블라인드 Blind, Part 1: A Review

Miss Jiwaku and I saw the new Korean film Blind tonight (the title is the same in Korean: 블라인드), and I have to say, as long as you don’t know anything about blind people, it’s a pretty good film — a tightly plotted thriller with a shadowy bad guy and a surprisingly sympathetic pair of protagonists-in-peril. (I was especially shocked not to hate the boy-band-ish teenage food delivery scooter boy, at least after he wises up and stops being a petulant little prick.) It was a bit overly-sentimentalizing, but not bad. (Not SFnal, though the CGI in it, which is used to simulate the protagonist’s blindness, could easily be used in an SF or fantasy setting.) Here’s the trailer:

For those curious about what I mean about knowing about blind people being a detriment to the film, I suppose a little background is necessary.

I worked with blind people, and visually impaired people, back in Montreal. We were working for a company that designed tutorials for blind people on how to use Windows software. I even dated a visually-impaired woman for a while, after she left the company. One of my co-workers — the only one who was completely blind — had a seeing eye dog; he was also somewhat of a pervert, and came on to at least one co-worker. (“It’s even sexier if we screw on the boss’s desk!” he apparently said, during one unwelcome advance on a co-worker. Oh, and if I remember right, he was married, too… to a sighted woman who at least seemed very supportive.)

I mention this not to out this former co-worker of mine as an adulterous, sexually-harassing jerk: I doubt anyone reading this blog knows him, and if they do, well, it’s not such a surprise, is it? No, I mention this to point out that blind people are like anyone else: they’re not all saintly and sad and long-suffering. They’re not “poor souls” in the sense that many sighted people imagine. Yes, doing certain things is harder for them, like, say, jaywalking on a busy street, or playing baseball — though, have I told you the story of the blind guy who beat me in a game of pool? (Yes, he had help, but how else is a blind person supposed to play pool?) Some blind people are nice and decent, and some are really assholes — just like anyone else. Some blind people become bitter, or even outright assholes, because of the difficulties they face, especially when they get no support from their family, or their society, of course; but most of the visually impaired people I’ve encountered — either through my former work, or through the woman I dated, or through another ex who worked with several Special Needs organizations in Saskatoon — have been about as likely to be average as anyone else.

In the film, though, the blind protagonist is made to suffer onscreen. Although she  has been blind for three years, she seems not to have learned how to cook for herself, and much is made of her having what we might call a “bad blindness day.” I’m adapting that from the expression “bad Korea day,” an experience many expats report — some days, thing after thing specific to Korea just disturbs, aggravates, and frustrates you, all in a series. Well, the metaphor is probably apt: most  of the people I knew who were outright blind had been so for a long, long time, and were well-adjusted. For them it was normal, while for the protagonist, she’s more of a recent emigrant to the country of the blind. She’s only been blind for three years… but you’d think she would have learned not to turn up the gas on the stove to the maximum temperature when frying up her dinner.

While it’s believable that she would have “bad blindness days,” what I’m objecting to her is the extreme sentimentalization of her condition. We’re supposed to feel sorry for her. This is exactly the kind of story a sighted person would tell about a blind character, and it’s based on the misperception that people who are blinded become irrevocably miserable — a myth debunked in scientific studies, such as those mentioned in the wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Sure, people who were blinded as adults may take longer to adjust, and are perhaps more likely very frustrated at how poorly supported people with their condition are here, just as white people arriving in Korea (and suddenly subject to all the dumbass, racist garbage their non-white friends back home were already dealing with regularly, but which they likely barely noticed most of the time) often experience difficulties in dealing with how things creep into certain aspects of daily life. Being suddenly blind in a society as non-supportive of blind people as Korea is, that would be a revelation, and suddenly they would “see” (metaphorically) that lack of support much more clearly. (As we in the audience “see” the traffic light in one scene, lacking an audio signal, as radically non-supportive of the blind and visually impaired.)

But it’s important to recall that blind people — even those blinded as adults — don’t exist in a perpetually pitiful, sad, sobby state. They pick up their lives and move on. They date, and some marry, and some even cheat on their spouses. They have kids, or hobbies, or both. They have jobs, quit jobs, get new jobs. They get drunk, they go to concerts, they listen to music at home. Some of them “watch” TV, and hold birthday parties with dozens of people present, and some of them write books or play musical instruments. They are people, and their blindness often isn’t their defining characteristic. (When I think of the visually-impaired woman I dated, I don’t think of her visual impairment first — I think of her sassy attitude, and of her seriousness about education — she had learned to read using a magnifying glass as a teenager, if I remember right, and as soon as she could she began to read voraciously, if slowly, for years on end. Oh, and her unapologetically bad taste in music — ugh, Paula Abdul! Also, her tirelessness and patience in explaining to people that most blind people aren’t “blind” but visually impaired, and so on — more about that below.)

My point is this: most of the visually impaired people I’ve known would have been annoyed or insulted if I’d felt sorry for them, or at the very least would not have seen a point in feeling sorry for them: blindness, or visual impairment, was the normal state for them, and while the few I asked said they would definitely take any treatment that would give them sight, a few (mostly those who’d always been blind) said they were happy the way they were, and most generally seemed to be quite well-adjusted to their condition.

Which brings me to the second issue that bothered me. The way Blind is shot, I kept having to remind myself that the protagonist — a blind former police office — wasn’t just visually impaired. There are a few shots that are supposed to simulate what she perceives — including details she is filling in perceptively. We see people moving toward her, whom she is perceiving either through hearing, or using a rudimentary perception enhancement tool. More details are given than she would herself perceive, since it’s a film and we need to know who’s doing what in those scenes, but it’s confusing if you know about visual impairment.

The reason it’s confusing is that one gets the impression that those shots, being both over-details and  POV shots from the protagonist’s point of view, represent the vision of someone with severely impaired vision, rather than someone who is fully blind. According to Wikipedia:

The WHO estimates that in 2002 there were 161 million visually impaired people in the world (about 2.6% of the total population). Of this number 124 million (about 2%) had low vision and 37 million (about 0.6%) were blind.

In other words, most people who have some kind of visual impairment aren’t 100% blind: that’s only, approximately, 20% of all people. If you know this, those trick shots where we “see through her [blind] eyes” end up being somewhat confusing. And while someone might argue that there’s a little the filmmaker could do, I think there are a couple of responses: one could be to ask yourself why the protagonist needs to be completely blind, as opposed to visually impaired. (Of course, unrealistic numbers of Koreans in films and TV also lack epicanthic folds; we are used to everyone on the screen being a contrived long shot. Still…)

Another question is to ask yourself whether those shots needed to be quite so detailed as they were. (I like to imagine that, given the quality of audio systems in theaters, we could have been immersed in the protagonist’s consciousness, the screen dark and the audio system getting a powerful workout, for short spans of time — it would have been both more disorienting for us, and more powerful —  but of course you would probably have to see the film in a  THX-equipped theater… and besides, this factlet won’t distract most people, who assume anyone with a visual impairment is blind, period. (And thus won’t be jolted out of the story when they suddenly see what looks like it could be POV shots from a visually impaired person.)

Then there’s the seeing eye dog. When I was new on staff at that tutorial place I mentioned, I saw my co-worker with a seeing eye dog, and I quickly, squatted down to talk to the dog and pet it. I was told, “Don’t! Not when he’s working… it’s something you aren’t supposed to do with seeing eye dogs.” There are a few scenes where the protagonist’s seeing eye dog engages in cutesy play when he is working, and it jarred me. Not because people wouldn’t do it, but because when they do, they’re not asked not to do so, and told why. Of course, there’s a reason that the dog’s cuteness is played up — and more than just the abiding desire for cuteness in all things so common in Korean media — but nonetheless, it’s a jarring distraction… if you know anything about guide dogs.

Finally, the protagonist’s self-control in a certain scene towards the end is difficult to stomach. If someone put you through hell, and tortured you, and was a known murderer and psychopath, would you conk him on the head and hope he’d stay down, or, with a heavy object in hand, would you bash out his brains so as to be sure he would stay down? I’m not advocating murder, but killing (or seriously injuring) someone who has been stalking and trying to kill you for days on end is just bloody common sense, and not the sort of thing a sensible audience gets bothered about — especially if not doing so leaves you in further danger. However, I think this silliness is tied to a need to see the blind protagonist in a kind of hagiographic mode.

This is something we see a lot in the Korean media: when you’re supposed to feel sympathetic for a character who is unusual in some way — a way that is not conventionally accepted or supported or included by Korean society — the character is usually cast into a dual role of victim and saint.

First, the character must suffer before one’s eyes, in a victim-role that is pathetic beyond the point of understanding, so that the audience feels sorry for them. Characters put up with awful treatment without a word of protest; they accept beatings, beratings, mockery, or injustice without complaint, and usually retreat to their homes to weep in silent sorrow. This is a pattern not just common in fictive depictions of the physically handicapped, but also of other marginal groups in Korea, for example in TV documentaries: one cannot watch a program involving a marginalized person without seeing them either in extremely poor circumstances, with sad music in the background, or even weeping and crying. (This is why the short film collection If You Were Me, Vol. 1 was so radical: the guy in the wheelchair does deal with some difficult circumstances, but he also, to the degree possible, seizes control of his life and fights for his rights… or so I remember it.)

(The standard, by the way, is not solely Korean: I’ve seen similar patterns in fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust or of the African American experience of slavery, where the Jews or African-Americans were all pure-hearted, sweet and kind victims; as if rudeness, bigotry, exploitation, sexism, theft, and violence were impossible among groups who were oppressed, unseen in the ghettos and camps, unknown in the slave quarters. As if, when experiencing the worst horrors of history, those horrors victims all splintered in exactly the same way, towards the gentle, the kind, the forgiving, and the pathetic — and none became full of hate, rage, cruelty, and vengefulness? When bad things happen to good people, sometimes good people stop being good… but bad things also happen to bad, or so-so people. People aren’t automatically good just because they’re victims. Obviously, since oppressors have justified their brutality towards these very groups on the basis of ridiculous claims about their morality, their behaviour, or subhumanity, one wants to tread carefully — but to rip out the essential complexity of people in a bid for sympathy is misguided: what you elicit is fake sympathy, as well as a distorted morality: surely, genocides and enslavements are wrong because genocides and enslavements are wrong, not because of the cloyiong goodness and purity of the murdered or enslaved!)

Second — and this is a stage we usually don’t see in TV documentaries, but do see in films — when these neglected minorities are pushed beyond the limits, they refrain from fighting back effectively. Oh, they will lash out. They may fight to defend themselves from grievous bodily harm, or explode at someone whose maltreatment of them is so extreme that no audience would believe or sympathize with passivity from the chsaracter at that point. But the never, ever kill someone; they never, ever lose their self-control, they never act the way most people would — bashing out the brains of the person who is trying to kill them with a brick or a rock or a baseball bat, for example. At the very least active, they lash out briefly, until their attacker retreats; at the most, they will knock out the attacker and save themselves temporarily.

The pattern, for minorities, is both offensive and disempowering. It brings to mind the dichotomy of “good foreigner” and “bad foreigner”, which is what Koreans really mean when they talk about “qualified” and  “unqualified” English teachers. If you look at the image of a good foreigner, what you tend to see is that he (for it is the male ones that attract all the concern) is either asexual, or sexual only within his own race; he never responds to maltreatment by Koreans in kind — he does not curse when cursed at, he does not defend himself when attacked, he does not threaten when threatened. He is emasculated, passive, and obedient to Korean male, whether authority figures or just random men telling him what to do. And he does it all smiling his goofy Robert Halley smile. Or, if he fails to attain this standard, he is a dangerous, bad, rude, gangsterish, nasty type who doesn’t deserve to be in Korea — an unqualified foreigner. Dating a Korean woman is enough to make him unqualified. Having worked retail back home can make him unqualified. Not politely regurgitating how wonderful Korea is, or joining in on histrionics about the evil of Japan and their encroachments on Dokdo, can get him labeled a bad guy. even taking offense at treatment that no Korean would accept can get him labeled “bad.” In short, being a non-Korean man, as opposed to a non-Korean muppet, is enough to get him labeled bad.

It’s a standard I’ve seen applied to migrant workers (as in the important but problematic film Bangga! Bangga!), North Korean refugees (for example, in the important but problematic film Musan Ilgi), and the handicapped (most dramatically, in the — nevertheless wonderful and groundbreaking tragedy — Oasis, though the film gets a pass in my books because it explores the complexity of the characters’ inner world, and also was made a long time ago. It’s a striking pattern: in Korean films, one nearly never sees a non-Korean (in face, a non-Korean male) who is allowed by narrative logic to get violently angry, or use violence in self-defense. While romantic male leads in Korean narratives can do all kinds of problematic things and still be aesthetically coherent as a romantic male lead, the ethical expectations for everyone else — women of any race or class, poor Korean men, non-Koreans, handicapped people, North Koreans, and children — are far more strict.

I think this is a pattern also present to some degree in Blind — hence the cop-out in the climactic scene and the cloying and, to me, unrealistic epilogue tacked onto the film…  although I must explain my position about this carefully.

I don’t mean to castigate the people involved in Blind. Problems or not, it’s good to see the physically challenged out in the open for once; Miss Jiwaku was telling me about an article she read recently, in which a British mouth painter (both without hands, and with tiny feet) visited Korea and commented along the lines of, “It’s a very nice country, I like Korea very much, but where are all the handicapped people?” The response Miss Jiwaku described her getting was an awkward silence. Meanwhile — and I think this was the same article (I’ll add a link or links when I can) — the author reported, during a trip to some European country, seeing a bunch of physically handicapped people around town — relaxing in the park, going along the streets in their wheelchairs, and so on, a Korean rushed into a shop and inquired whether a violent demonstration by the handicapped was afoot, to which the shop owner made a face and said, “What do you do on nice, sunny days? You go outside. That’s what they’re doing!”

The latter anecdote is relevant for two reasons: one, the physically challenged in Korea are often hidden away, and it is unusual to see them in public as a general rule. (I’d say that in the past year, I’ve seen maybe three or four groups of deaf people conversing in sign language, one visually impaired person with a white cane, and a couple of people in wheelchairs, and I live on the outskirts of the biggest city in the country.) But the anecdote is also telling because, when there are large numbers of physically challenged people in public here, it is often in order to attend a demonstration. One thing people tell me, often, is that the handicapped in Korea fight vigorously, fight very hard, for their rights, for better support, for respect. That this has not been achieved cannot be blamed on them, everyone agrees.

I can’t help but wonder if their families fight; I wonder whether fighting is understood to mean taking your handicapped relative to the park, to a restaurant, for a walk in the evening, or whatever. I wonder how many people push their political representatives to provide better support and help for these people to be integrated into society? (Then again, roughly half the population of Korea is women, and you’d think getting female-specific health care costs by national insurance in to the degree male-specific health care is would be easy… yet it hasn’t happened, as anyone who’s visited the gynecologist for an HPV vaccine or pap smear can tell you.) I don’t know. But I do know that depicting such people as perpetual victims might give people something to feel vicariously sad and guilty for a while… and doesn’t force people to confront their own complicity in the marginalization and tangible oppression of these people.

But you know, inertia is inertia, and that’s part of why I’m reticent to criticize this film too much. Korea has quite a distance to go in its acceptance of the physically challenged and in the integration of them into public life, the recognition of them as human beings with the full rights to dignity, experience, and happiness. (And Canada, the USA, and the rest of the Western world, while having made some inroads, is far from perfect too.) In that light, Blind isn’t just a fairly taut and thoughtful thriller — through the protagonist’s unseeing eyes, we are made to “see” how unfair it is how blind people are either dismissed or go unsupported in Korean society; we see how very capable they can be (for the blind protagonist is a key witness to a murder, and provides a number of crucial clues from her “ear-witness” and tactile/olfactory account).

The film does a lot of things well, and is certainly a step in the right direction. It’s just, if you know more than the average person about visually impaired people, the things it got slightly wrong will stick out to you like a sore thumb.

4 thoughts on “블라인드 Blind, Part 1: A Review

  1. Hi Gord,

    I haven’t seen the film “Blind”; I wasn’t aware of it playing anywhere in Seoul with English subtitles and a couple of my Korean students actually advised against watching it. I may pick up the DVD whenever that comes out. That said, this was a very insightful commentary, particularly with regard to the notion that blind people are somehow pitiable and unable to live normal lives. Thanks.

    1. Marc,

      I saw it without subtitles, and think it didn’t screen with subtitles. (It’s usually the crappiest action films that get screened with English subs.)

      I don’t think the film in itself was brilliant, though I think it’s funny your students advised against it. Then again, you have students who watch films — or read the online reactions of people who do. On the first day of class in the course I teach where culture is studied via film, I asked people to name the last movie they saw… most were at a complete loss, and had seen none of the films, Korean or foreign, that I asked about thereafter. It was kind of sad, to the tune of, “Why are you taking a film class if you don’t love films?”

      As for the pity thing, it’s weird, but I find this kind of overcompensation-for-pathos thing all over the place in Korean media. Like, as if people wouldn’t feel compassion for a handicapped person (or a hated minority, or whatever) unless they were utterly put-upon and abused. I find it a bit baffling, really…

  2. I worked as a campus tour guide back in Berkeley, and a fellow tour guide was a blind woman — which is a remarkable feat because tour guides are supposed to walk backwards while talking. More than a few tour guides have tripped and fallen during the tour. One guy actually broke his wrist because of the fall. But not her — she would just put her cane backwards, and easily navigate throughout the campus. People were amazed.

    1. While I understand why people would be astounded by it, actually, it’s less remarkable that a blind woman could do it… right?

      I mean, the walking backward part is primarily hard for someone used to seeing stuff. If your blind, you’re blind in all directions at once, and I’m guessing it’s maybe more trivial to flip the cane and navigate from the same input, just backwards. (Sort of like I doubt people walking with a mirror held aloft would fall and injure themselves, once they got used to going around that way.)

      But yeah, when you hang out with blind people it is sort of amazing all the things they’re capable of doing; we think of them as handicapped and no doubt one loses out on certain things when blind or visually impaired — but many also have capabilities that could blow the minds of the sighted. (Don’t even get me started on the way some of these people have a killer memory for details.)

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