Trope Salad and Penis Guns and Indie SF Films… No, Really.

This entry is part 13 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

There it is. I hereby coin it. I googled it, and found only this, and that’s an email address for which even the cached page it was contained on was somehow empty. So Trope Salad is mine.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “You can have it. But what does it mean?”

What it means is that I am trying to have fun while working on an academic paper. Always a dangerous route. What it signifies is the phenomenon wherein someone who knows absolutely jack squat about SF, or seems to know jack squat, treats it as a kind of grab-bag of random, decontextualized tropes (often undifferentiated from fantasy, horror, myths, video games, sex-comedy, and so forth), and when things seem as if they may get boring, the dolt reaches into the grab bag and pulls out a random trope, and tosses it into his or her creative mix.

Not uncommon in big-budget SF films, it is also a predictably occurring (though, it must be admitted, non-universal) feature in SFnal novels by people who have never actually bothered to read any real SF novels.

Here’s the ugly tangly passage stretch where I unpack this monstrosity of a neologism:

One common problem–often noted by SF fans and scholars worldwide, and even among even a significant number of non-SF-consuming anglophones–is the notion that SF is a form or extension of children’s literature; that is, something not to be “taken seriously.” There are different reasons for this: SF’s investment in fictional estrangement, which outsiders do not always perceive as cognitive–that is, related to serious issues worthy of intellectual exploration; its link to pedagogical use, as in Chinese (Huss) and Western curricula; or even the ineradicable sense of playfulness often evident in even the most accomplished and intelligent works of SF. It is understandable why an outsider–a non-SF person, as we sometimes call them–might perceive SF not as a sophisticated literature of the imagination, but rather as a random assortment of interchangeably “silly” or fantastical tropes contiguous to fantasy, horror, myth, and so forth, with as many special effects as the budget can bear.

There are several basic responses to this dilemma. The first is to go with the outsider’s impression, and treat SF (and other genres, like fantasy, horror, etc.) not as a genre of ideas, but as a grab-bag of random ingredients to be thrown at the audience. Occasionally, as in films like Donggam (Ditto, 2001) and Siworae (Il Mare, also 2001), such tropes are seemingly thrown in for variety, a slight new twist on an old genre like romantic melodrama. If these are SF movies, they are only technically so, for the SFnal trope is generally just a vehicle for a good cry. But in other cases, as in the work of Nam Gi-woong, such as Daehakno-yeseo maechoon-hadaka tomaksalhae danghan yeogosaeng ajik Daehakno-ye Issda (Killing Machine, 2000) and Samgeori Museutang Sonyeoeui Choehu (Never Belongs to Me, 2005) the result is more like a trope-salad: a jumbled assortment of random genre conventions that don’t connect together, match, or resolve into any discernibly intelligible pattern. Cyborgs with penis-guns stalk the streets alongside half-human beastmean, while witches and mad scientists convene hide behind closed doors.

Yes, my friends, penis guns. PENIS GUNS. I am not making this up! (The penis gun actually appears in both films, though more prominently — and on a man, not a reanimated teenaged schoolgirl hooker–in the latter film mentioned, Never Belongs to Me, which is nothing like the title in Korean–my vague guess is something like, The Final End of the Three-Way Intersection Mustang Chick, or maybe The Awful Fate of… or something like that. Yeah, doesn’t make sense to me, either. And it is probably the worst movie I’ve ever Alt+Right-Arrowed my way through. That’s a useful shortcut key in my media-player of choice, VLC.)  But wait, there’s more! The proverbial money shot comes next:

But probably the most expensive trope salad Korea has ever produced is Jang Sun-Woo’s  Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002)…

Yes, I am not a fan of the movie. It’s bizarre fun the first time, somewhat eyebrow raising the second time, and boring after that.

On the other hand, I of the Korean SF films I haven’t mentioned, which are worth watching, at the top of the list comes a film I never saw because… well, because the poster for a totally different movie with the same name (which came out only a couple of years later) looks outright horrible:

This is not a movie I would want to see. I think...
This is not a movie I would want to see. Well, actually… no. No.

The Nabi I’m talking about is not that film. It’s a low-budget, indie film with SFnal themes. For a review of it, look here. It’s pretty on the money.

In terms of the film as an SF piece, it’s interesting: I always go into indie SF movies with a little hesitation. I like Hal Hartley — a lot, as in, Henry Fool (which screen in Seoul recently, but I missed it) has given me the most amazing, bizarre moments of joy whenever I watched it. (It really is the ultimate English-major’s movie.) But the more SFnal Hartley’s movies become, the more they slide towards parody. I got a kick out of The Girl from Monday, but it being the third very spec-fic film I’d seen by Hal Hartley film — after The Book of Life and No Such Thing — I started to find the whole indie-film aesthetic a bit… well, it struck me as SF beng made by people who liked the notion of using SF to say certain things, but who probably hadn’t read any SF, and were relying on the old cinematic tropes– often the cheesiest and oldest — to say the same sorts of things that they wanted to say.

Sort of like, well, if someone started singing songs about ganja and decided that this was reggae, if you get my drift. A reggae song is about much more than ganja, a song about ganja that isn’t reggae isn’t bloody well reggae, and SF is about more than the few tropes that it sometimes seems every indie SF filmmaker seems attracted to. (That said, Hal Hartley’s films still gives me a good time whenever I watch one, and I don’t expect that to change.)

All of that is to say that Nabi is a very interesting film, for an indie-SF movie. I really don’t mean that as a pejorative. It’s just… well, you need to be in the right mood for it. The loss of memories is essentially a Korean SF trope — it features in so many SF flicks here, really, for obvious historical/sociopolitical reasons, just like how so much of Korean SF is focused on past traumas and history, not the future — but it’s handled interestingly, here, in a way that somewhat presages the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The future Korea is, to me, a little more than barely recognizable (as Darcy Paquet puts it in the interview linked above) but the acid rain and lead poisoning are interesting cinematically; though vaguely unbelievable, they do open up interesting doors as far as the characters interacting, and Paquet is right that there is something elemental, something about the deepest core of humanness, that comes across in certain moments in this film.

All the performances are very good, and Kim Ho Jung will break your heart, not when she’s looking sad, but when she smiles briefly and seems okay for a moment.

By the way, Fay Grim? A sequel to Henry Fool? This exists? Whaaaaaaaaaat? Nobody told me about this! Damn, I could have seen that, too, but I missed it. Ah well… when there’s a will…

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2 thoughts on “Trope Salad and Penis Guns and Indie SF Films… No, Really.

  1. One common problem–often noted by SF fans and scholars worldwide, and even among even a significant number of non-SF-consuming anglophones–is the notion that SF is a form or extension of children’s literature; that is, something not to be “taken seriously.”

    Did you see the article on “post-genre sf” in the forthcoming Asimov’s (subscriber issues are out already, although Eugie hasn’t posted my review yet afaik)…on some level this has me thinking of that. Although I don’t entirely agree with the arguments in that article, they’re interesting.

    I guess one’s perspective is different looking at it from a writing standpoint vs a business pov. Although sf arguably straddles niche and mass culture….

  2. I haven’t seen the issue. The person who’s supposed to handling subscription inquiries is not handling mine, for some reason: she input the wrong address months ago and hasn’t responded to my repeated inquiries and requests that she fix it, so I haven’t received an issue since the June issue. (Though I got contributor copies of July, at least.) Maybe I’ll see a copy in October or November. :)

    I’m giving her a week more, and one more email, before I telephone and ask her to please update and please send my missing issues — presumably including the missing forthcoming issue — now.

    Sometimes not being taken seriously is a boon: it allows you to critique things in public that might otherwise get you put away. (Like, is Cory Doctorow on a no-fly list now? Because if Little Brother were a how-to book instead of a novel with lots of how-to (real and imaginary) in it, I bet he would be on one.

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