leynse Collection is very important because in the 1950s and 1960s the Korean film archiving system was very poor,” Jin said. “There are very few documentaries and films that exist.
“It’s also important from the perspective of what American foreign policy was toward Korea and how the diplomatic service tried to promote democracy in Korea,” he added. “The collection has historical significance for both countries.”
A lone island
Despite the success Leynse enjoyed with USIS, he resigned from the agency in 1966 and took Judith and their 6-week-old son, James, to Ulleung-do to film “Out There, A Lone Island.” Over nearly two years, the family experienced the same isolation and hardships the islanders had endured for generations.
Leynse recorded in snapshots a way of life unimaginable to Westerners: Rough-hewn huts with roof slats weighed down by rocks to withstand the constantly blowing winds. Winters with so much snowfall that islanders had to tunnel their way out. Korean women diving into the cold sea every spring for seaweed, a dinnertime staple. Korean men going out in boats on summer nights to fish for squid, the mainstay of the island’s income. And, inevitably, beginnings and endings marked by traditional weddings and funerals.
No vehicles existed on the island, and the only transportation between Ulleung-do and the mainland was provided by a ferry, “The Blue Dragon,” that carried humans, squid and island cattle alike on an irregular schedule dictated by weather and ocean.
Filming the ‘essence of life’
“I was the director-cameraman, my wife was the critic-in-residence, the islanders, none of whom had ever seen a camera before, were the ‘cast,’” Leynse wrote in another article for The Korea Times after the film was produced in 1968. “It took 10 months just to accustom ourselves to the symbiotic relationship.
“All I did was to tell the truth as I saw it, with as much warmth as I could find in it,” he wrote. “And it is this feeling of complete saturation with a place that I strove to capture on film. Perhaps it will provide too much familiarity for some. But ‘Out There, A Lone Island’ is of the essence of life.”
The film won several awards and gained exposure with showings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, American Film Festival and Ethnological Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History, all in New York City.
But marketing the film to a wider audience proved difficult. Leynse found an academic job instead.
From Korea to Pullman
When Leynse joined the faculty of the WSU Department of Communications, as it was called in 1970, he introduced film studies to the university community by developing a program of cinema instruction as part of WSU’s mass media curriculum.
He taught courses on film criticism, scripting and documentary filmmaking, including “Masters of the Cinema,” which covered such cinematic greats as Frank Capra, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. He helped produce one of the area’s most popular radio programs, “Moviegoers,” written by students in his film criticism classes. He also taught a course on Asian society through Asian films.
Leynse died in 1977, the result of a brain tumor. He was 56.
In November, officials from the Dokdo Museum and the local government of Ulleung-do met with WSU representatives to form a partnership, giving each institution access to materials at the museum and MASC and opening the way to shared research, education and training. Among the visiting dignitaries was James Leynse, who had spent the first two years of his life on the island.
In 2012, James Leynse, a professional photographer, was invited back to Ulleung-do. He found the return “quite moving, wandering in the harbor in the morning.”
A woman approached him and starting speaking excitedly. He later learned the woman babysat him when he was an infant, and she recognized him. Or she recognized his father in him.
“It was such a warm connection,” he said.
He knew that his parents built a house on the island before filming started on the documentary. He also knew that his father kept a journal, which James Leynse still has. He recalled reading many passages about “The Blue Dragon” and his parents waiting for the ferry to come to the island.
“I was impressed with how much of an undertaking it was, how much they sacrificed,” he said. “I think it was a big moment. They were recently married. It was a new beginning for both of them.”
During his visit, “Out There, A Lone Island” was screened at the Dokdo Museum to a full house.
“A lot of people remembered my parents when they were filming,” James Leynse said. “It had never been screened there. I think they found it really touching.
“It was kind of completing a circle, to fulfill his dream of bringing the movie to the world,” he said. “It’s my movie too, and it was my mom’s movie. She lived it too.”
To see a USIS tribute film to Leynse, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Egr3rLBGEKg.