So, I mentioned the Korean SF film Invasion of Alien Bikini a few weeks ago. Miss Jiwaku and I saw it tonight, and, well, to say it ruined out evening would be an understatement. I am going to tell you the whole plot here, so that you don’t have to see it, and know why you should not, in fact, spend a single won on it.
The thing is, the film really didn’t have to suck. The opening section was actually really interesting: I felt like I was seeing Seoul represented in a film in a way I’d never seen before: a different feel to the skyline, a kind of easy comfort with the grunginess of the place, an honesty about the trash on the sidewalk and coldness and loneliness of the city.
There was some fairly effective, if somewhat cheesy comedy, as a fellow wearing a fake mustache wandered about “doing good” — picking up trash and throwing it into bins, for example, which highlighted what a pathetic do-gooder he was. He stumbles on a woman being chased by a group of men, and intercedes… and somehow, he kicks their asses with his bizarre, almost satirical martial arts moves. Whatever the hell he is, he is able to take a beating and keep fighting.
Finally, having rescued the young lady, he brings her to his crappy apartment, and becomes extremely uptight. This part is, once again, full of cheeseball comedy — he’s insanely uptight, to the point of not even wanting to look at the woman, and avoiding her gaze. But a bizarre game of jenga leads to a kind of semi-forced make-out session, and it becomes apparent the woman wants to sleep with him. Immediately. Oh, and her name is Harmonica. Which, you know, is surely a hooker’s name (or, okay, a party-girl’s pseudonym) if ever I heard one. Oh, and she’s insanely strong. Like, insanely strong.
But the uptightness returns, and the man resists. That’s when the woman goes nuts: she has a large tear i the skin of her back, and her spine emerges, just as you saw if you watched the preview, which I’ll paste again here:
Okay, so, the spine-attack thing knocks the man out, and when he wakes again, he discovers he has been tied up. The woman desperately tries to get him aroused, though on some level she also seems to exult in torturing him. Fellatio doesn’t turn him on, because, well, it’s not so fun when it causes bleeding; and she uses a feather duster to tickle him, but then brutalizes his backside with it. He finally gets turned on, but then staunchly refuses to sleep with her, because of a chastity vow he has taken.
When he continues to refuse her, she finally resorts to a more severe form of torture: flooding his sinuses with a tonic of pure evil: raw garlic, wasabi, hot peppers, and hot sauce, if I remember right, fed in through a hose in one nostril, through which the man is supposed to breathe.
I’ll cut ahead to the gist of what happens, because the torture goes on for some time: finally, she decides to choke him to death because, yeah, she’s an alien inhabiting a dead body, and she needs some sperm tonight to give birth to a child — tonight is the perfect night for it, and she can’t wait till tomorrow to be married to the man and get his sperm.
But at this moment, a flashback arises in the dying man’s mind, of… well, a case of extreme abuse he apparently suffered from his own father, as a child. (I’m talking tied up outside in the rain in your underwear, with rope around your neck, beaten on the head with a shoe till you bleed, drive you so mad you kill your own father in self-defense kind of abuse.) So the guy finally fights back.
Which is — yes, this is it — the moment this film seems to have been written to feature:
The climax of the film arrives when the man finally, finally fights back against this alien attacking him. He beats her in the face, repeatedly and for a long time, until his own face is covered with blood. Then, believing he has killed her as he did his own father, he feels a rush of guilt, and begins to weep for his crime. And then she stirs, and he realizes she isn’t dead… almost, but not quite. So then he rapes her. During none of this does she manifest any alien powers, any time-altering abilities, anything at all that would make her different than a human being.
So, yes, effectively, the film is a vehicle for a deeply misogynist beating-and-rape fantasy, inflicted by a geeky man upon a buxom, pretty young woman. That’s it, folks.
Well, I wish that was it. The denouement of the film involves the guys who were hunting the alien woman, who infodump her species’ history (plus some crap about their “speeeding up time” and “using up energy faster,” none of which made any sense at all). There are disgracefully overt references to the famous — and absolutely wonderful — Korean SF film Save the Green Planet (which it pained me to hear, since this crap film doesn’t deserve to even exist on the same Green Planet as that one), but those only made explicit what I’d already noticed: how much this film ripped off Save the Green Planet. And then the protagonist dies of old age while attacking another alien, who seems to have maybe killed Harmonica, except of course that it was the protagonist who beat her till she was crippled.
And then he dies. And that’s basically the end.
So, what to say, other than this was a complete and total waste of money and time?
Well, for one thing: this was like a slush-pile film. SF magazines that mention things not to do, explicitly mention NOT to write stories where protagonists enact rapes, or brutal beatings of women, just for the sake of the wanton misogynistic indulgence. Hell, look at Strange Horizons’ list of stories they’ve seen too often:
30. Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that’s ostensibly about violence against women being bad.
- Man is forced by circumstances or magic to rape a woman even though he really doesn’t want to, honest.
- The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped.
In case you’re wondering, yes, that is exactly my sense: the film suggests it will be a kind of amusing sex comedy, but at its core is a disturbingly misogynistic fantasy, portrayed in disgustingly loving detail.
Had Harmonica taken on an alien form — something nonhuman, that made clear her nature was not essentially that of a human woman — I would have been quite comfortable with him beating or killing his alien assailant. (Not guiltily raping it afterwards, in alien form, mind you, but the beating and killing would have been understandable, and non-misogynistic.)
Had Harmonica used her enormous and brutal strength to fend him off during this climactic scene, I might have believed it, and felt badly for the man as he resorted to violence, and discovered how puny and useless his emasculated male violence is in the face of a transcendent being from another corner of the galaxy.
A little blood would not have disturbed me so much if Harmonica had turned out to be truly alien, I guess, is what I’m saying. But in the crucial moment, Harmonica turns out to be nothing but a pretty chick — “bitch,” really, is the word I imagine the filmmaker using, however — set up to be beaten bloody and raped before an audience. But then, that’s not surprising given the track record for the treatment of women in Korean SF films, I suppose — they are almost all either depicted as grotesque, doomed to die pathetic deaths, or inhuman machines. (The woman with the bow in The Host being the one exception that comes to mind.)
As it was, I felt icky during and after the film, in the way you might feel icky watching a comedy show that suddenly turns racist and hateful and doesn’t look back, or watching a history film and then discovering it’s a pro-KKK paean.
But there’s more disappointment than that to consider: there’s the failure of yet another Korean SF film, when so much was possible. At first, I misheard the name Harmonica (with the familiar tag “sshi” appended to it) as Munakashi, which sounds a lot like the name of an alien in a famous Korean novella, Djuna’s Daerijeon (Proxy War). (Apparently quick and slightly rough translation here.) I was excited, hoping that perhaps this film was an adaptation of that novella or novel, which after all featured the notion that alien sex tourists were visiting the earth (and occasionally running amok in hijacked host bodies). If only the filmmaker had thought to adapt — or, hell, even to to rip off — Djuna.
For the love of all that’s holy, I wish would-be SF filmmakers in Korea would read some Korean SF, would talk to Korean SF authors, would maybe watch some SF movies. And I don’t just mean stupid SF-skin flicks like Species. I mean the broad range of SF films that exist from a whole bunch of cultures.
Finally, and I am really struggling with this pattern this year: why is it that in order to be sympathetic, a “good” character protagonist must put up with incredible amounts of crap (usually violence and abuse) passively before acting? Why can’t characters just lash out quickly, the first time someone hits them unprovoked, in self-defense? Why do they have to beg, and plead, and bow their head down as someone beats the crap out of them ten times, before standing up for themselves? Is this cultural, or does it annoy Korean viewers too? Is it some kind of melodramatic sympathy-overkill — as in, we won’t feel sorry enough to forgive character violence unless they take a lot of crap? Is it tied to problems in the depiction of agency, as Charles Montgomery argues is a major issue in Korean fiction?
I am pretty sure most Westerners will react as I do, finding the passivity of these characters off-putting even when, as in a film like Musan Ilgi (which I wrote about here) we really do want to sympathize with the poor protagonist.
The problem for Alien Bikini is that, essentially, the moment when the male protagonist becomes “real” for us, becomes truly sympathetic because he is fighting for his life, he is also beating the living crap out of what was supposed to be an alien all along, but suddenly seems much more like a plain, defenseless, half-naked human woman. He is humanized, and dehumanized, at precisely the same moment.
What I couldn’t help wondering was — why did the actress take the part? Also: well, should I really be surprised at misogyny in this film? It’s a sex-comedy in which not one character is a woman (there is an alien inhabiting a female human’s dead body, but that’s it). Bechdel Test, anyone?
I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can really say about this film. I am shocked that it got a theatrical release here, let alone having won a prize at any festival on Earth. (Though, frankly, if it was going to win anywhere, it would be in Japan; that’s the only place I’ve ever seen anything comparably disturbing made.) For an (unsurprisingly inane) interview with the cast and director, go here. But why would you? Other than a little comedy at the beginning, and cleavage, what above interests you?
Okay, okay, cleavage, and tight clothes, and so on:
… but that does not make up for the film, really, it doesn’t. You can have cleavage and a non-stupid plot. You can have tight-clothes without misogyny culminating in brutality and rape. (And while someone might argue that the word “rape” is the wrong word, I think it is; the alien is dying, and while the protagonist believes he’s doing her an act of desperate kindness, it’s a ridiculous idea… especially, as I noted, given how very human she seems at that moment.)
And while I can say seeing this film made me even more eager to try write something feature-length in the Lovecraftian-SF/horror genre for Miss Jiwaku and me to shoot in Korea, I must add that I did not come to this film seeing it as competition to be bashed. I wanted to love this film — I tried, because I think the more SF is made in Korea, the better chance we have of getting good Korean SF films made, and too few of the ones that have been made actually were any good. (I can count the worthwhile ones on the fingers of one hand.) But when it saw I cared, Alien Bikini kicked me in the groin, and pointed and laughed, and then spat in my face for good measure.
But yeah, as Justin Howe commented not too long ago — the thing to do is not to complain, but to “Make something new. Make something better.” Still, this post was useful to me for working out exactly why the film disturbed me so much… as well as why I want to tell everyone I know not to go see it. That figured out, I shall move on to better, newer things to be made.