Everyone drinks beer, even small children.
Everyone smokes, and they really like Zippo lighters.
The preferred mode of suicide is jumping off things, and people jump off things a lot – even things that aren’t that tall. They seem very sure about the fatality of jumping from a second floor window or balcony.
In fact, lots of death by falling in general: suicide, homicide or accident. Probably because guns are largely unavailable to Korean civilians… come to think of it, the only people I’ve noticed carrying guns in the movies are gangsters and military. Even the cops have to use tasers.
Hey, DHL delivery men are everywhere!
The cities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.
Rural communities are corrupt and full of dark secrets.
Do not go into the woods for any reason, unless you are a ghost or a killer looking for places to dump dead bodies.
If there is only one woman living in a remote area, there’s a 100% chance that she is the regional prostitute.
Movies are more like novels, cycling through several different plot lines, shifting conflicts, and large casts of characters. This is why so many films are 2 1/2 hours long, yet seldom feel boring. There’s always something happening. This is a big difference from American movies, which can often belabor a single thin plot-line for 80 minutes and still feel too padded out.
There’s always that one person who wails and carries on at a funeral while everyone else is stoic and silent.
Snipers always turn out to be pretty ladies. Subversive! Also subversive: female cops and serial killers.
Eyelid surgery is never not creepy, and bad things usually happen to the girls who have it (those vain whores!).
So many people play piano.
People in small towns really don’t like outsiders, especially if they come from the big city.
Buddhist traditions seem to mesh well with the more benevolent aspects of Christian ideology. Sure, you will always have judgmental, fire-and-brimstone bible-beaters, but you also have prayer through meditation, and serenity and generosity as a form of spiritualism.
I’m not saying all of these things are true of life in South Korea (any more than Hollywood movies represent the life of the average American), but the movies create their own reality revealing what a different culture finds entertaining. Hint: it’s not that different from what we do. Sex, violence, explosions, anxieties over failure and the search for a good life.
I had hoped to make a post about “Korean War Movies” this past weekend, but then I got struck down by the world’s most annoying head cold, which left me unable to do anything except watch movies and stare at Cracked.com for hours straight. Another hitch in my plan: the four movies I had chosen for War Weekend, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, R-Point, Silmido, and The Front Line, weren’t all about the Korean War, at least not directly.
Only two of the films dealt explicitly with the war. The first was Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War, and the second was The Front Line. The Brotherhood of War is about the relationship between two brothers and how they are affected by the war. The older brother, Jin-tae, is a shoe shine who wants a better life for his younger brother, Jin-seok, and works to send him to college. At the start of the war, Jin-seok is coerced into the army; Jin-tae boards the train in an attempt to retrieve his younger brother, but the military forces him into service, too. Jin-tae does everything he can to protect the vulnerable and intelligent Jin-seok, taking on riskier and more challenging missions in the hopes that Jin-seok will be sent home to preserve the family line. Eventually, Jin-tae’s recklessness pays off, not in sending his brother home, but in helping himself ascend the military ranks; soon it’s no longer clear whether the humble shoe shine has turned ruthless and ambitious or if he’s just making necessary sacrifices.
The Front Line delivers less family drama and more political intrigue. Taking place closer to the end of the Korean War, the film focuses on the numerous battles that would define the exact border between the two states. Specifically, the two armies fight over Aerok Hill, which changed hands continuously throughout the war. Following the commanding officer’s death by friendly fire, an agent from the Defense Security Command is sent to the front lines to investigate a possible mole in the Alligator Company, the group of South Korean soldiers tasked with defending the hill. The investigator soon finds that there is no mole; instead, soldiers from the North and the South have been exchanging messages and gifts by way of a secret compartment as the hill changes hands from army to army.
Of the two war movies, I enjoyed The Front Line the most. Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War was an important, expensive, and popular film when it came out, and it’s worth noting that the battle scenes are spectacularly made, with all the explosions and horrific gore. But if J.S.A. was a Spielbergian political drama, Brotherhood of War is a war movie by James Cameron. The battle sequences go on far too long, so impressed with themselves that one battle sequence is immediately followed by another battle sequence, while everything else pertaining to the relationships between characters is schmaltzy and melodramatic. Every time the choral, string-laden, emotionally manipulative theme music started up, I wanted to gag. The development of the main characters didn’t go much beyond “stoic, protective big brother” and “trembling, doe-eyed little brother.”
The Front Line also had impressive battle sequences, but this movie had the advantage of being anchored to an interesting and specific location. The image of soldiers climbing up the steep hillside as it literally crumbled beneath them was very striking. The plotline was mostly formless, moving from conflict to conflict: clandestine trading between enemies, repressed traumatic memories, a mysterious sniper, betrayal between friends – but this kept the film moving along at a nice pace, unlike Brotherhood, which spent two and half hours beating the same dead horse (I have to protect my brother!). I also enjoyed the assortment of characters more (as well as their camaraderie), especially the enigmatic, almost serpentine, morphine-addicted acting commander.
In between watching these Korean War movies, I took a little detour into the horror genre with R-Point, which actually takes place during the Vietnam War (Korean soldiers fought on the side of the U.S.). R-Point has a great premise, but the movie is so convoluted in the second half that I’m not even sure what I watched. The movie begins at a South Korean base in Vietnam when a soldier’s voice comes over the radio, pleading for his platoon to be rescued. The catch? That whole platoon was killed six months ago.
A troubled commanding officer is sent to the “R-Point” with eight other misfits to investigate the situation and bring back any soldiers who might somehow still be alive. When they arrive, they find a stone marking a mass grave; a hundred years earlier, the Chinese slaughtered scores of Vietnamese and threw their bodies into a lake, which was later filled in to become the site of a temple. The stone warns that anyone with blood on his hands will not return. Naturally, the soldiers ignore the warning and trudge on, setting up camp at an abandoned French mansion. So creepy, so far.
As they start their search for the missing platoon, however, things get less scary and more nonsensical. The characters make stupid decisions, relying too heavily on the “lets split up!” method of search and rescue, even after this proves to be a bad idea time after time. Also, everyone deviates from every plan, with predictably disastrous results. Didn’t these soldiers learn any kind of discipline in the army? It’s also hard to tell, after a while, who is haunting whom. Which may be the point, I guess. War is bad for everyone, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the French, that sniper girl they killed on their way in, the lost and now possibly spectral platoon… Atrocities must be punished. Those with blood on their hands will not return. Maybe I wasn’t paying much attention (I was sick and probably a little delirious), but it just didn’t work from me. However, I did like the bleeding radio with the spooky voices coming out.
The most pleasant surprise of my “War Weekend” was Silmido, a film that isn’t even about war. Loosely based on real events, Silmido is about “Unit 684,” a team of death row inmates and other convicts who were assembled by the military in 1968 to assassinate Kim Il-sung of North Korea. The film documents, in brutal detail, the rigorous and inhumane training regimen the thirty-one men underwent, not only so they would be in peak physical condition, but so they could withstand torture without revealing information if captured during the mission.
They are finally sent on their intended mission, after months of physical and psychological abuse, eager to carry out the assassination – but they are immediately called back because the powers that be have decided that the country’s political climate has changed. Rather than upheaval and revenge, the people want peace and reunification. The team returns to the military camp and the men are forced to stay there until a decision is reached. Suddenly lacking a purpose, and extremely uncertain about their fate now that the mission has been cancelled, the men of Unit 684 grow increasingly restless.
My memory of details is a little fuzzy (again, sick and delirious) but I was completely engrossed in the story of these men, the treatment they endured from the military, their hopes of redemption through political sacrifice, and the complete anarchy that occurred when their one saving grace was ripped away from them. The military is a huge force. The government is a huge force. This group of thirty-one criminals tried to rebel against the reality they had no agency of their own in the face of such institutional power. They only barely comprehended that they were pawns in the bigger game. They thought participating in the assassination would give their lives meaning beyond their crimes and ruined reputations. But, naively, they never considered that they were disposable until it was too late.
Anyway, this was War Weekend. Thanks for following along.
A few of my friends have approached me about this month’s topic — South Korean movies — somewhat befuddled. Why Korean films? they want to know. Is this “a thing?” The short answer is, yes, this is a thing. All of the movies I’ve watched this month were made within the last fifteen years, the result of a movement called the Korean New Wave.
In the article “New Wave of Pop Culture Redefines Korea,” writer Andrew Salmon outlines the factors involved in creating this new wave. At the end of the 80s, South Korea started the process of democratization, and within a few years the strict censorship laws started to loosen up. Not only did the free flow of information across borders allow South Korea to absorb more Western culture, it also became easier for Korean film, music, and television shows to get distribution in other countries – including the U.S (Salmon).
By the time the late 90s rolled around, many of the filmmakers who would be crucial to the New Wave had come into their own, feeling liberated to take greater artistic risks that would have been prohibited in the earlier, more authoritarian era. The first big hit that ushered in the wave was 1999’s Swiri (or Shiri, as it’s also called), an action movie that became an international success and allowed for bigger budgets and a global market.
Salmon’s article claims that the New Wave more or less ended around 2005 when Korean films became mainstream enough that they were no longer novel, but simply part of the international cinematic landscape. An article from Yahoo! Voices, “The Rise (and Wane) of Korean New Wave Cinema,” partially attributes the bust to changing screen quota laws. The screen quota law was another crucial factor that had encouraged the wave: the law required that Korean films be shown in theaters for 146 days of the year, giving more exposure to burgeoning local talent. But in 2006, the quota was reduced to 73 days, meaning that all the other days of the year, theaters were free to show Hollywood and other countries’ movies (“Rise”). Even in South Korea, the demand for native filmmakers had declined.
Through watching these movies, I’ve come to know many of the big name directors associated with the wave. The two most prominent figures are Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Park made a splash in his home country with the release of J.S.A. (which I covered here earlier in the month), a film that deals movingly with the forbidden friendship between North and South Korean soldiers at the border. But he gained international recognition when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. His style is flashy and often violent, brightly colored and full of dark humor. It’s easy to put his films in the same class as Quentin Tarantino’s arty/ultraviolent ouvre (and Tarantino himself has championed Park’s films), except Park doesn’t make distracting or self-conscious references to other movies like old Q does. Basically, he makes movies that are endlessly entertaining and badass in ways that a 15-year-old boy would love – but creative, unpredictable, and sentimental enough to elevate them beyond the sometimes gruesome material.
Bong Joon-ho’s films are a little harder to describe. Often darkly comic, his stories tend to focus on covert actions that ripple out to affect an entire community and then dissect the relationships within that community. He made a breakthrough with his 2003 film Memories of Murder, a true crime drama about a rural serial killer in the 1980s. I saw it a year or two ago, so my impressions are hazy, but it was impressive and chilling, an interesting character study on the local police and detectives who were investigating the case. Very reminiscent, in some ways, of Fincher’s Zodiac. American audiences would know Bong best as the director of 2006’s The Host, a big budget genre-hopping monster movie with elements of horror, slapstick, and political satire. This was the first Korean movie I ever saw, and it left me curious to see more. His best film, however, is probably 2009’s Mother, about a murder that may or may not have been committed by a developmentally disabled teenager and his mother’s attempts to cover up the crime.
Other notable Korean directors include:
Kim Ki-duk (Samaritan Girl; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring; and The Isle, which I’m writing up soon)
Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; and I Saw the Devil)
Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid, and The President’s Last Bang)
Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine and Poetry)
Kang Je-kyu (Swiri and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War – which I plan to watch this weekend).
So, again the question: Why Korean movies? The average American moviegoer often feels alienated by foreign films, especially ones from Asian countries. We feel that we lack the cultural literacy to understand the customs, character motivation, the sense of humor, and sometimes the difference in culture even changes the way we recognize emotional expression. It doesn’t help that much of what finds success through the festival circuits lean toward the “arthouse” side. I think Korean movies are interesting because, based on what I’ve seen, they’re generally more palatable to Western audiences’ tastes. There’s a lot of quirkiness, humor, action, and schlubby, underdog characters who are easy to identify with. The films show that the country probably has a ways to go as far as sexism is concerned, but otherwise they defy the Western stereotype of the coldly aloof, conservative overachiever. It’s hard to say how much of the filmmaking style and characterization in modern Korean cinema is the result of Hollywood’s influence and how much of it reflects the true local culture. At this point, it’s probably a chicken-egg question.
The way the films meld Eastern and Western attitudes and aesthetics makes them feel fresh, even if you’re watching what might ordinarily be a garden-variety crime thriller or revenge fantasy. Many of the tropes (cops, murderers, prostitutes, ghosts, mental institutions) are familiar, but we’re seeing them through a new set of eyes with a different set of cultural circumstances. The way Hollywood clashes with Seoul, Communism with Capitalism, and Buddhism with Christianity all makes for a viewing experience that’s one part thrilling and one part comforting. Not all of the movies I’ve been watching fall under the New Wave umbrella — as many of them were released post-2005 — but they’re clearly carrying on the legacy as they broaden their appeal and assert their right to compete in the global market. For better or for worse, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are making their Hollywood debuts in 2013 with Stoker and Snow Piercer, respectively. And the cult popularity of Oldboy has prompted an American remake headed up by Spike Lee, a development that has been very controversial among fans of the original.
Recommended Places to Start
I’d advise checking out something by either Bong or Park, since they’re the most popular — and with good reason; both make films that are sleek and accessible. For Park, I recommend either Oldboy or Joint Security Area (avoid starting with Thirst. It’s great, but kind of messy and inscrutable). For Bong, watch The Host. If you like that, proceed to Mother and Memories of Murder. If you like horror movies, check out A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s a little on the confusing side, but eerie and beautiful. The American remake, The Uninvited, was apparently terrible.
Until next time, annyonghi-kjeseyo.
I loved this stupid movie – and it was extremely stupid — but it also scared the shit out of me, because I don’t like ghosts. (At one point I actually screamed. I don’t think I’ve ever done that while watching a horror movie.) You can kill zombies with a good whack over the head and you can check your closets for serial killers, but with ghosts, who can walk through walls and crawl out of things like mirrors or TV sets, you’re fucked.
Just from the subtitle, Melody of Death (or the literal translation, Melody of the Curse) I was expecting something a little closer to Ringu: instead of a haunted video tape, there would be a haunted song that would kill you because you listened to it. Unfortunately, although the song is cursed, it’s a little more complicated and only curses people who perform the song.
White is a lot of fun because it introduced me a new aspect of South Korean culture that I didn’t know much about: the apparently cutthroat world of K-pop! The movie centers around a girl group called the Pink Dolls who are having a hard time getting their career off the ground. These girl groups are a lot like the boy bands that were popular here ten years ago: completely manufactured and chosen for the most superficial traits. The four girls in Pink Dolls fit the roles of the hot girl, the nice girl, the girl who can dance, and the girl who can actually sing (not a lot of thought went into character development).
The main character, Eun-joo is a sweet (but not entirely innocent) girl who is trying to succeed as a pop star despite the fact that she is older than the other group members and is trying to distance herself from her past as a backup dancer (which apparently, in this world, is a shameful thing). She doesn’t engage in the kind of pettiness and backstabbing that her group-mates do, but she also isn’t above sleeping with powerful men to improve her position.
Being a pop star isn’t just a job – it’s an all-consuming lifestyle. The girls move into a facility where they have their own recording studio, dance studio, living quarters and dressing rooms. They have a team of backup dancers, choreographers, and studio wizards who work for them, in addition to a testy agent who has little patience for the girls’ squabbles. Soon after moving into the studios, Eun-joo (played by a real-life pop star from a group called T-ara) discovers an old videotape of a girl group dancing to a catchy song called “White.” Since nobody has any claim to the song, they decide to use it as their own. “White” becomes an instant hit, which is great until their agent informs them that they need to designate a lead singer, and the fight for who deserves the main spot proves to be the Pink Dolls’ undoing.
As soon as one girl claims the lead, she’s taken down by a mysterious force, and then the next girl, and the next. Throughout the film, the ghostly white-haired figure from the videotape lurks in the periphery. Basically, this dead pop singer isn’t happy that someone else is singing her song and she must avenge the thievery, as well as her death!
This is all very creepy, and the ghost attacks are impressively audacious even when they’re too ridiculous to be truly scary. The movie undermines a lot of the fright factor by showing too much of the ghost too soon and making her a little too corporeal. The ghost pop star doesn’t just attack the girls when they are alone in the dark; she does it even when the victim is surrounded by other people, in full view of the crowd, except that the victim is the only one who can see the evil spirit. This is pretty terrifying as an idea, but a little silly as a visual. I won’t lie, though. I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight.
The movie’s biggest weakness is that it strains credibility, and not just in the fact that it’s about the vengeful spirit of a dead pop singer. The characters simply don’t behave in ways that are recognizably human. When the curse of the song first strike, the lead singer of the moment sweats and looks violently ill, yet no one around her seems to notice? This happens over and over again. The sick-looking girl is expected to go onstage, or do a video shoot, an interview, or a strenuous dance routine and absolutely nobody notices that she’s on death’s door?
Complaints aside, I kind of loved this movie. The blurry, white-haired, disfigured ghost really freaked me out, even as the reasonable side of me knew how ridiculous and convoluted it all was. The pop star angle was a new twist that I’ve never seen in a horror film before and one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. It was a lot of fun to see all the music industry stuff, the bad dance music, the choreography, cat-fighting and costumes. Also fun: the girl group super-fans camped outside band headquarters in their sleeping bags. Seriously, is there an American remake in the works? Someone needs to get on that.
The recurrence of rabbit imagery in the Korean films I’ve seen recently prompted me to go on a little investigation. (One of the main characters in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK wears a helmet with bunny ears, the killer in Bloody Reunion wears a child’s rabbit mask, and the house in Hansel and Gretel is decorated with disconcerting rabbit portraits and stuffed animals.) This is what I found out: the rabbit, as I should have remembered, is one of the animals on the zodiac, and many Asian countries describe the patterns on the moon as resembling a rabbit, whereas we see the Man in the Moon. The creature’s importance as a symbol dates back to a Buddhist tale in which a rabbit sacrifices himself to feed a hungry beggar (who is actually a heavenly ruler in disguise), and as a reward for his generosity, he is taken to live in heaven (the moon).
So how does this knowledge inform my comprehension of today’s films? Not one bit! It’s a nice little piece of trivia to have, though. As my source points out, “The rabbit’s familiar role as a protagonist in Korean folklore says something about the personality traits that are valued in Korean culture. Time after time, the animal is portrayed as docile and smart, witty and creative.” Maybe the use of rabbit imagery in the horror films is meant to be ironic, since the characters are far from being either docile or generous.
In my first blog post about Korean movies, I noted that the films tend to be on the longer side. Bloody Reunion, however, being only an hour and a half long, won me over by its remarkable efficiency of storytelling. We first see a beloved elementary school teacher who is very pregnant. While she sits on a rock watching her pupils at recess, blood begins to run down her leg; something is wrong. She gives birth to a child we are meant to understand is hideously deformed. Years pass and the child’s defects drive a wedge between husband and wife. In horror and shame, the father commits suicide – hanging himself in front of his son.
This all happens within the first two minutes of the film. Economical. The rest of Bloody Reunion clips along at a nice pace, as it develops its characters and sets up the story. After the opening, we skip to a point near the end when police discover a basement full of mutilated bodies and go to the hospital to question the only two survivors of a horrific massacre: the aging, unconscious mother/teacher who is now dying of cancer, and her meek, shell-shocked caretaker who was once her student. She explains to the police what happened and most of the movie that follows is a flashback that shows her version of events:
Knowing that the teacher is close to the end of her life, the caretaker has decided to arrange a reunion at the house with a handful of former students who are all grown up now. As each student arrives, we get some great shorthand characterization. There’s the sad-sack former athlete cut down by injury, the plastic surgery-obsessed glamour-puss who used to be fat, the sensitive “shy guy” who lurks, the troubled and rebellious loner, and the seemingly well-adjusted couple who have overcome poverty and are engaged to be married. As each character interacts with their old mentor, it becomes clear that she wasn’t exactly a beloved schoolmistress, after all. In fact, she was kind of a mean bitch who physically and emotionally abused them throughout their childhoods in ways that very much shape and haunt their adult lives. One by one, the pupils confront their teacher about the various ways she ruined their lives, and then the carnage starts. Someone in a bunny mask starts killing the partiers one at a time, in extremely gruesome, albeit unrealistic, ways.
Is the killer the disfigured son who has come back to take revenge on the kids who once reviled him? Or is it the “shy guy” who took pity on the son and wants to punish his unsympathetic classmates? Or is it something else entirely? Probably one of those things! I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the movie really pulls the rug out from under the viewer, for better or for worse. For such a short movie, there are a lot of plot twists and weird structural reversals. The big reveal didn’t really work (for me) and left a lot of unanswered questions, as well as making some unsatisfying revisions to the first two-thirds of the movie. Setting that aside, though, I was still pretty impressed by the narrative risks that were taken.
The other horror movie I watched, Hansel and Gretel, eschewed the grimy, gory aesthetic of Bloody Reunion for a bright fairy tale world. The stream offered on Netflix is pretty terrible, giving all movement a drunken, glitchy look, and subtitles are only provided if you watch it via computer. But if you can overlook the obnoxious streaming quality, the movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The house in the forest where most of the action takes place looks like a set out of a Wes Anderson movie: all soft blues, greens, yellows, and reds with quirky wallpaper, printed upholstery, and books and toys everywhere. The movie falls only one step short of being a Doctor Seuss book. The rabbit motif is present in almost every scene. The walls are adorned with cheerful (but creepy) paintings of people wearing animal masks (or are they animals doing human things?). Sometimes there are actual rabbit masks hanging on the wall, stuffed rabbits that seem to cover every surface in the house, and a rabbit cartoon that plays on a loop on TV.
The plot is relatively simple: a young man has a wreck on an isolated country road and a little girl takes him back to her family’s house so that he can get his bearings. He spends the night recuperating with the family, a mother and father with three children – two girls and a boy – and notices something a little off about them. The parents are chipper but nervous, while the children are too serious and knowing. The next day, he sets off through the woods to return to the road where his accident occurred, except that the forest is a magical labyrinth that sends him right back to the house. From that point, things get increasingly weird as the parents disappear and the children beg him not to leave them alone. Mystical forces (and a whole lot of guilt trips from the kids) conspire to keep him at the house. These “angelic” children are not what they seem.
A lot of the reviewers on Netflix have raised a question about the intended audience for this film. General creepiness and graphic scenes of child abuse make Hansel and Gretel too intense for younger viewers, but the fairy tale qualities, while creating an unnerving disconnect between visual cheeriness and dark emotional drama, kind of kills the suspense for older viewers. (I will note, however, that an early scene of long black hair spilling through the opening to the attic triggered my Ringu-induced PTSD. Shudder.) The movie is too long and might have benefited from cutting a lot of the push and pull between the protagonist’s attempts to leave and the children’s pleas for him to stay. After the fiftieth time he tells them that he has to get back to his dying mother and his pregnant girlfriend, and the children just pout (evilly) and say “You hate us! Why do you want to leave so badly! You’re just like all the other grown-ups!” my only response was to roll my eyes and pray that something new would happen.
The lead actor, Chun Jung-myung, is totally adorable, but his character is too passive to be interesting. Instead of panicking or getting angry about his situation, he sort of accepts all the weird shit that happens with a weary resignation and tries to reason patiently with the hellspawn. The child actors are all pretty remarkable at keeping up with the tonal shifts that require them to be sweet, then creepy, then vulnerable, then creepy again. And the late addition of a deliriously unhinged deacon played by Park Hee-soon provides an entertaining bit of scenery chewing.
It may sound like I have a lot of complaints about this movie, but I liked it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, either in style or storytelling, and I regret not watching it on disc so that I could fully engage with the visual richness. It sags in the middle, becoming repetitive, but there’s enough interesting stuff in there to make it worth a look.
Bloody Reunion (also called To Sir, With Love)
Hansel and Gretel
I hadn’t previously known much about the Korean Demilitarized Zone beyond the fact that there was one neutral area where North Korea and South Korea could meet occasionally for negotiations. The DMZ is a heavily-guarded buffer zone, a no-man’s land, that creates the boundary between North and South, and the Joint Security Area is the only spot where the two states come together. According to Wikipedia, the Joint Security Area is only 2600 feet wide, and once upon a time, the agents of both North and South were allowed to move freely within this neutral area. However, the Military Demarcation Line (the real border) was eventually enforced even within the JSA. There is an actual line on the ground where North Korea and South Korea meet, and representatives from each side are not allowed to step over the line.
Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film J.S.A. (Joint Security Area) comments on the strangeness of this arrangement and the humanitarian conundrum it presents. Soldiers in charge of guarding the area live in the border houses on each side, living, working, and sleeping within mere feet of their enemies but never able to breach the line. Day after day, they stare at each other across the concrete slab on the ground that separates the states. There isn’t even a wall or a fence, just a line that is, almost literally, drawn in the sand. When representatives of each state need to speak to each other, they sit at opposite sides of a table – one half in North Korea, the other half in the South. The only people allowed to straddle the line and move from one side of the table to the other hail from neutral Switzerland. In one of the movie’s more affecting scenes, a soldier who attempts to cross over actually trips on the line as if it is a real, physical barrier. Such is the power of symbolism.
In the beginning of the film, Swiss agents of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission are called in to investigate a shooting at the North Korean border house that left two soldiers from the North dead and another wounded. They already know who did it — a South Korean border soldier named Soo-hyeok – but they want to understand how and why the incident occurred. Both sides claim a grievance against the other: according to the survivor from the North, Kyeong-pil (played by the excellent Song Kang-ho), Soo-hyeok broke into the border house and shot the other soldiers without provocation, but according to Soo-hyeok, the Northern soldiers abducted him and he was forced to defend himself.
(SPOILERS AHEAD — scroll down to skip)
But Park doesn’t drag out the ambiguity over who is telling the truth; the middle of the film focuses on the real story, shown through an extended flashback sequence. As it turns out, two of the North Korean soldiers involved in the shooting had become friends with Soo-hyeok after they rescued him from a mine-field. The South Korean solider, along with his friend and fellow guard Sung-shik, would sneak over the border at night for some extreme male bonding time with their frenemies. The developing friendship among the four men is shown in a touching and funny montage: they drink, play cards, arm-wrestle, share photos of their girlfriends, and teach each other how to shine their shoes. The nighttime becomes a neutral zone where national loyalty is trumped by bromance. One of the soldiers wonders aloud why the conflict between the two states should separate men from their own blood. They call each other “comrade” and “brother.” During the work day, they stand toe-to-toe and pretend to glare, spitting at each other across the line in a silly contest of one-upsmanship.
As we already know, this idyllic arrangement soon comes to a bloody end. A commanding officer discovers the two South Korean soldiers in the North Korean border house and in a moment of confusion, betrayal, and panic, a shootout leaves the commanding officer and one of the friendly soldiers dead. Sung-shik escapes and manages to keep his involvement a secret from the investigation for a little while, but Soo-hyeok, who was wounded in the shooting, is captured and taken into custody by the South.
J.S.A. is the kind of movie that would be called Oscar-bait in America (and it would probably be directed by Steven Spielberg). The way it depicts soldiers overcoming their ideological and political differences to become friends, risking their jobs and possibly their lives for treasonous actions, is the kind of emotionally manipulative filmmaking that wins awards. And indeed, J.S.A. at the time was one of the most popular films in Korea and won lots and lots of awards. This is also the film that solidified Park’s credentials as a director to watch. J.S.A. doesn’t have the same kind of visual panache that he would cultivate in his later films, but the movie is still technically strong; every frame is beautifully composed and the violence, although it occurs less frequently than in his Vengeance Trilogy, is rendered with unflinching brutality.
The movie also features a couple of great actors, the very handsome Lee Byung-hun (who plays Soo-hyeok) and Song Kang-ho, who have both gone on to be big stars in other films. More recently, I’ve seen Lee in 2010’s I Saw the Devil and in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, where he stars alongside Song again. Song, one of the most successful actors in South Korean cinema, has quickly become a favorite for me. I like it when I’ve seen enough of a foreign country’s films to start recognizing familiar faces and Song’s presence is always welcome. He’s a versatile performer who excels at both comedy and drama, bringing a sliver of warmth to the cruelest characters (Antarctic Journal) and bringing dignity to the silliest buffoons (Secret Sunshine). It’s easy to see why he’s become such a staple for two of Korea’s leading directors, Park (in addition to J.S.A., Song appears in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, and the upcoming Snow Piercer). In J.S.A., his character appears menacing at first, a gruff bad-guy “commie bastard” North Korean, but he is slowly revealed to be cool-headed (not cold-hearted), thoughtful, affable, and steadfast.
Alas, until Stoker is released next year, I’m out of Park Chan-wook films to watch. And it will be a sad day when I’ve run out of movies starring Song. That day is approaching way too fast.
Director Park Chan-wook makes films that are stylish, brutal, funny and surprisingly touching. He is best known for his 2003 cult classic Oldboy, which is part of a thematically (but not narratively) connected “Vengeance Trilogy,” alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. More recently, he used his bloody aesthetic to put a new twist on the vampire genre with Thirst in 2009.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which was released after the trilogy but before Thirst, is a kinder, gentler affair, but still has Park’s characteristic bite underneath the candy-coated exterior. The story follows Young-goon, a girl in a mental institution who refuses to eat because she believes she is a cyborg. She talks to vending machines, meditates on the simple pragmatism of a boiler, and “recharges” with a battery between her index fingers. I’m a Cyborg would rest comfortably beside the work of Michel Gondry, with its romance between two damaged souls, quirky peripheral characters, and brightly-colored fantasy sequences with flying and singing.
If this all sounds a little too cute, you should know that the film opens with Young-goon slitting open her wrist so that she can insert wires into the wound; in the moments that follow, she gets electrocuted when she tries to plug herself in. Park lets us know right away that, even though this movie is whimsical, he’s not fucking around.
The movie focuses on another inhabitant of the hospital, Il-sun, a young man who wears masks, hops around like a bunny, believes he is vanishing, and proclaims himself anti-social. Although he claims to have no sympathy or care for anyone – and he does seem adept at manipulating the other patients’ delusions – he develops an interest in Young-goon and works desperately to convince her to eat before she dies of starvation.
(Tangent: I just learned that the actor who plays Il-sun is a very popular Korean pop star. That’s so exciting! He’s called Rain! And apparently he was also in Ninja Assassin, which I have not seen. But he is kind of fucking adorable in I’m a Cyborg, so I can see why all the girls would swoon for him.)
The way the film deals with mental illness is interesting, but potentially exploitative. The patients all seem to be relatively harmless (Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies notwithstanding) and mostly happy, making hospitals seems like quirk-fests full of zany and colorful characters. We have the woman who believes her “magic socks” can make her fly, the girl who yodels in her von Trapp fantasy, and a guy who walks backwards and apologizes for everything. For each person in this film, insanity is not so much a defect, but simply a world of his or her own making that happens to be at odds with the “normal” world. I’m kind of okay with the “quirkiness” of mental illness as presented here because, even though a lot of scenes are played for comedy, the the film presents the characters as they want to see themselves; Park treats them with sympathy and takes their desires seriously.
Il-sun may be the least crazy of them all because he seems to understand that the craziness, including his own, all comes down to world-building – which is why he’s so good at infiltrating everyone else’s world. He can make other people believe what he wants them to believe through the power of suggestion, and in the case of saving Young-goon from starvation, he convinces her to believe what she needs to believe in order to survive.
Verdict: CHARMING AS FUCK