방가?방가!

So the other day, I got a chance (apparently rare!) to see the film Bang[g]a-Bang[g]a. I’d seen the poster around, but had I not been told about the wacky screening schedule, I’d have missed it completely.

e0036705_4c838e151a27bIf you haven’t seen it and plan to, I strongly encourage you. I don’t think the film is perfect, but it’s rare to see a film that deals with multiculturalism at all in Korea, let alone one that hits some really right notes. The film has a very limited release, but it should be on screens on Sept. 30th. Yes, one day. I don’t get it, either, but that’s what I’ve read. Hopefully it runs a little more in October.

If you aren’t planning on seeing it, or can’t, this post will fill you on in what you missed, as well as what I thought of it.

On the way to the film, I was in an elevator with a group of older Koreans, and a younger couple. The young couple mentioned the name of the film in conversation, as did the older group, but it was noteworthy what I caught from the older group’s conversation. The woman in the group explained the plot setup to what seemed to be her husband, “So, this Korean person can’t get a job, and he becomes a foreign bastard so he can get one.”1

Which tells you, frankly, what this film was dealing with in terms of its range of audience. I mean, I think the young couple got it when I turned around with one eyebrow raised, but the older group didn’t. They didn’t even register the possibility that the “foreign bastard” in the elevator understood what they were saying.2

Even if they weren’t being as nasty as I thought–I know I can be hypersensitive sometimes–there’s that little difference that sits there, unavoidable: Korean 사람, foreign 놈. It’s inescapable, and if you’re going to make a movie full of non-Koreans–particularly non-Western non-Koreans–you’re going to have to find a way to get the audience on board. Which explains why, below, I’ll go easy on the film. But before I get to that, there’s one more thing worth mentioning.

The ads that ran before the movie previews. Now, it’s not often I talk about the advertisements, but there was a clear trend among them. Everyone featured in the ads was either a Korean, or a white male; there was one exception, and that was a white woman who turns to stone when seeing her reflection in a Korean phone. (Because white chicks are like Medusa, so we should buy Korean phones, I guess?)

Maybe this makes sense in the area of marketing. Most of the Westerners in Korea are white guys, I’m thinking, and white guys are also likelier to appeal to the moviegoers (most avid filmgoers are women) more than, say, a white woman, or an Uzbek man, or a Pakistani teenaged girl, or whatever. Still, it was off-putting: the ads had tons of images of assimilation of a sort–one-sided, to be sure, like white men in traditional Korean hanbok clothing, for example–but the only people welcomed into the Korean assimilation pot in those ads were white guys. At one moment, Miss Jiwaku and I turned to one another and said, “Why all white guys?” at the same time, it was so prevalent!

Anyway, then the movie started, and we ventured into another world, somewhere between fantasy, idealization, ignorance, well-meaning misconstruction, and good intentions.

Overall, I’d say my reaction to the film was positive: it’s a movie that presents people from that much reviled class, 노동자 (“migrant workers”) as human beings, with stories, lives, loves, aspirations, fears, and suffering… and a right to have a place in Korean society, as well as a right to have their contribution recognized. Yet it’s also a Trojan horse in that it does this via the medium of comedy, which is, well, interesting.

The idea of a Korean being so hard up for work that he has to pretend he is an illegal immigrant from Bhutan (to get a job) could have been a pretty unmistakable starting point for an outright racist film, but it’s important to recognize that it is, in the end, a plot device: it’s a way of smuggling a Korean actor into a film about the lives of non-Koreans in Korea. This is important because, well… okay, it’s important for the same chauvinistic reasons that Tom Cruise starred in a film called The Last Samurai, that Kevin Costner went native in Dances With Wolves, that a white American man saved Pandora in Avatar. It’s the chauvinism of the majority, but it’s also because people won’t really put their butts in the seats without some kind of familiar, Korean character… or a white person, maybe. Again, I mean this in the general sense. Of course there is an audience here for films starring blacks, Iraqis, Inuit, or whatever.  But there’s not really a market for it, or, worse, there’s no perception of a market for it. If you want to speak to the people, you need to use the language they’re comfortable with: the Korean comedy film.

The “fake migrant worker” concept, indeed, has a kind of appeal comparable to Tootsie: oh, woe is me, I can’t get a job. I’ll just go ahead and pretend I’m a member of a put-upon, marginalized group so that I can have a job, succeed, and blow people away. But like Tootsie, which in my opinion rises above this discomfiting illogic to say something, at least to its original chauvinistic audience, Banga-Banga uses this plot device not only to give its protagonist, whose fake Bhutanese pseudonym is the films eponym, a kind of stake and risk in the story (will his foreign co-workers and friends discover that he’s really Korean?), as well as to invite the (Korean) audience to do as he is doing, and walk in the shoes of the people who make their stuff (like the chairs in the factory where much of this film is set) in cruddy, unsafe, and uncomfortable conditions in factories all over Korea.

lposter047702-2There are other things that stretch one’s suspension of disbelief to the limit, but which are also justified by the audience the film is trying to reach. For example, I seriously, and sincerely, wonder whether non-Koreans of diverse backgrounds would really hold the majority of their conversations in Korean. Most of the (relatively few, I must admit) non-Westerners I’ve met in Korea spoke a little Korean, but few spoke a lot of Korean; meanwhile, most of them spoke more English than they did Korean.  Still, there’s a double usefulness to holding the conversations in Korean: it humanizes the non-Korean characters for a Korean audience, and it cuts back on the number of subtitles the audience needs to read. (As well, it shows that, yes, non-Koreans can learn and speak in the language. Yes, they really, really can!)

There are a few moments in the film where things don’t quite make sense plot-wise–where the story seems to lose hold of logic. Would the boss keep his promise at this moment? (I doubt it, and think he would have had to be pressured much harder before he’d do so.) Would the workers’ demonstration really end up back at the karaoke house?–but in each case there’s just enough reason one can imagine for why the scriptwriter or director decided to take things in that direction. (If the boss broke his promise, it’d be too gloomy. If they didn’t quit demonstrating, the film would go in a weird direction and would be hard to bring back to the film’s original throughline.)

There are other things that are a bit problematic, like how, in the final scene and a few others besides, there seems to be the assumption that every non-Korean in Korea is here illegally–so that all it takes is for someone to scream “IMMIGRATION!” and all of the foreigners will panic and flee in a chaotic mob. Likewise, the “foreigners” in this film seem to be all too credulous and ignorant of immigration law: they seem to think a fake ID would be useful, and they seem not to know much about how Immigration Law works in Korea. While that is probably both transparent and reassuring to the audience–almost nobody who lives in his or her own country and doesn’t work in the Immigration Department knows anything about their country’s immigration system, after all–it seemed weird to me. I know people who’ve been here six months and speak no Korean who understand the system better than the characters in this film.

Also, I hated the character played by Kim Jung-Tae. What is it with these characters that are basically just shouting assholes? I understood his motivation: he’s screwed, he’s down and out, he’s too ugly to get a job, and he’s out to get money any way he can. But eh guy just screams and shouts and abuses and he’s so bloody annoying I just wished someone, anyone, would produce a shotgun and put us out of our misery. Shouting and hitting people that way isn’t really acting, at least not on a standard I can enjoy. I know it’s more common on Korean TV, but the character could have had a little more depth, if only he’d been given a little personality besides his assholery.

(That said, thank goodness the villain is this guy, and not one of the foreign workers. I really hoped that the Immigration Police would end up being the bad guys, but the director goes a little soft on them, I’m not sure why.)

So sure, there’s some sloppiness. But there’s also some brilliance here, like one moment where (if I understood it right) a group of non-Koreans are taking a Korean lesson and they ask about a few curses that have been uttered at them; the teacher asks, “How many of you have heard _________?” (I forget what the cuss was, but it was vile) and a bunch of people–men and women of different ages–raise their hands.) The Korean teaching them launches into an explanation of what the curses mean, and how to respond to them… a move that echoes the moment earlier in the film when he himself is made fun of by some Korean kids who think he’s a “dumb foreigner” and he then tells them off in fluent Korean, shocking them into shamed submission.

There’s also the little shocking triumph in the moment when push comes to shove and our group of (mostly non-Korean) heroes perform a song in the foreigner singing contest.3 It could, very easily, have become maudlin, or cheesy (they could have sung the song they rehearsed, a cheesy old Korean “trot” song), but instead they actually sing a song from the home country of one of the band members, who has been singing it all along, and which is about longing and love and missing someone far away–a sort of Pakistani equivalent to the over-hyped well-known Korean folksong “Arirang.” It’s beautiful, not just how they harmonize but also how they hold onto their foreignness, and hold it up saying, “This can be part of Korea too.” They don’t break out into “trot” song afterward, they let the message stand, and this is a message I haven’t seen in any other Korean film or narrative, so it’s worthy of notice for that alone.

So why do I have a lingering sense of unease?

It could be that, for one thing, the female lead–the love interest–is supposed to be Vietnamese, but seems to have been played by a Korean woman. (From what I can tell. It could be she’s Vietnamese with a Korean stage name, but I don’t get that impression.) It’s one thing when the male lead is doing foreigner-drag; it’s another when the ostensibly foreign (in-the-narrative) female lead, whose union with the male lead symbolizes a kind of embracing of multiculturality in Korea, turns out to be a Korean woman in non-Korean-woman drag. All the male foreign characters seemed to be played by authentically foreign men. So what was it, too hard to find a Vietnamese woman to play the female lead? Or was there a deeper hesitation at some level that contradicts the ostensible message of the film?

And then there’s the casting and promotion. I’ve seen a few photos where the non-Korean members of the cast were present, but a lot more seem to feature only the Korean actors. This is eerily echoed in one of the films several posters, the one that was up at my local cinema:

lposter047702-3
Note the absence of non-Koreans, and the bizarre multiplications of the main Korean actor, with his head on many bodies. Was there a different poster that this replaced?

Is this exclusion of the non-Korean characters (who are, for me, the heart and soul of the movie) simply a marketing decision–a recognition that, seeing a poster full of (mostly) darker-skinned foreigners, your average filmgoer is likelier to go see that film with Won Bin again?

Even if this was solely a marketing decision, it’s a bit disheartening. I can hope, though, that what audiences remember is not this poster–which seems bizarre in how little it relates to the movie, after seeing the film–but rather the very forceful, if tentative and scattered, evocations of discrimination, racism, homesickness, and challenge that the non-Koreans in the film, and in real life, face, as well as the contribution they make to Korean society.

(Anyone who would downplay this, remember the scene when “Banga” arrives at the chair factory and demonstrates how utterly useless he is within a few minutes. All those people are good at what they do, regardless of how much or little it is respected.)

I don’t know about the post above, and maybe there’s some website-related issue that has Nate Films crediting only the Korean actors in the film. (At least as far as I can see on the page.) Which is really sad, since if you ask me, the non-Koreans form the backbone of the film. Then again, I feel a qualm of worry about them, too. Remember what happened to the foreign actors in The Host? And while that film was more critical of the government than this one, nevertheless I have to wonder whether Immigration would be as lenient to a Pakistani, an Uzbek, an Indonesian, and a host of other extras and bit players from all over Asia… anyway, I just hope the non-Korean actors in this film had their visa statuses in order.

That said, I still think the film is a really strong effort, and very much worth seeing. If you’ve read this far and aren’t able to see it on the 30th, where I think it’s playing at a number of CGV cinemas, then all I can say is if and when it comes out on DVD, don’t hesitate to give it a look.

1. Now, I’m translating, of course. I can’t remember the whole sentence, but those words, “한국 사람” and “외국놈” stuck out, especially one of the guffawing men repeated “외국놈” back with obvious pleasure. I know that 놈 can be used in a sense less harsh than “bastard” but I’m not sure that the tone argument really plays well here. I could be wrong, but it rubbed me the wrong way.

2. Lest you think this sort of thing is rare, allow me to assure you: if you understand more Korean than you let on, you will hear all kinds of things. From students, from colleagues (not mine now, but from some colleagues), from strangers all over the place. Miss Jiwaku recently worked at an art exhibition where her supervisor, when not fawning over a pair of European artists (for whom Miss Jiwaku was the interpreter), was happily calling them the Korean equivalent of “the kids” and where other staff members were gossiping about them right in front of them, actually seeming to get off on the fact the Europeans couldn’t understand they were being trash-talked at the moment.

3. Yes, they hold foreigner singing contests in Korea. Before I understood the purpose of them was basically for Koreans to spend an afternoon guffawing at the weird accents of foreigners butchering songs in their language–hee, what funny accents these foreign people bastards have!–I even played saxophone with my band at one such contest. We performed what was essentially this arrangement of a traditional Korean song. We placed far behind people singing karaoke versions of modern pop songs. But then, while my band was mostly people from overseas, I was the only white person (my bandmates were all ethnically Asian) and I didn’t sing at all.

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