7광구 (Sector 7) — Setting Korean SF Back Decades

This entry is part 47 of 66 in the series SF in South Korea

If you want the short version of my reaction: skip this movie, pretend it was never made, save yourself some money and some disappointment — that is, if you have a half a brain and actually like SF.

Sector 7 is shot amateurishly, it is badly acted by almost the whole cast — and since at least some of the cast can act, I suspect it’s badly edited and badly directed; the budget was mostly used creating CG for a rather unimaginative monster; it was derivative of The Host (괴물), the Alien series (especially Aliens; it was badly written; it had the aesthetics of a Korean TV show on the big screen; and it was plain insulting to the intelligence of its intended audiences, not only Koreans but also those audiences abroad for whom a poster has already been designed. (I’ve got it in the extended post, below.)

A more thorough critique is below, as well as a discussion of the film in the context of what I’ve said about Korean SF films in general. But the short capsule review is: it repeats many of the mistakes of the 

In 2002, the year I arrived in Korea, SF cinema in Korea was undergoing a crippling attack… from within. Three movies were made around that time: The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2001), 2009: Lost Memories (2002), and some other 2002 film I’ve forgotten that was less SF and more dark-fantasy/adventure.

These three films bombed, none more spectacularly than The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, a record-setter for budget and for failure. The net effect was to set back the interest in making SF films, and even blockbuster-type films in general, for a few years, as Jinhee Choi discusses in her book.

7광구 is bad enough to remind me of those days. It has me worried that the Korean film industry will shy away from SF films, rather than shying away from the movie’s awful director and, (probably, to whatever degree this film is their fault too, the people who wrote the script).

The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl also set several other specific trends which apparently plague Korean SF cinema even today, as Sector 7 (7광구) clearly demonstrates. In my recently published paper on the subject (which is in the current Acta Koreana, for those interested), I argued that some there are three specific problems that affect most Korean SF films.

  1. Lack of Generic Fluency & the Trope Salad Sydrome: Directors, screenwriters, producers, etc.  either don’t know the genre well enough to do an SF narrative justice, regard it as dumb kid stuff, or, more alarmingly, imitate canonical (ie. foreign) SF without actually getting the point. In the worst case, SF is a random grab bag of crappy tropes to be mixed and matched.
  2. Anxieties of History, Postcoloniality, and Identity: Mainstream ethnonationalist revisionist historiography is so powerful in Korean popular culture that in many SF films, SFnal conceits and speculation itself play second fiddle to the demands of this — inherently conservative, anti-radical, anti-other, anti-critical, and even downright anti-speculative in some subjects — that it makes the kjinds of questions, speculations, and inversions common in SF impossible.
  3. Anxiety of Influence: Media SF in Korea is usually experienced as foreign culture; there are specific anxieties about the source cultures — Japanese and American — which are exacerbated by the place those nations have in popular Korean conceptions of history, but there also seems to be a deeper distrust towards (and repudiation of) the speculative in SF which runs through many SFnal movies.

All three of these problems apply strongly to Sector 7, to differing degrees. The speculative elements are plain stupid: the background story behind the monster, especially, leaves one boggling — to the tune of explaining that one has developed an antigravity technology powered by goodwill and salt. The reworking of source material — this film clearly attempts to riff on The Host and on the original Sigourney Weaver-featured Alien series, though I’d swear other set-pieces riffed on other films as well — is generally poor, predominantly because Sector 7‘s monster fails to effectively serve as a metaphor for anything at all, let alone the oil business, the way The Host metaphorized the socioeconomics of poverty and disempowerment within the context of Korean development and the Aliens in the Alien series represented the horrors of maternity, nature out of control, and so on.

Likewise, the makers of Sector 7 seem to have failed to grasp what was evident even in the weakest of the Alien movies, and bluntly obvious in The Host — and which the inestimably wise Chris Kammerud recently put it to me as a central message of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well: that when we fight monsters, we also discover how monstrous we ourselves are. In the Alien films, Ripley grows less and less human; the commonalities between Gang-du and the monster in The Host are widely-commented on; and brash though the horrors are in Buffy’s high school life, she is at times brutal, dehumanized, and horrified at what she sees in herself. In Sector 7, there is none of that: the film lacks metaphorical depth, and the primary reason is the characters.

Oh, and of course, there’s an intellectually incoherent milksop to ethnonationalists — those are de rigeur in bad SF films out of South Korea, of course — at the end, where there’s something about how Japan and Korea were both drilling in that spot, Japan stopped, and then Korea had to continue… or those evil, wily Japanese would move in again. Or something. I hardly cared enough to pay attention to the milksop at the end, as the film didn’t even present to relate to energy issues, global warming, fossil fuels and their non-renewability, global dimming… no, it was just about a monster on an oil rig. Period.

(It could easily have been a metaphor for nuclear power, mind you: in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima plant, in the light of Korea’s continued installation of many, many nuclear power plants, the film could have been about human-designed energy sources going out of control — about nuclear disaster and its horrors, or about the horrors, likewise, of continuing to rely on oil in a world where oil is choking our skies and helping push climates out of equilibrium, raising the seas, and so on. Who knows — some of that may even have been in the first draft of the script… I don’t know, but it certainly isn’t a part of what ended up on the screen. All we ended up with, in the end, was some vaguely ominous anti-Japanese jingoism.)

Meanwhile, anxieties of influence are profound for this movie, as well they should be. The film is so derivative that, in fact, specific moments from the final battle in The Host are recapitulated in it. (I was wondering why the character facing down the monster had a pole in hand, and went, “Oh, no, don’t…” — because, yes, the scene is quite reminiscent of the final battle in The Host, except of course there’s no family drama, no community, just an old man with a pole and a lighter being stupid, heroic, or both.) But the film also refers, quite unmistakably, to the Alien series of films, and Ha Jiwon’s character is clearly supposed to be a sort of Korean equivalent of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley.

The problem isn’t that Ha’s character, whose name I forgot — yeah, that’s telling — has a girlier side that Ripley doesn’t. The problem is that there’s nothing in between that girly side, the side that cries and gets cutesy and turns all soft and pink and gooey or screams in pain while getting stitches when it suits the lazy storyteller, and the side that is supposed to be tough as nails — saving the oil rig operation, taking a potentially serious injury to save others’ lives, racing her potential love interest around the deck of the oil rig on a motorbike.

(The scene is notable and memorable not for its coolness, but for the awful green-screen work: it’s obvious the motorbike stuff was shot in studio, and then SFXed onto the rig — about as obvious as the claymation in the original Clash of the Titans, I mean. It looks like a cheap local-TV affiliate homemade advertisement for Uncle Chulsu’s Scooter Barn. Seriously — it was embarrassing. I have a feeling that this scene was what Ha Jiwon was thinking of when she reportedly cried after seeing the premiere screening of the film.)

I’ve complained that Ha’s character had basically no substance, but this only is especially notable because she is supposed to be the interesting character of the film: the same is true for all of the other characters. The characterization mainly consists of a series of inversions: the dude who is composed and cool at the beginning (played by Park Chulmin) loses his shit pretty quickly when things get messy; the nasty-mouthed, annoying shithead guy whose pronouncements for the first hour of the movie are mostly the same bloody line — “E saekiya!” (approx. “You fucker!”), which he says, in various variations, about twenty times in the first third of the film — becomes the weepy, terrified loser.

Not one of these characters was remotely relatable. Not one. No, not even that one.

Oh, and there’s a “scientist”  (some girly in a white lab coat) who dies pretty quickly. I don’t remember when the scientist guy dies, but it must be early on too. I didn’t care about him either. It’s necessary they died early, because if they’d have survived, they would have spent the rest of the movie pointing out how everything that follows her death is scientifically impossible: the little fishies from the depths of the ocean that are a new source of (ahem) energy, as in, they’re highly flammable and, like a pyromaniac’s dream of the Energizer Bunny, just keep burning and burning. Such as the monster these little fish become, somehow engineered by one scientist chick and her male scientist boss (of course he’s her boss) and some petroleum engineers into a creature with legs and a (relatively, compared to your average Seoul subway passenger) highly evolved sense of how to walk around? How did they manage to evolve the creature that way? Uh, ask the sci… oh, right, they’re dead. Well, maybe the oil rig workers had minors in Renewable Energy-Providing Monster Design and Genetic Engineering?

Most annoying among the characters is the standard, obnoxious and hyper-exaggerated “loser” character… the character type which strikes me as the laziest in Korean media, and a very common one — the 왕따 or “outcast.” In this film, the outcast character is a clownishly weird roughneck who has a hopeless crush and who simpers, snivels and clowns until you are ready to sign up for Roughneck University yourself just for the chance to kill him. He’s also stupid enough to get himself bitten in the face by a phosphorescent deep-sea fish that was safely stowed in a tank. Thank goodness that character took very little time to die — he’s next after the scientist chick.

The least hateable character is the boss who shows up about twenty minutes into the film, and whom everyone seems to love way more than people ever really like their bosses. (When he turns up on the rig, things devolve into a cutesy greeting (puke!) followed by a drawn-out pseudo-characterization scene, where people eat and get drunk and then compare their scars… in other words, they hold an MT, and he is talked into extending the operation of the rig for a few more months because Ha Jiwon’s character really wants to strike oil there, and it would have meant so much to her dad. Geological engineers? Renewed survey drilling? Eh? We don’t need no stinkin’ science! Sentimentality is what makes the film go round… Of course, in the end, he turns into the most-hateable character in the film because the whole stupid conflagration is his fault: greedy businessman that he is, he engineered the monster on purpose. Oh, I am so surprised.

(Don’t worry, he dies too.)

On the characterization, I think the closest experience I’ve had in Korean cinema to this film was Haeundae (2009) in that I was, to be honest, happy every time a character died, and my primary annoyance was when one or another character evaded death, however temporarily. (Aside from a very few: I found the characters in that film almost universally unlikeable, aside from Ha Jiwon’s.) I didn’t care about any of the stick-figurey characters in this film, and worse, I actively disliked them: I hate the clownish loser; I hate the skinny smartmouth guy who cusses all the time; I hate the “cool”-headed guy who’s been on the rigs for years; I hate the woman who jumps from toughie to cutie in two seconds flat. Perhaps it’s that these Korean-styled archetypes grate for me; but it’s also that these characters are nothing more than archetypes, like cardboard cutouts flapping in the wind. I cared for not a single character, and not one was really sympathetic. Not one.

It’s difficult for me to express my disappointment with this film. When The Host was released, it sent a message: SF could be timely, political, and meaningful; it could embrace issues in the recent past, and address issues — like the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the empowered elites and the rest of Korean society — that mean something to Korean audiences. Indeed, The Host proved not only that such a film could be a hit, but that SF could be a powerful tool in expressing criticism within a social context where those who control the arena of discourse — the government — has limited power to control or suppress.

What Sector 7 represents is not just an absolute lack of understanding of, or respect for, that lesson. It represents an attempt to set Korean SF back not just to 2001, but all the way back to 1967… yeah, to the days of Yonggary, when a film didn’t need any deeper meaning, or figurative significance; where characters could be thin as newsprint paper, and plots could be mainly built on the idea that spectacle is all you need.

Well, that might have worked in 1967, but it’s not going to work now — not even in Korea, where audiences are used to TV content completely lacking in political critique, where these kinds of thin character archetypes and hackneyed stories are far from uncommon. The buzz on the net is bad… really, really bad.

Those hastily drawn-up movie posters made in English, for marketing to America? Um… I wouldn’t pay to have them printed up in mass quantities just yet.

Films like these make me really, really want to tell film producers a few simple rules that will help avoid the waste of money that films like this represent. Hell, in fact, I think I will post such a list. Tomorrow…

For now: save your money. See something else. Don’t support this travesty of SF… even the bug sucks in this bughunt.

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2 thoughts on “7광구 (Sector 7) — Setting Korean SF Back Decades

  1. I think The Host (as fun as it was), was actually a very misogynist film. A girl gets eaten by a giant, monstrous vagina, then the father stabs the vagina with a big penis, and a little boy emerges — and in the end, everyone is happy.

    Glad I missed Sector 7. I have yet to meet an s/f filmmaker in Korea who knows anything about s/f. Which can be a strength, if you are a good enough artist (like Bong Joon-ho). But too many of these rubes are not.

    And last I heard, Park Kwang-hyun’s follow-up film to Welcome to Dongmakgol (“Fist”, a very derivative, childish s/f film) is back on track, and might actually start filming soon. Ugh.

  2. Noah,

    Well, I see what you mean, and when you put it that way, it’s a convincing summary. My reading (that the monster is a representation of the dark, hidden, ignored side of the Miracle on the Han) links up with this in that females, especially female children, were “consumed” by the system in particularly pernicious ways, including the sex trade. What that does to your reading, if they’re combined, I’m not sure, though it seems to me the whole Miracle on the Han (and the contemporary discourse surrounding it) are even now very sexist: talk of a Great Man saving Korea, and so on.

    I’m not surprised that you’ve not met a Korean film director who knows anything about SF, given the lack of popularity the genre suffers here. And that artistry can overcome this handicap or even make it an asset. But yes, it’s good you missed this film.

    As for a sequel to Welcome to Dongmakgol, one can only hope lightning strikes the set, ruining the project and freeing all participants to do something that isn’t, well, dog crap.

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