I haven’t read The Hunger Games or the other books in the series, in part because I hadn’t caught much buzz but also just because I’ve been busy with other things. (The first book has been on my shelf about a year, as have many other books.) But I hadn’t heard much of the buzz, like I said, but it seemed like a potentially interesting North American, SFnal treatment of the Japanese film Battle Royale, so I thought we might as well give it a shot. When I heard there was a movie coming out — which was not long before it did come out, by the way — I got curious and Miss Jiwaku and I booked a ticket for the opening night, which I think in Korea was on Thursday night.
When the film began, I thought it was a well-made movie that would probably be interpreted as a bit too kiddie for Korean audiences. Miss Jiwaku had said she’d heard it was bad from a guy (who happens to be Korean-American) whom she knows from Indonesian classes in Jakarta, though my retort — “Yeah, and he takes off his pants in public when he’s drunk…” — summed up what I thought of his reaction. (The guy has great taste in food, but in movies, not so much.)
But when the first announcer showed up on stage in District 12, in her awful purple outfit with awful makeup and an awful purple flower in her hair, I knew a lot of people would instantly think of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, and both Depp’s and Helena Bonham Carter’s characters in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I suspected that the film would probably look pretty ridiculous to Korean audiences.
But of course, the Korean public’s taste in movies usually makes no sense to me anyway, and indeed, neither does the Korean public’s attitudes about makeup and fashion — which made me think a little more about the fashion of the Capitol and of the Districts of the film. The fashion in the two districts we glimpse — the home districts of Katniss and Rue – is very much recognizable to us, pretty much from the scattered memories we have of what poor people looked and dressed like during the Great Depression. This identifies the District kids as familiar, as underdogs, as poor, and as authentically like us in a way that contrasts with the fashion of the Capitol.
Which leads me to try imagine a modern-day source for the makeup and fashion of the Capitol. While it does remind me of the most cutting-edge fashions in Korea — men in makeup with very odd hair and an oddly feminized look about them, and women in horribly frilly, flowery, garish-looking outfits and heavy makeup — that perceived similarity is obviously quite idiosyncratic.
But I think the route to my idiosyncratic perception might be revealing: I am an outsider, a foreigner, a Westerner in Korea. That is to say, the fashion and makeup norms of South Korean culture are alien to me, and thus look more unusual (and sometimes discomfitingly weird) because they’re that of a foreign culture.
Of course, The Capitol and the Districts are supposed to be in one country, and pardon me for saying this but that country is pretty obviously readable as the USA. So if I were looking for two separate, alien cultures in the USA…
… well, they call it the culture war.
The reason I didn’t get it right away, of course, is that the film seems to root for the rural Midwesterner. The hero, the victim: it’s the kid from the countryside. The villains? It’s those decadent city folk, who dress all weird: the men wear makeup and are all oddly femmy or at least are able to be deeply fake and calculating (though they might, like Lenny Kravitz, be somewhat sympathetic, they’re still consummately fake and focused on appearance — he still has gold scare makeup on, after all, and dolls up Katniss in fake fire and skin-deep beauty), while the women of the Capitol seem to cake on their makeup and totter about in heels and horrid dresses. They dye their hair weird colors. They cheer at awful, horrible, evil spectacles in which poor underdog people are victimized.
Which is kind of how some Red State folk see some Blue State folk, isn’t it? The decadent, parasitic, exploitative, amoral monsters who dwell in the cities, who are dragging America down into the dirt, who are ruining the country, and who will, doubtless, come down hard on any poor, beseiged community of right-wingers who dares to challenge their rule of the country. Ironically, the right wing seems capable to seeing itself as victims even when the White House is in Republican hands… it’s an eternal motif.
Of course, there is that other reading that’s equally possible, the one that is likelier to come to Blue Staters when watching the film: that corruption and exploitation by a small overclass (the super-rich, or those whom the Occupy Movement seem to have convinced everyone to call the 1%) is forcing the masses into real poverty — in the inability to get proper health care, in the instability of life, in falling standards of living across the board, in the current economic recession itself. The Hunger Games would be an allegory of politics as played by the right wing, in this read, and the monstrosity of the city folk and of the world’s entertainers would suggest itself as an attack on the rise of right-wing media, of the cultural prominence of shills for the right. Katniss is your average kid who, like everyone she knows, is a victim of that consumptive and rapacious overclass which by the time of the film has utterly unwoven democracy and freedom and established a media-entertainment-police state; and since the uber-rich and powerful in America don’t go away when the President is a Democrat, this perception of the Right as oppressor and Left as victim never really goes out of fashion either.
What’s most discomfiting is how these two perspectives interact: as long as both Left and Right see themselves as victims, and the people of the Districts, as the kids thrown into the Arena of the Games, the people who run those Games on the most minute level — and who actually subscribe, in fact, to neither perspective — don’t need to worry about being cast out of power. After all, the kids from the Districts will keep on fighting against one another, and as long as they cling to the prefabricated enmities that have been provided for them, everyone will remain complicit with the system-as-it-is.
This is why I found the film The Hunger Games so fascinating: it’s a good movie, and it gives you a feeling that, at least provisionally, the protagonist has triumphed over an evil system. But it also paints a picture that can be interpreted as being the encapsulation of the two main points of view on the ground in the American culture war, and I just wish that the interchangeability of those two victim-identities, and their mutual sense of having been victimized by the other — but also their complicity with the system — had been made more clear in the film.
But then, I have no idea what the rest of the trilogy’s narrative does with this stuff — or indeed whether it is part of Collins’ narrative, or what I’m imposing on it — so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. (In the meantime, there are the books, I guess. When I am a little less busy, mind…)