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Josiah Didn't Research This: Korean Movies

I've been on a pretty substantial Korean movie kick for the last year or so.  Netflix Instant has so many great options that it has made it pretty easy to get into more foreign movies, but I continually find myself drawn toward Korean film in particular.

From some brief rumblings that I see in message boards on Something Awful or IMDb or elsewhere, I understand that South Korea has been in (and is possibly now exiting) their Golden Age of film.  I'd completely believe it - all the best stuff I've seen lately seems to have come out of the country.

Before you leave my site thinking I'm about to devolve into otaku-style wankery, I want to make it clear that I know very little about South Korea and I harbor no obsessive love or hate for the nation.  I just like the movies I'm seeing, and there's a couple of neat things I've noticed that I felt like sharing.  Better critics than me can undoubtedly give you a better introduction to Korean cinema, so if this entry sparks your interest, I encourage you look elsewhere for a more academic analysis.

My knowledge of Asia (which, when used by a white American dude, basically just refers to China, Japan, and Korea) can basically be summarized like this:  They are collectivist nations that value honor and loyalty and pretty much hate each other.  Also there's Buddhism.  I have a bit better understanding of some of the more significant historical events and rifts that exist between the major nations, but that basically sums it up from the "What should I know before I watch this movie?" perspective.

Japanese movies typically portray loyalty to the nation as the highest possible ethical standard.  Even movies that are critical of a high-ranking political or military figure will still portray those who would defy them as faulty.  13 Assassins specifically plays up these topics, and is probably the boldest Japanese movie I have seen in my short life because it portrays the titular assassins as heroic.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming tone of the movie is a sense of foreboding and guilt because the heroes are still rebels.

Chinese movies just plain do not portray political or military leaders as villainous, unless they are leaders of other nations or unless the movie was actually made in Hong Kong.  Corruption does not exist within China and evil is always an external force; many productions like Ip Man will even go out of their way to tack on an ending to explain this if it doesn't already come up organically in the plot.  There are very obvious reasons why this is so and if you're not aware, this is not the place to learn about it.

Korean movies, on the other hand, are pretty much just like American movies.  Characters will do whatever they have to do to fulfill their own individual motivations and goals.  There are not necessarily overwhelming themes about collectivism or nationalism or anything like that - just people doing what they want or need to do for themselves, and all the good or bad that comes with it.

I would have to conclude that South Korea is not a particularly collectivist culture, since that attitude rarely comes up in the movies.  Maybe I should actually fact-check that.

But what's more impressive is that Korean movies take the loyalty-to-self concept even further than most American movies.  Americans like to think that we are fiercely independent thinkers, but our whole nation runs on an undercurrent of jingoism and patriotism.  Even the most critical voices will somehow follow the logic of: My opinion is that THING is bad, and even though THING may seem American, it's actually un-American, so really I'm a better patriot than you for recognizing just how bad THING is for America.  Nobody would actually come out and say, "America is just plain wrong and needs to be taken down a peg."

In the movies I've seen, if Korea as an institution did something wrong, the movie will come right out and say, "The Koreans are the bad guys."  The protagonists will actively rebel against forms of authority with little to no hesitation.  Their loyalty goes beyond their individual physical needs and speaks to a higher moral standard.  Two of my favorite movies that I have seen recently, Private Eye and Welcome to Dongmakgol, serve as pretty good examples of this.  (Spoilers coming up.)

Both present individual people as admirable and heroic, but trapped in a deeply flawed country.   The hero of Private Eye is initially motivated to earn money to leave Korea.  You think his arc might be that he values money too much and learns to value life instead; but actually, he already values life.  Korea's just a bad place to live - the police are incompetent and corrupt, the Japanese are in control (and we all know how lovely they were in the 1930s), and the hero was even fired from his position in the police department specifically because he does value human life and morality over taking orders / bribes.  Even after his arc reaches the point where he should shrug and say, "Welp, looks like money isn't everything," he never loses his distaste for living in Korea.  At the end, he still wants to skip town.

In Dongmakgol, the protagonists are made up of a few soldiers from the North and South Korean militaries during the Korean War, all of whom are disgusted with their respective leadership's inability to value human life over a military victory.  They come together in a quiet, peaceful village that is comprised of outsiders to Korean society - innocents who have specifically rejected the social contract so they could live independently.  The protagonists overcome their superficial animosity toward each other and later join forces to directly combat and kill an invading unit of South Korean soldiers.  No excuses are made, no guilt is felt.  The military as a whole is the villain.

Imagine what the American equivalent of such premises would be.  Private Eye could be like Chinatown - but even in Chinatown, Jake doesn't hate his country.  At worst, he's a little dissatisfied with Los Angeles.  He doesn't necessarily want to leave.  And even if he did, where would he go?  Somewhere else in America, probably.  Dongmakgol might be compared to Platoon - except that in Platoon, Charlie Sheen didn't join up with some Vietnamese guys and shoot the hell out of an American chopper.

Really stop and think about that - what if an American movie was set in Vietnam, and the whole premise of the movie is that the hero witnesses the My Lai massacre and decides to get revenge by personally infiltrating a US base and killing all of the commanding officers there one by one?  And at the end, if he doesn't die, he goes back to live in My Lai in order to help rebuild it.  Can you imagine the unholy bile-storm that Fox News would kick up over that?  There would be protests in every city where the movie played, the filmmakers would never work in Hollywood again, and even staunch anti-war activists would have a hard time defending it.  I don't think the MPAA would even give it a passable rating.  It'd get slapped with an NC-17 for "Mature Content" or some such nonsense.

That's not to say that American movies are never critical of our culture or our history.  I know that there are plenty of examples - hell, I already mentioned Platoon.  It's just that our movies will always stop short of stating direct, anti-American sentiment.  The message is always an anti-something else statement, and it just happens that that "something" is in America.

I wonder if it is because America is such a flexible nation - we have a great system in place that allows us to change laws without having to pick up arms and shoot each other.  Korea is a nation divided, half owned by a maniac and the other half resentful of two giants on either side of it that have each committed atrocities that go unspoken.  They have a democratic government, but a far bloodier history than we do.  Maybe it's really a matter of being realistic and recognizing when things are just plain screwed up, and not being shy of expressing it.

Whatever the case may be, I'm eager to keep watching, and I hope that more Americans watch, too.