… is the name of the last movie I saw (imdb | excellent review). It was a title I’d run across before but never happened to pick for watching, but Lime and I are getting to the point where we’ve seen many of the films we wanted to see at our regular DVD-room house, so we asked the girl running the front desk whether it was a good movie. She replied, enthusiastically, that it is, in her opinion, the best Korean movie ever, and that it was sad that it couldn’t have gotten a little more funding so that it could have looked as brilliant onscreen as it was conceptually.
Now, if you look at the viewer reviews at the IMDb, you’ll come to the conclusion that most people would either love this movie, or hate it. I think that’s probably the case.
The film treats the idea genre as a kind of caricature treatment in itself. It runs the gamut from SF, thriller, pulp homage, comedy, to straight-out gorefest, murder, and even social criticism. No, no, not the images of the Nazis… that was just shorthand a reminder that, yes, humanity is in fact a brutally violent species at times.
No, the social criticism seemed to me to be focused one particular question: how do the people who have power over our lives come to have that power, and how do we evaluate how and when to seize it back? Some might thing that this is a socialist’s question, but it’s equally a question underlying democracy, or any other modern politics you can think of. Hell, it’s just a basic question within the human condition, because humans have always had leaders, and the mass of humans have always had at least reconcile themselves to the rule of leaders they did not necessarily choose.
There are two examples of this in the film. Firstly was the corrupt power of corporations. The businessman character in the film, who is apparently responsible for the protagonist’s mother’s comatose state, says at one point, “I paid you enough money already,” or something like that. Imagine, being responsible for basically killing someone’s mother, and then telling him to go away because you feel, having given him money, that you have fulfilled any obligation you have to him for the action. Later, the same businessman outright kills her in an unnecessarily cruel act of deception. While the obviously insane protagonist is unarguably sick for torturing the businessman as he does, there’s another, often not noted sickness in the mind of the businessman for whom the lives of others really are nothing more than playthings, tools to be used to achieve certain personal and corporate goals. That this comes out of Korea, a society in which businessmen are sometimes caught out doing such thingsthe garbage dumplings scandal still sits in popular memory, though rather far to the back of it, I think. But anyone who can sell garbage to people as food, who can use substandard building materials that risk the collapse of a structure, who can be so greedy as to avoid paying his taxes when those very taxes hold up the infrastructure of the society that has made him rich, that person is in a very real sense an alien to his society. And so I think that with some rightful cause, outside of right-wing circles, there’s a grudging admiration of chaebols, but I think there’s also a great deal of unspoken (and perhaps spoken) resentment. I’ve particularly heard this in Jeolla province, which according to the IMDb is the director’s home province. (In fact, he’s from the city where I now live, Jeonju! What a small world…)
Secondly, I’m sure a lot of people will view the kind of violence that the protagonist goes through as exaggerated, and of course in some ways it could be said to be so; but I have spoken with people whose experience in lifeaside from the death of a father via a cocktail umbrellawere comparable to what we see in the movie. A student being beaten in class, undergoing police brutality, feeling lingering resentment toward the teacher and other authority figures who abused him… the only thing missing was a brutal experience in military, like that of one of my ex-students who spoke movingly of how he went crazy in the army, being beaten by his superior for receiving a love letter from his girlfriend, and then, later, after he was promoted, beating his own inferiors for equally spurious reasons. The violence shown from the protagonist’s upbringing, I think, is not so far-fetched certain unfortunate people of the right age and socioeconomic background. The fact that the character went insane from it, in the peculiar way he did, is the exaggeration, but one fitting to a movie.
The insanity of the protagonist, in fact, is interesting because it’s basically a kind of response to the basic human question I posited above: how do we evaluate those who have power over our lives, and how ought we to react when we decide these particular people are unworthy of that power? How do we respond to authority when authority seems unjust? When we believe that it has wronged us personally?
The movie is, in one sense, a comedic case study of what not to do. In real life, as we all know, it would not do to construct an absolutely insane mythos of alien-invasion, to kidnap a prominent businessman, torture him with steam-emitting dildoes and menthol sticks; it would not do to kill cops hunting for his kidnapper, or to feed the bodies of anyone who ever wronged you to your dog. And yet, we give the man who does all of these things our loyalty, as viewers; he clearly is the protagonist, if a flawed one, and if his mind is obviously a mess, we sense somehow that his heart is in the right place.
Even the director gives in to this feeling, in the twist at the end of the movie… a twist which suggests that even the crazy person, who is wrong in so many ways, can actually also, at the same time, be fundamentally right about the way of the world, the state of affairs on Earth, the kinds of dangers and perils which we face.
I suspect there is one more twist which the audience is supposed to feel, after the end of the movie, where they realize that the twist at the end was a false twist, that the powers-that-be whom we so often complacently accept aren’taliens, in fact, they are fellow humans, as flawed and potentially cruel and insane as any one of us. I can’t be sure that this is the director’s intended meaning, and to some degree I suspect he’d say I’m reading too much into the movie, but it feels true about this film.
The movie contains horror, and it is more horrific when you realize it’s a funhouse-mirror reflection of the real world. The movie contains comedy, and it’s even funnier when you realize that the insanity the man has been swept up by is one of anti-authoritarianism, an insanity we all secretly, a little bit, share in. The thriller element is as much about our fear of being caught ourselves, siding with the kidnapper, as it is about our worrying him being caught. The SF in this movie is a set of trappings, trappings that are flimsy and easily discarded, and all the better for it because when we discard them, we can see that the film is actually about the real world, and the secret, private politics of living in a power-stratified society, which in a way could be a simple definition of the basics of human existence.
And I’m sure most people who know this film will think I’m reading it completely wrong, and that’s fine too. But I must heartily disagree with anyone who pans this movie. It’s a work of brilliance, one of the best Korean films I’ve seen, and I only hope that the poor showing at the box office doesn’t prevent the director, Jun-hwan Jeong, from securing more opportunities to direct films of his own devising. Perhaps he shall find a niche in the independent area, as Hong Sang-Soo has successfully done.