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New Korean SF Movie(s)! 인류멸망보고서 / Doomsday Book

This entry is part 53 of 70 in the series SF in South Korea

I haven’t added anything to the SF in South Korea series, in part because I’ve been consumed with other things, but also because I haven’t heard much of the doings about town. However, last night Miss Jiwaku and I took in the newest Korean SF offering —  titled 인류멸망보고서 (and Doomsday Book in English) and despite our worst fears from the advertising and marketing, the film is actually pretty good!

(Miss Jiwaku even went so far as to say she felt it suggested a “way forward” for SF cinema in Korea. More about that later.)

The reason we were worried was because, unless you know something about the film, the trailer might confuse you:

It features a zombie outbreak (in Seoul), a robotic monk in a Buddhist monastery, and a giant asteroid shaped like an 8-ball (like, the 8-ball on a pool table) hurtling towards the Earth. I, for my part, wondered what the hell kind of narrative could knit the three together, and suspected it would take an audacious director to pull it off. Ready for disaster, but hopeful, we went to the movie…

… and discovered it was an omnibus film. That is, a collection of short films marketed under a single title. Thus it was that we got to enjoy three different stories–or, at least, two of them, in my case–and I have to say that each one had its strengths.

The first tale, 멋진 신세계 “Mutjin Sinsegye,” concerns a a man left behind in Seoul when his family goes on an overseas trip; his mother leaves a list of chores for him to complete, including taking out the recycling and dumping the food trash in the communal bin. The man does so, dutifully but with no little horror, and something happens with some of that food trash: an apple that was rotting on the floor of his balcony, which ends up spawning some kind of mutated, viral horror. Rotten apple + the Korean food trash recycling system = wonderful horrible awful zombie plague.

The second tale apparently is an adaptation of Korean SF author Park Sung-Hwan’s 2004 prize-winning story (from a national SF writing competition, as far as I can tell), a piece titled “레디메이드 보 살” (“Readymade Bodhisattva” is a direct transliteration, though I would probably suggest “Prefab Bodhisattva” as more similar in meaning). The story appears to be online here. (In Korean; there isn’t an English translation as far as I know.) It features a robot that, living among Buddhist monks, seems to be a devoted and outstanding Buddhist… without any apparent breakdown or change in its operating system, as the monks suspected. But when the owner of the robotics company decides it’s time for the robots in that line to be destroyed, things take a surprising turn.

The third tale, which in my opinion is the weakest of the three, concerns a little girl who orders a replacement 8-ball for her father’s pool table, since the old 8-ball cracked. By a strange series of coincidences–or are they?–the replacement that get delivered to her is about ten kilometers in diameter, and approoaching the Earth fast enough to, er, do some damage, let’s say.

Though I’m not the biggest fan of omnibus films, I think they can do justice to adaptation of SF short stories. The fact that the third film is a collaboration between the directors of the first two isn’t surprising, since someone’s penchant for social satire takes very similar form in the first and third films. That said, the satire is hilarious, at least if you have a brain in your head. (Sadly, in a theater that was unfortunately already somewhat empty, Miss Jiwaku and I were the only ones laughing aloud at parts that were genuinely hilarious.)

I’m going to add a cut below, because there are spoilers in the discussion I want to add about the three segments specifically. So consider yourself warned. In the paragraph following this one, there be spoilers a-lurking! (And also pics from the film.)

Oh, but one more thing: I don’t know whether the filmmakers are aware of Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book but I do know it exists in (supposedly very good) Korean translation. I thought it was weird they chosen that name for their SF omnibus, but obviously it has nothing to do with the Willis novel.

The first story–that of a zombie outbreak in Seoul–was notable for several reasons.

One of them was the source of the zombie contagion. It’s worth noting that the segment was made in 2006–as was the second segment, after which funding fell apart and the project had to be shelved until 2011. The reason I mention this is that the film echoes an observation made about the 2008 US Beef Protests in Seoul in the pages of the (now defunct, in print form anyway) Korean SF magazine Fantastique; namely, that zombies were mentioned on both sides of the political spectrum in response the the protests and their focus. (The protesters tended to argue that their fears of US Beef were rooted in a terror about the prospect of Koreans being “zombified” by mad cow disease; the opponents, the political conservative establishment, argued that the leftists had already been “zombified” themselves, by the ideologues who organized the protests.)

The signal thing is that the source of the zombie contagion in the film is not American beef, but instead Korean beef, fed on the waste products of Korean food trash, which–as you’ll know if you’ve lived in a Korean apartment building, and dumped your food trash into one of the communal bins–is a horrifically disgusting business. Those who have not done so might imagine that the acting is exaggerated in that part of the film, but from my experience I know that it is not. I am not sure that the director would have done things differently if the segment had been filmed after 2008, when the US Beef-zombification meme had arisen. And though the film likely would not in 2006 have reached a big enough audience to complicate the 2008 beef-zombification meme, I can’t help but wonder if a feature zombie film on the subject could have done so.

Still, for me, it’s a step forward that the film locates the source of contagion in the industrial processes of agriculture taking place in Korea, instead of the common, and oft-heard, trope of it always being corruption-from-without (ie. the manifestation of xenophobic anxiety). This represents the power of SF to drive home criticisms and discussion of the real world–the world that is of direct and crucial concern to the audience. While Korean society tends to be quick to worry about the industrial agricultural processes of other countries exporting to Korea (China, the USA, and so on) they tend to be just a little too comfortable with Korea’s domestic agribusiness… while those know know the truth about it–about outbreaks of bird flu, hoof-in-mouth disease, and so on–know that that comfort is probably to ssome degree unwarranted.

I also think the zombie apocalypse visited upon Seoul is pretty well-done, as far as zombiepocalypses go. And yet the director manages to tell a story–to put a human face on the destruction, to squeeze a tragic romance into the story in a way that makes dark comedic sense. Very well done.

The second film, the one based on Park Sung-Hwan’s story, is an odd segment. I think it’s amazingly well done in terms of rendering the robot, and the setting (I mean the monastery where most of the action takes place) is perfect. I noticed everyone speaking very, very formal Korean constantly, which was odd–during my trips of monasteries, and even occasional interactions with Buddhist monks, I didn’t find them speaking in extremely formal terms to me or even to older Koreans with me (on a couple of occasions).

Miss Jiwaku hasn’t yet read Park’s original story, but she said that she got the feeling the director was, at certain points, engaging in homage to the Japanese SF series Ultraman (I think she said it was Ultraman, anyway), since a lot of the language seemed to remind her of that. There are some interesting twists and turns, but what makes this segment work most is that it is based on a real philosophical question that has been asked, and answered, within a specifically Korean cultural context: not exactly whether AIs can “be human”–though Hollywood seems to have us believing that human status is what intelligent nonhumans will always most desire–but rather whether nonhumans, intelligent machines, will be able to attain the most revered and elevated states that humans aspire to. Can a machine become a bodhisattva? The answer offered is especially interesting because of the explanation the robot gives: that, while humans must struggle against their attachments and emotions, robots are born tabula rasa, primed and ready for a bodhisattva state.

In that, the film inverts our usual arrogance: if we’re special, then it’s just as possible we’re especially handicapped, and our struggle to spiritual or philosophical enlightenment is harder, not easier, because of our humanity. Though I haven’t read Mr. Park’s story all the way through, I cannot help but think that the reason this story–unlike the other two in the film–has this deeper speculative-philosophical dimension, and indeed shares in the universal inquiry and questioning that is present in all the best SF, is because it was based on a story by an actual SF author. More, please! More!

(Which is not to say that the first segment didn’t have a philosophical  issue at hand: but it’s an overt one, not a deeper, nuanced dilemma we cannot yet answer; anyone with his or her head screwed on straight knows agribusiness is not sustainable, but nobody knows right now whether an AI could become a saint or bodhisattva.)

I was not a fan of the third segment in this film, in part because it seems to me to fall into some of the same traps that previous SF films in Korea have fallen into. While I very much enjoyed parts of it–such as the news broadcast section, which is brilliantly hilarious, though a bit reminiscent of the TV program in the first segment–overall, this was sort of SF of the handwavey mumbo-jumbo variety: um, like, it’s destiny for a broken 8-ball to get tossed out a window and land in a hole in the concrete that’s the opwn mouth of a wormhole and then a little girl orders a new 8-ball for a tiny amount of money from an alien website she accessed via Naver, so that the earth (or at least Seoul) could get ruined by an alien-send 8-ball asteroid from space. Or something.

It was cute in  parts, frustrating in parts, and there were a couple of special effects that were phenomenal, like the delivery man near the end. Oh, and it has Bae Doona, which I’d normally think of as a good thing (though I was confused at first: she looks nothing at all like the little girl she was supposed to have been in the earlier part of the film). In the end, I felt frustrated because I couldn’t help imagine what could have been made if the directors had used those resources to adapt a story of the same quality as Park Sung Hwan’s. Cute and funny plus wormholes and weirdness does not SF make. At least, not the best stuff.

However, I should qualify my criticism: I wasn’t crazy about “Happy Birthday” but it was still leaps and bounds better than most Korean SF films made so far. It kicked most of those flat outright. It just wasn’t quite up to the quality of the other two segments in my opinion.

In any case, I do hope Miss Jiwaku is right that this heralds a route forward for Korean SF cinema, in that I hope more directors turn to Korea’s SF authors for material, in that more directors consider the possibilities of lower-budget omnibus projects, and in that more directors start grappling with ideas, and with the SF genre on a deeper level than just the superficial.

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