Moon Is the Oldest TV revolves around Paik's childhood in Korea, going back to it while tracing Paik's success in New York and his rise as the world's most popular video artist - a reputation he still maintains today, 17 years after your death. This is not just a documentary about any artist, but a Korean-American one, and it is this specificity that gives Kim's film some importance in the crowded field of Paik studies.
June Paik's transition from concert piano to avant-garde performance art did not happen overnight. In the voice-over, actor Steven Yeun (Minari) reads a quote from Paik in which he says he feels his native Korea was “underdeveloped” during his childhood in the 1930s and 40s, with little access to avant-garde Western creations like Schoenberg. But when he arrived in West Germany in 1957, he encountered the experimental music of John Cage and David Tudor and learned what music - and, later, art - could really look like. Most documentary filmmakers would have started in the “underdeveloped” Korea that Paik spoke of, but Kim instead intertwines his upbringing in Korea with his struggles abroad. “Moon Is the Oldest TV,” which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, might at first seem like little more than a conventional artist doc, with the requisite interviews of artists like Marina Abramović and Park Seo-bo. Instead, Kim transforms Paik's life story into a more comprehensive statement about what happens to Asian artists living in the diaspora.
As Kim smartly points out, existing diasporically allowed Paik to remake himself to his liking. “I am a poor man from a poor country, so I have to entertain people,” he once said. But that, as his nephew Ken Hakuta points out, was not quite true. Paik's was descended from a wealthy and extensive family conglomerate. Born in 1932 in Seoul, he grew up wealthy and had opportunities few had at a time when Japan violently controlled Korea. His family fled their home country in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War, and Paik ended up studying at the University of Tokyo. However, by the time he arrived in the United States in 1964, Paik had become a Marxist and had begun to make the kind of art that was as unsaleable then as it is now. He lived in poverty for years, although success at the end of his career ensured his financial stability. In 1962, while living in Japan, Paik joined the fluxus group, who made the then radical gesture of attracting cheap and everyday objects to the field of art and performance, and began to think expansively about his art.
When artists like Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg filled rooms with bizarre installations composed of tires, trinkets and rubbish, Paik used TV monitors, whose images he turned into abstractions using magnets. TV was a new technology at the time, and Paik's was a new kind of art, so naturally it confused just about everyone. To many critics at the time, their concerts seemed like nothing more than rooms full of broken TVs. Here's how Paik once described his work involving television material: "I use technology to hate it properly." Consider this film a reminder that, other than Jean-Luc Godard, no other artist of the 20th century was better at talking about his work using one-liners.