Two Good Korean Films

I don’t watch a lot of Korean films these days, in part so few good ones are put out, but also because none of the good ones actually play in my neighborhood. No, it’s all junk in my neighborhood, and I’m busy enough that sometimes it’s hard to justify the trek out to Seoul to see something worth seeing.

But the other day, Miss Jiwaku dragged me to a couple of great films that were showing in Guro.

The first was the omnibus film If You Were Me 5 (시선이 너머). I never managed to see the third and fourth in the series, but I saw the first two at film festivals and found them very effective. Each film in the series, as far as I know, has been a selection of short films, funded (at least in part) by the Korean Human Rights Commission, and the films generally focus on the lives of people who are “marginal” or the subject of discrimination, maltreatment, or general silencing in Korean society. Embedding is screwy, but you can see a trailer here.

(In the first edition, I remember abused children in two stories, a pedophile in an apartment complex threatening one of them; a teen girl turning to prostitution to pay for eyelid surgery; a man in a wheelchair discussing how much it sucks to be handicapped in Seoul; and a documentary about a Nepali woman imprisoned in the Korean psychiatric system for six years and four months, because some idiots thought that (a) she looked Korean and (b) all Nepalis speak the same language… I’m afraid to even look up what happened in terms of consequences for the people who imprisoned her, but I recall that the reparations paid her by the Korean government were a pittance so embarrassing that private citizens raised more money to donate to her out of shame and remorse).

This edition was just as strongly socially-conscious, but focused on individuals somewhat different, people “out of sight” of the Korean populace generally — a Filipino migrant worker  and his Korean coworkers at a moving company, and accusations of theft of moved goods; a woman whose rape experience goes unprosecuted thanks to sexist a police officer (of which there is no shortage in Korea); North Korean refugees in South Korea; a couple screwed over by a poorly run hospital, resulting in the death of their baby just prior to its birth (no shortage of such hospitals here either); and a love hotel in which a Mongolian migrant worker (working cleanup duty), an apparently lower-class Korean woman, an abused Korean woman, and a pregnant teenager’s lives end up intersecting.

For my money, the strongest narratives were the first three I mentioned here: the hospital story was a bit overcooked for me, and the hotel story felt way overcooked. Meanwhile, I found the reversal in the story featuring the Filipino was powerful since it played on the all-too-common pattern in Korean media where migrant workers or other marginalized people are made out to be so utterly pathetic (and pure and innocent) that one cannot help but feel pity for them. Pity is cheap: respect is a harder thing to demand, since it requires recognizing someone’s human dignity and his or her difference simultaneously.

The story about the North Koreans and the rape story are both well-performed, as well, and harrowing in their believability. (If I had a broken asshole’s skull for every time a Korean told me about an attempted rape she suffered, or he fought to prevent, I’d be able to stage Hamlet in several cities at once, believe you me.)

And then, in the evening, we saw 무산 일기, The Journals of Musan. This is a movie also focused on a marginal individual, or rather, marginal individuals. The main character is a North Korean refugee in South Korea named Seungchul, who is — as anyone would be –utterly messed up by his experience. Like many escaped North Koreans, he turns to Christianity to fill the void left by the absence of the religion of state of North Korea, with the Kim dynasty at its center.

There are other characters all around Seungchul, nearly all of whom seem skin-crawling in one way or another. The main supporting character is a shifty fellow North Korean refugee who, among other things, helps to counterbalance the same tendency I mentioned above (to portray marginal people as pathetic and thus pitiable): he is involved in all kinds of illegal activities, and is more often than not seen with a prostitute beside him in bed. He is also involved with a group of North Koreans trying to send money back to North Korea, and a South Korean policeman who “helps” them. There are the people at the karaoke salon where Seungchul briefly works — prostitutes and their often-belligerent clients — and there are the rival postering thugs (a pair of outright psychoapths) who threaten Seungchul’s life for invading the postering territory they consider theirs.

Not everyone in the film is quite evil, however. There’s a young woman, with whom Seungchul has fallen in love, who goes to the same church as him and has secrets of her own. And there’s a stray dog who, much like Seungchul, has no real home and no real place in South Korean society, and like Seungchul is left to scrouge about in order to live.

The film is depressing, obviously, but I found it interesting for a few reasons, the main one being that what it has to say about North Koreans living in the South, could just as easily be said about a lot of South Koreans… if the South, in the wake of the financial crisis that happened a decade-and-a-half ago, were ready to start being honest about things. The gap between rich and poor in South Korea is widening and going increasingly solid, and I suspect more than a few South Koreans have experienced a kind of desperation very similar to Seungchul’s. The realism of the film was especially increased by the way the film was shot, often feeling somewhere between a documentary and a drama, though never making any explicit gesture toward documentary status.

Another thing I found interesting was the way sympathy is evoked in Korean films. I’ve already talked above about pity and pathos, but I think passivity is another important cinematic/cultural difference. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a Westerner, but when I see too much forbearance in a character, it turns me off: someone who actually turns the other cheek constantly is annoying. A character, being beaten, should fight back in his own defense.

This is notable because I find very often that when violence breaks out in a film, a sympathetic underdog character is more than likely to just sit there, or lie there, or stand there, and take it. Long after a Western character would respond with inspiring rage and a desire to protect himself, or those he loves, the Korean character will persist in covering his face, lying still, and hoping his oppressors will stop beating him up.

I have no idea whether this represents actual behavior of social underdogs when being beaten by their hierarchical superiors in Korean society, or is purely a cinematic trope. All I can say is that, unless and until the moment a character like Seungchul fights back, he never feels quite real for me.  And when he’s living in a society like South Korea’s, where anyone different gets treated like crap on a pretty constant basis, it’s tiring to see someone put up with so much garbage for so long without lashing out at anyone. Too much humility and gentleness can be a fault too.

The ending of the film is odd, and cryptically hints at the outcome of the story which, supposedly, is based on a true story. I once again found it just slightly unsatisfying, though only slightly, and maybe that’s because the nuances of the line of text on a black screen that ends up the film were lost on me.

But I think, nonetheless, the film is worth watching, and I find it sad that it was being screened so very little — we had to go to Guro to see this film, and I doubt it played there for very long.

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