I just saw the best Korean movie I’ve seen in years, a biopic about Park Kyung Won — the first civilian female Korean aviator — but before I talk about that, I want to tell a story which might help explain why I think so highly of the film.
I have many excellent students. By excellent, I mean intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, and compassionate. I mean hardworking and relatively critical-minded. One of my moist outstanding students — someone who’s been abroad, who’s got an excellent handle on English, who gets Western culture just that little bit better than her classmates, in a way that you can tell she’s been abroad, you know what I mean? Well, that student shocked me a few weeks ago.
We were discussing the Romanization of her name, meaning, the way that she writes her name when using roman letters, or, as most students say, “in English”. She told me that she’d recently changed it from the spelling she’d previously used for years.
“Why?” I asked her.
“Because there’s a Japanese name that’s the same, and the spell it the way I used to spell mine. And I didn’t want the same spelling as the Japanese,” she said, grimacing at even having to mention the Japanese. “So I changed it.”
“But… don’t some Japanese people also spell it the way you spell it now? There’s no regular system in Japan for names, is there?” She didn’t have much of an answer to that, or to why she disliked Japan so much. And the discouraging part is that, well, I didn’t really expect one from her.
You see, it’s approaching the point now, in Korea, or maybe it long ago reached it, where rational discussion of Japan and the Japanese — a whole nation of people, mind you — is not really possible in public. Anything resembling a rational discussion gets shot down by netizens, gets attacked by the public, or, failing that, gets ignored.
Kyu Hyun Kim wrote the following of this film, in a review at Koreanfilm.org that is well worth checking out in its entirety:
The big-budget Blue Swallow opened in December opposite King Kong and the monster hit King and the Clown, promptly disappearing from screens after collecting only 600,000 tickets (approximately 5 percent of King and the Clown’s total performance). Even before its theatrical release, the biopic was mired in a controversy over its allegedly “pro-Japanese” content. One internet “reporter” accused the film of whitewashing its protagonist, the pioneering female aviator Park Kyung-won, of her collaborationist activities toward the Japanese empire. Soon accusations began to fly thick and hard, including rumors that the film was “secretly” funded by Japanese corporations and that Koizumi Matajiro, the curly-haired Japanese Prime Minister’s grandfather and Minister of Communications in the late 1930s, bought Park her beloved biplane Blue Swallow as a “gift” (For those non-Koreans wondering what Koizumi has got to do with any of this, a recent internet poll asked Koreans “Who in your mind is the Great Satan?” The runaway victor was Koizumi, outdistancing Our Shining Leader Dubya. I am not making this up).
Of course, for those of us who live here, none of that silliness is surprising. Nor, of course, is it rational or sane.
But, sadly, neither is it surprising. And this, in fact, is one of the things the film itself criticizes. There is more than a little criticism of blind Korean nationalism, of Korean opportunism, of Korean exploitation in this film. Here’s the reason this film actually failed: Park Kyung Won is depicted as a human being living among human beings. She is not reduced to some type of person, such as a pure victim, or a thorough Korean. She is a human being who happens to have been born in Korea, who happens to have been unable to follow her dreams there, and who happened to follow her dreams to Japan… at terrible cost, yes, but not thoroughly her own fault. Following what Kyu Hyun Kim rightly calls an embarrassing prologue where Park imagines the Japanese as flying ninjas, the criticism begins. A very young Park begs her father to go to school, and her father beats her. “But, but…” people will certain defend this scene. “Things were different then.” Yes, though not as different as they now could be… and more importantly, the fact remains: Park could not have become an aviator in Korea. She simply had to leave to do so, and she did. She scrimped and saved and struggled. For this, people actually called her a traitor, at least in the film. And throughout, a distinct lack of interest in helping their own is depicted on the part of other Koreans living in Japan. That’s not even to get into the part about the corrupt Korean politician-collaborators, or the rather insane-looking terrorist Commie-nationalists.
The depiction of the Japanese characters, too, is probably thoroughly unacceptable: there are some machinations, but there are also some remarkably sympathetic characters in the film, and what do you know, they help Park Kyung Won. They fight for her life, and the life of the man she loves, and they experience palpable pain and horror at her final fate. Yes, Park is a victim of the Japanese system. She is brutalized by it, she is robbed by it, she is dehumanized by it. But not all Japanese people are devils with pointy ears, plotting to ruin all things for Koreans. Mostly, what victimization comes to Park comes of Japanese simply exploiting a pro-Japanese system for their own gain, something it’s strongly implied Korean collaborators did as well. Park is harmed by the Empire, but not wholly. And this, too, is an unsettling fact for a modern Korean audience. A woman… choosing to exploit a system that favors Japanese… for her own gain… regardless of what she perceives as a Korean demand of loyalty in exchange for nothing?
Park’s last visit to her Korean lover is a moving one in which that perception of the demand for loyalty is fully expressed. During their conversation, as well as at other points in the movie, a conception of a human being as not really a member of this or that race, this or that nation, a conception in which gender can actually be in most ways pragmatically irrelevant, as Park says it is when she is flying, comes into full flower. Park moves beyond being a Korean, or feeling guilt for flying under a Japanese flag. She becomes a pilot, period. She will fly under the Japanese flag if she must to get a plane. Her longing to see home doesn’t blind her to political realities, or to the life she’s made for herself abroad.
It’s often struck me that the interior lives of foreign-born Koreans I’ve known is different from what sometimes seems to be expected or even demanded of them by native Koreans. They’re asked, “Why don’t you speak Korean?” and they they tumble through romantic relationships with native Koreans with almost as much befuddlement and culture clash as some white, black, or other foreigners do in their relationships with Koreans. I think part of it is that kyopo, as foreign-raised Koreans are called, are a walking contradiction of all of the deeply-programmed preconceptions about the essential facts of what it means to be Korean. I don’t think this film is free of that completely — and it shouldnt be, since Park herself was raised here in a time when I’m certain that going even as far as she did in discarding the externalities of race and nationality was probably quite radical. I wish I could read her biography so I could have a better sense of it, though I am certain it’s only available in Korean.
Park, it seems, goes from turn-of-the-century farmgirl to nascent kyopo in the space of a mere 20 years. She doesn’t hate Japan: the Japanese Empire is simply a part of the world she lives in, and she reconciles herself to it, as in fact so many Koreans did. She does hate the parts of Japan that brutalize her — the militarized, dictatorial society, something South Korea replicated for itself for many years after liberation and the Korean War. She hates what it does to her life, in some ways… but she also is blessed for having gone to Japan, blessed for being able to ignore what Korea demanded of her in return for absolutely no help, and blessed in the relationships she has with some–not all, but some–of the Japanese she meets along the way.
This, in other words, is a complex depiction of Japan. I’m tempted to say that it wavers at times, but I’m not sure it actually does–it’s more that it’s not judgmental of her, and it doesn’t paint all of the Japanese characters are caricaturesque monsters. To point out that, just as many people suffered under the Japanese, some individuals did well for themselves within the Empire (as some individuals do within any empire) must come as a shock to a contemporary audience used to compacent depictions of foreigners of all kinds, but especially Japanese, as wantonly evil. Even more unimaginably, to point out that not all Japanese people living within the Japanese empire approved of the wanton exploitation and dehumanization of Koreans, that seems to be bound to bring slander. The only acceptable statement about Japan in Korea today is one laden with full-on vituperative hatred and reproach. Which, in other words, means that rational discussion is simply not allowed, even among those who think differently.
It reminds me of a class I taught in Jeonju where one male student, one of the louder males, spent at least 5 minutes in every class meeting trying to use whatever grammar structure we were working on to denounce Japan. “I like…” and “I don’t like…” became, “I don’t like Japan. I don’t like the Japanese. I don’t like cherry blossoms. They’re ugly because the Japanese planted them.” Or, the innumerable times that students have written essays with all kinds of detail about Korean politicians’ responses to how Japan wants Dokdo… Japan being a single, simply, monolithic entity, a militaristic nation bent on conquest. Things have changed, but that seems not to have entered the popular consciousness here. It’s fully acceptable to express a hatred of Japan and of Japanese people, at least, in my experience. People do it often. Not all people — let me not fall into the same error I am criticizing — but what I have noticed is how very rare it is that someone who disagrees stands up and says, “Wait, that’s not right.” That, too, is blunt racism, of a kind alarmingly similar to the kind we see among the less humane Japanese characters in the film.
In other words, I think I know why The King and the Clown did so well, now. It’s because nobody wanted to go see the movie that didn’t denounce Japan, didn’t spit in the face of a woman who did well for herself under the Japanese, didn’t punish her for not declaring herself Korean at the cost of everything she fought for. The movie wasn’t racist enough for a moviegoing audience that has been fed caricatures and simple formulae; it wasn’t racist enough to sate a few netizens’ the appetite for hatred. That’s all.
But that’s why I respect this film. It stood up, in its way, and said, “It doesn’t matter. That kind of crap isn’t right.”
And that is why I have a feeling that, in the long run, this movie will be remembered The King and the Clown — which I now think of as Brokeback Korea — is long forgotten… or, rather, I wish that were likely to be the case.