How the Rich Ate South Korea: how the chaebol have dominated South Korean politics and economy since 1945

“How the Rich Ate South Korea” (Asianometry, March 2022)

One paradox regarding South Korea’s economic success over the past 60 years is that (as this mini-documentary observes) one factor in that success is turning out to be a major curse. Moreover that factor may well become a cause of the country’s downfall as an economic power. South Korea’s economy is dominated by a group of large corporate conglomerates known collectively as the chaebol. These conglomerates are familiar to Westerners with names like Hyundai and Samsung, and (in earlier years) LG and Daewoo. These companies had their origins in the 1940s – 1950s, when South Korea’s first president Rhee Syngman began privatising state enterprises and enterprises seized from Japanese owners in order to raise money to fight the Korean War. The prices that buyers paid for these enterprises were determined through private negotiation. After 1961, when Park Chunghee seized the presidency, he enlisted the help of the chaebol in his goal to emulate Japanese economic success: the companies supported his import substitution policies and his ambitions to develop export industries, and the South Korean government gave loans to the chaebol at below-market rates. Over the next couple of decades, the South Korean government favoured the chaebol with economic “reforms” that also had the effect of suppressing the country’s medium and small business sectors. By the 1980s the wealth inequalities that had appeared between the families that owned the chaebol and the rest of the South Korean public – who also wanted better environmental regulations and working conditions, and a better quality of life – were becoming a major political issue.

After Park Chunghee’s assassination in 1979, South Korea was taken over by a military government and the chaebol supported the presidencies of Chun Doohwan and Roh Taewoo by throwing money at them. In 1987, the country became a democracy but rules for political campaigning and their funding were either weak or non-existent, and the chaebol took advantage of this situation to penetrate democratic politics and buy parties and politicians by financing their election war chests. The chaebol were rewarded by the politicians they bought via “reforms” such as regulations that favour them, protections from foreign competition and legislation that allow them to access foreign capital financing. Other “reforms” affected the chaebol’s organisation structures that allowed members of the families that owned the chaebol to own shares in many subsidiary companies and thus exercise more control over more companies. Cross-ownership (in which companies hold shares in one another) was allowed. Many of these so-called “reforms” were to lead to economic meltdown in 1997 as a result of the companies’ over-exposure to debt.

Although reformist Presidents like Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun tried to curb chaebol abuses by limiting debt capacity and cross-shareholder structures, these changes did have the unintended effect of concentrating ownership in a number of industries to the extent that some industries became monopolies. In 1997, there were five independent Korean auto-makers; after that year, there was just one: Hyundai. In the early 2000s, the chaebol took advantage of a neoliberal global economic environment to expand their markets and huge profits began rolling in. After 1997, an agreement between the Korean government and the chaebol allowed the chaebol to start laying off people in droves with the result that hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and poverty, especially among older people, escalated rapidly.

Although the Korean voting public has tried to bring to power politicians who can solve the country’s economic problems and reduce poverty and wealth inequalities, leaders like Lee Myungbak and Park Geunhye have failed to curb the excesses and greed of the chaebol. At the same time, the national government has failed to enforce laws and regulations that the public has long demanded be strengthened and which the chaebol resist. At the time this mini-documentary was made, chaebol power over South Korean politics and the resulting consequences and tragedies (such as the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry, killing 304 passengers including 250 high school students, in April 2014) continue to be the prime issue in South Korean society.

South Korea’s economic success story mirrors that of Japan during the late 19th / early 20th centuries and one can argue that South Korea is now in a position similar to Japan’s in the late 1940s: Japan solved its crisis by breaking up the zaibatsu (admittedly because the US post-war administration insisted on this) and replacing the institutions and networks associated with the zaibatsu with looser arrangements. It is obvious that the chaebol also need to be broken up but in the current global economic context, in which neoliberal economics favouring centralisation of power in larger institutions dominated by small yet powerful elites prevail, what should replace the chaebol is the major problem: South Koreans need to ensure that whatever organisations or arrangements replace the chaebol do not themselves turn into a new generation of chaebol in everything but name.

The mini-documentary is well made with good, often quite lavish visual material made up of photographs, archived film and aerial scenes of metropolitan Seoul. It serves as a useful introduction into the history of South Korea and its economic development. Where the video could be improved is in noting that despite the rampant corruption in politics and economy, the country still prospered and this is due to the hard work and sacrifices made by the Korean people themselves as factory workers, medium and small business owners and employees, public servants, employees in logistics companies, and in other occupations supporting these workers.

What Eating the Rich did for Japan: a useful introduction to Japan’s modern economic history

“What Eating the Rich did for Japan” (Asianometry, October 2021)

In this mini-documentary on the Asianometry Youtube channel, the history of the zaibatsu – the huge industrial conglomerates owned by a small number of family clans in Japan from the late 19th century well into the mid-20th century – and their growth, leading to their eventual demise and break-up, is examined. The origins of the zaibatsu lie in the Meiji Restoration, when Japan abolished the Shogunate in 1867 and began to Westernise its politics, economy and society to avoid Western colonisation. Initially economic reforms and the building of infrastructure were bankrolled by the government but when these proved to be hugely expensive and bankruptcy threatened, the government privatised many of its more lucrative enterprises including the Miike Coal Mine. These were bought up by merchant families, some of which were descended from samurai, and the profits earned from their acquisitions enabled the families to accumulate fortunes that allowed them to buy more assets. The zaibatsu developed through vertical integration in the industries in which they had bought their original assets: for example, owning a coal mine might lead to owning the industries that depended on coal for fuel; or owning a factory making steel might lead to owning the minerals and other raw materials – and the mines from which these were obtained – needed for manufacturing steel. Manufacturing steel led the zaibatsu to make products that used iron and steel as their major materials: ships, trains, railway lines, motor vehicles, various household goods such as whitegoods. All these activities required financing so the zaibatsu also established banks and insurance companies to cover their costs and the risks involved in their financing.

As they grew, the zaibatsu took on government contracts to produce needed manufactures, especially for Japan’s armed forces. Through the early 20th century, the zaibatsu came to dominate Japan’s economy and supported the Japanese government’s imperialist drives in eastern Asia and beyond in the 1930s and 1940s. After the Second World War, the zaibatsu were broken up and dissolved, and the zaibatsu families’ wealth was reduced through various reforms such as reforms in the financial sector that limited the families’ ability to own controlling shares in public companies, land reforms and nationalisation of particular industries.

The documentary is lavishly illustrated with colourful photographs, film stills and archival visual materials, all presided over by a voice-over narration that details the rise and fall of Japan’s zaibatsu and the families that owned and controlled these conglomerates. The narration is rather fast and viewers might need to re-watch the documentary to catch some details.

The major problem with this documentary is that it more or less ignores the wider political context in which the zaibatsu grew: there is little mention of Japan’s decision to pursue imperialist adventures in northeast Asia and in the rest of China and in Southeast Asia, and how the zaibatsu eagerly responded to the demands of imperialism and then of war. The documentary also does not say that after the Second World War, much of the impetus to break up the zaibatsu and distribute their wealth more fairly among the Japanese people came from the occupying US administration. Additionally there is not much information given as to how much the Japanese people really benefited from the limited break-up of the zaibatsu.

The Korean War and the ensuing Cold War put a stop to total dissolution of the zaibatsu, and new forms of corporate growth such as manufacturing for export and informal links forming between companies (usually by buying shares in one another) leading to their becoming incorporated into a bigger corporation, though in a much looser way, enabled some old zaibatsu corporations like Mitsui and Mitsubishi to recover their fortunes. Yet there is little mention of how a revival of the zaibatsu corporations’ fortunes depended a great deal on Japan’s new role in the Cold War as an economic bulwark against Communism in the Soviet Union and China.

At the very least the documentary serves as a useful introduction into the modern history of Japan since the late 1800s when the country switched abruptly from pursuing a policy of almost total isolation from the rest of the world, to following a policy that in the space of less than 80 years would take Japan from an economic backwater to a power that could defeat the British empire.

RĂ©sistance: an allegory of rebellion against a police state regime

Alex Chauvet, Anna Le Danois, Quentin Foulon, Fabien Glasse, Juliette Jean, Julie Narat, “RĂ©sistance” (2016)

Made by student animators, this short video plays like a parable of the French Resistance against Nazi German occupation of France during the 1940s. Three giant cockroaches swagger into a restaurant, expecting to be waited upon by the staff there. The bugs drink up all the hooch and get rip-roaring drunk. One of the bugs is seduced by a young woman in red; she takes him into the theatre next to the restaurant where he is mugged. The bug eventually meets his maker in a most horrifying and graphic way. His companions also get their comeuppance from the restaurant staff.

The animation is completely silent save for the grunts and twitterings of the cockroaches themselves so the plot is entirely driven by the actions of the restaurant staff and the woman. The humans maintain remarkably straight faces, betraying very little emotion, yet their actions betray previous planning and murderous intent towards their oppressors. The underlying theme of rebellion, with the humans overthrowing the giant cockroaches (in a reversal of what we know will come in reality: due to their small size and scurrying behaviour, cockroaches will inherit the earth after humans send themselves into extinction) through careful and subtle planning, is powerful enough that it overcomes any disgust and horror viewers might feel at seeing a bug being killed in an oven and then made to disappear through dismemberment.

Visually the film is quite a treat: the cockroaches are portrayed in all their disgusting and alien detail that hints at the monstrous and corrupt behaviour of the Nazis they represent while the humans are drawn fairly simply and directly. The restaurant and theatre settings are done very well with enough detail to help drive the plot, without competing with the plot itself or the characters.

Ukraine and the Gell Mann Effect: the tragedy of delusion, bias, false assumptions and error-filled reporting

Gonzalo Lira, “Ukraine and the Gell Mann Effect” (13 May 2022)

In this video, Chilean-American vlogger Gonzalo Lira discusses the so-called Gell Mann effect in relation to mainstream news media reporting on Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and Ukrainian politics and other affairs generally. Named by US novelist / film-maker Michael Crichton after US physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Gell Mann effect describes the social psychological phenomenon of experts accepting and believing news articles on issues and topics outside their own areas of expertise even while being critical of the same news media outlets’ reporting on subjects within their own areas of expertise, because that reporting is full of errors, bias and unfounded assumptions. If you know that a media outlet publishes lies and propaganda in certain subject areas, because those subject areas are close to your own experience, why then would you accept that media outlet’s reporting on subject areas that you know little anything about? We make this mistake all the time about our news media and politicians: we know our politicians are often incompetent in areas of domestic policy – but why then, should we trust them on issues of foreign policy if so much of what they do in the domestic sphere (in, let’s say, spending on education, public health, social services, infrastructure investment) suggests they are not trustworthy at all?

Having explained what the Gell Mann effect is, Lira goes off on a different trajectory in which Western news media reporting on Russia’s campaign in Ukraine usually focuses on incidents such as the failed Ukrainian attack on Snake Island in early May : this was hailed as a success and a victory for the Ukrainians by Western news media when in fact it was a disaster for the Ukrainians who lost 60 experienced paratroopers in that incident – and not on the progress of the Russian campaign itself. The reality is that this Ukrainian attack on Snake Island, along with other Ukrainian actions, shows that, for all the bravery of individual Ukrainian soldiers, the Ukrainian military is losing badly and is being ground down steadily and inexorably by the Russians. Reports of Ukrainian units being abandoned by their commanders add to the general tale of woe of annihilation, disorganisation, demoralisation and the DAILY capture or killing of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers by the Russians.

What Lira is describing might be better called the fallacy of composition compounding a lie: inferring that what is true for one incident or one battle is true for the war as a whole, and basing policy on that inference. The tragedy is that hundreds of men are dying unnecessarily because their deluded government insists on throwing them into meat-grinder situations in order to demonstrate its “resilience” and “heroism”. Reports that the Russians are capturing hundreds of Ukrainian POWs, and most of those POWs being men in their 50s to 70s, might suggest that an entire generation of younger men of draft age has been or is being wiped out – but until Kiev finally admits surrender, and the fighting ends, we need to take care not to jump to conclusions ourselves.

That we want closure on issues, and cannot abide uncertainty, is something we should be aware of, as this tendency can be exploited by governments and makers of propaganda to give false reassurance – and to pressure the Ukrainians into resisting and losing even more soldiers.

Australia is The Next Ukraine: a warning to Australians about being manipulated and goaded into war

Gonzalo Lira, “Australia is The Next Ukraine” (10 May 2022)

In this video, Chilean-American vlogger Gonzalo Lira explains how Australia is being manipulated by the United States as its proxy to stoke tension with China and goad it into a conflict that in the future may erupt into a hot war. He explains at some length how Ukraine was influenced, encouraged, pressured and finally pushed by the United States, NATO and the EU to ignore diplomacy and complying with the Minsk II agreements to bring onto itself a conflict that will ultimately destroy it. Incidentally as Lira points out much, much later in the video, this ploy of playing one country against another is not new: in the 1970s the US played South Vietnam against North Vietnam and later in the 1980s the US played Iraq against Iran during those two nations’ war.

Lira sees a similar pattern occurring in the southwest Pacific Ocean region with Australia being encouraged by the US to ratchet up tensions with China over that nation’s security pact with the Solomon Islands. Part of the pact involves China posting security personnel to guard Chinese investments (which may involve infrastructure construction) in the Solomon Islands: a rational decision given that in other nations where China has undertaken infrastructure projects, Chinese engineers and other technical personnel have been killed by terrorists in often suspicious circumstances. Beijing and Honiara may well have reason to believe that any developments aimed at improving the lives of Solomon Islanders may be sabotaged by outsiders.

The issue for Australia then is to consider its own national interests, whether it is better for Australia to learn to live with its close neighbours which include China, or to continue following the orders of Britain and the United States, both of whose political elites regard Australia as no more than a lapdog and colony. By entering into closer military arrangements like AUKUS with London and Washington, Australia risks not only antagonising neighbours like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, it also risks encouraging those nations to move closer to China economically and militarily. Thus does the southeast Asia / southwest Pacific ocean region become divided and weak, susceptible to further manipulation and exploitation by foreign powers outside this area.

At the same time, by increasing tensions with China, Australia risks cutting itself from that nation economically. Lira may not be aware but stoking agitation against China has already cost Australia dearly on the economic front: diplomatic spats between Beijing and Canberra led to China hitting Australian barley exports with a huge 80% tariff. This allowed China to start increasing its purchases of US barley as part of its trade deal with the US. This and similar disputes which end up with the US and others being beneficiaries are bound to increase, not least because if a ploy succeeds once, the US will use it again and again and again ad infinitum.

As he often does, Lira ends his video with a warning for Australia, that the United States is only a fair-weather friend willing to leave us Australians at the mercy of its (and our) enemies. We cannot say we have not been warned; indeed Canberra has had many ample warnings from Australians and outsiders alike, but chosen to ignore them all.

Poland Will Take a Bite out of Ukraine: peacekeepers in western Ukraine to be first stage of eventual annexation by Poland

Gonzalo Lira, “Poland Will Take a Bite out of Ukraine” (8 May 2022)

One little-known piece of news coming out of Russia’s current Special Military Operation to rid Ukraine of its Nazis is Poland’s proposal to send peacekeeping troops into western Ukraine. At the time Chilean-American vlogger Gonzalo Lira made his video “Poland Will Take a Bite out of Ukraine”, the Polish were apparently already assembling a peacekeeping force in southeast Poland on their own initiative separately from the European Union. Lira calls out the Polish action for what he (and many others, including Yours Truly) believe it to be: an annexation by stealth of territory in northwest Ukraine by Poland which the Poles themselves regard as theirs. Those who know Polish history know that the regions of Halych (Galicia) and Volyn (Volhynia) were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and part of the Republic of Poland from 1918 to 1939. These regions were subjected to Polonisation which was resented by the Ukrainians living there and the notorious Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) formed in 1929 to fight for and achieve Ukrainian independence.

Since Lira believes that Russia will eventually reclaim eastern and southern Ukraine, the issue now becomes: what do the Russians think of what Poland plans or may be planning to do? Lira believes that Russia is very likely to allow Poland to take Halych and Volyn. He refers to a post by Russian politician Dmitri Medvedev on Telegram in which Russia would have no objections and would not react if Poland were to invade and occupy these areas. Lira foresees that Ukrainian neo-Nazi / ultra-nationalists will see the Polish action for what it is and flock to Lvov and other major cities and towns in northwest Ukraine to resist Polish takeover. This is very likely to lead to instability in that part of Ukraine as Poland tries to pacify its annexation in the short term; in the long term, this instability will affect the rest of Poland militarily and economically and may even lead to outflows of refugees from Poland and the regions it took over. Lira is blunt: he foresees that Halych and Volyn will become Poland’s Vietnam, that is, a war that will go on and on for years, sapping Polish will and strength. Poland’s membership in NATO and EU may end up short-lived: other NATO member countries will not tolerate having a member unable to secure its borders and resolve its internal conflicts, and EU politicians may object to EU taxpayers having to support Poland financially – Poland already receives more EU funding than any other EU member – if that country were to embark on an unnecessary adventure that can only lead to disaster.

Russia may well be the winner from Poland’s stupidity: Polish annexation of northwest Ukraine may encourage other parts of Ukraine to hold independence referendums and seek to be part of the Russian Federation. These other areas hold the agricultural, industrial and mineral wealth that Ukraine has long been renowned for. Poland will end up with the most impoverished, least developed and most neo-Nazi part of Ukraine. Kiev may become the capital of a small rump state that itself may be further Balkanised and chopped up into smaller pieces still. To the Poles we may well say: Powodzenia!

King Woodrow’s Wilsonian Armenia: an imperial folly avoided

Carlton Meyer, “King Woodrow’s Wilsonian Armenia” (Tales of the American Empire, 29 April 2022)

Among the many follies of past US President Woodrow Wilson (who served two terms from 1913 to 1921) was his plan to establish an independent Armenia, by force if necessary, in northeast Turkey in the early 1920s. The new country would have covered a large area right up against Turkey’s border with what was then contested territory between Turkey, then emerging from a dying Ottoman empire, combined with the Armenia of the old Russian empire that would soon become part of the Soviet Union. The area in Turkey had been subjected to ethnic cleansing of Christian communities, many if not most of them Armenian, by Ottoman Turkish authorities during World War I. Kurdish individuals were often tasked by the Ottomans to kill Armenians and other Christians, and some of these Kurds were rewarded with the houses and other properties of their victims. Irony of ironies, in the later Republic of Turkey, these and other Kurds would end up under immense pressure from Ankara – including the banning of their languages and cultures, deportations and even massacres – to give up their Kurdish language, traditions and history, and assimilate to the dominant Turkish ethnicity.

Meyer gives a summary of the situation in Turkey just after the end of World War I when the Ottoman empire was weak and European powers were vying with one another to grab and control Ottoman territory in the Middle East. Britain and France carved up the Levant between themselves and Italy and Greece competed to grab parts of western mainland Turkey around Izmir / Smyrna and the islands just off the coast. Turkish soldiers and military officers under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk (who for some strange reason is not mentioned in the episode) took up arms against the Ottoman government and fought to secure Turkey’s territory and borders. Independent Armenia, established just after World War I from Russian imperial territory, did not stand a chance: abandoned by the West, the country was invaded and forced by a new revolutionary Turkish government to give up territory taken from the old Ottoman empire.

For his part, Wilson had relied on getting approval from the US Congress to send US troops to fight with Armenia to gain Turkish territory in 1920. Congress refused and independent Armenia ended up being squeezed by two powers in its region (Turkey and the Soviet Union). The rump Armenia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921 and did not regain its independence until 1991.

Had Wilson been able to persuade Congress to send troops to Armenia, the outcome could have been very different and much bloodier: Wilson’s ambitions would have pitted him and the US against not only Turkey but the USSR and possibly even Britain and France at a time when the US was relatively inexperienced in conducting international diplomacy. A war against Turkey and then the USSR might have drained the US of money and young men, and the US and economy would have run a very different course in the 1920s. The US was already in the habit of occupying other nations militarily and running their domestic affairs to the detriment of the populations in those nations, and the addition of Armenia to that set would have entrenched the habit and created an unstable geopolitical situation in the Middle East close to the Soviet Union. Armenia and its neighbours in Georgia and Azerbaijan could very well have become buffer states between the West and the USSR and all three could have become the setting for a new World War.

While Meyer regards Wilson’s plan for an independent Armenia (albeit one that would eventually become dependent on the US and at the same time act as the eyes and ears for the US in the Middle East) as yet another foolish imperial adventure following previous ones, starting with despatching troops to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean from 2015 onwards, he does not give very substantial reasons as to why supporting an independent Armenia in land taken from others (even if those others stole the land themselves) was a foolhardy undertaking. A small, impoverished nation stuck between two much larger powers with their own plans for the Caucasus would never have survived for very long and American lives lost in defending Armenia would have been lost in vain, to say nothing of the impact on Armenians themselves. That an independent Armenia exists now and has done so since 1991 is the result of a much changed geopolitical context in western Asia.

While Soviet annexation of Armenia delayed Armenia’s political development, it did at least help preserve the nation and gave Armenians a reason to rally around their culture, language, history and traditions in the hope that one day Armenia, no matter how big or small, would become independent.

Though one can sympathise with the Armenians’ desire to run their own affairs after the horrors they endured during World War I, perhaps in the long run it was better for the Soviets to have annexed Armenia than for Wilsonian Armenia to exist. A Wilsonian Armenia would have been surrounded by neighbours hostile to it and heavily reliant on faraway Western nations whose support would be inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. In the multi-polar world, Armenia may well find that having been part of the Soviet Union gives it an entry into the network of China’s Belt Road Initiative at a time when Europe is turning away from partnership with Russia and by implication China.

Checkpoint: a polished fantasy exploring the purpose of existence

Jason Sheedy, “Checkpoint” (2021)

Here comes a 10-minute number that initially looks like a virtual reality game being played by several avatars of the same player over and over for some purpose. A prisoner (Brett Brooks) must battle his way out of his confining jail and complete a series of trials in order to claim his love Victoria. Each time he loses a trial, he is killed in the most gory way possible – in one trial he fails, his head explodes; in another, he is decapitated – and he finds himself back behind the gates of his prison. a little wiser after the last death experience. His new avatars pick up coins from the dead bodies of previous avatars.

With each completed trial, the action in the film speeds up, the tension escalates as the prisoner comes closer to his goal, though the coins he collects along the way – perhaps he needs them to pay his way into the dimension where he will claim his reward? – slow him down. Finally after so much effort and a trail of dead avatars in his wake, the prisoner makes his way to meet Victoria (Erin Ownbey), only to discover that she isn’t what he believed her to be, and that his reward is the beginning of another series of ordeals …

“Checkpoint” is a very smartly made film about an unlikely protagonist who, in most other films, would be the antagonist – the prisoner looks shady and villainous enough, and indeed Victoria tells him he was chosen to undergo the trials because he represents one of the seven classic deadly sins of Christian teaching – but in this short film becomes a character the audience roots for. By enduring so many deaths and completing the series of trials, the prisoner does demonstrate admirable qualities of patience, resilience and self-sacrifice. However the prisoner discovers that he is little more than a plaything for higher celestial beings using him and six other representatives of the Deadly Sins to test whether humanity deserves to live or not.

The special effects are very good and help give the film quite a polished and sophisticated look despite its restricted budget. Brooks’s acting is enough to give his prisoner something of a roguish quality while he runs around trying to avoid being shot and splattered all over the ground. The support cast is not given much to do and Ownbey’s character seems very one-dimensional. Very little background context – how did the prisoner agree to get involved in these trials in the first place? – is given in the film.

The film looks like a pilot for a television or movie series in which the prisoner and his fellow human guinea pigs are plunged into various scenarios where they must redeem themselves through upright behaviour and demonstrate that they and other humans deserve a second chance. The sense that these people are pawns of perhaps indifferent, even sadistic cosmic beings who enjoy playing, well, God is strong. Will the prisoner and the other six representatives of the Seven Deadly Sins willingly continue playing out Victoria’s games or will they rebel?

El Camino: a film of sci-fi / horror alienation and existentialism

Fernando Campos and Jaime Jasso, “El Camino” (2020)

A well made and visually gorgeous film, “El Camino” happens to be the culmination of five years of work. In its characters and plot, the film is inspired and influenced by Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, the film that started an entire franchise of sci-fi horror movies and defined Sigourney Weaver’s entire film-acting career. Weary cargo spaceship pilot Rojo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), beset by problems unknown (though audiences can guess: owing a debt to a criminal space gang perhaps, needing money) and on the way home from previous arduous missions, is offered one more dodgy deal that will clear some of his obligations and allow him to go home with his daughter Robin (Yam Acevedo). He accepts the job and collects a mysterious cargo which is guarded by an armed robot. During the trip Rojo feels unwell and the ship lurches suddenly. Robin guesses that the strange cargo may be affecting Dad’s health in some way and goes down to the hold where the cargo is located to investigate …

The work put into the film’s set designs, the backgrounds and the various special effects is stunning. The vast expanses of space are emphasised, and with them the isolation, loneliness and exhaustion of space cargo operators as they deliver shipments of sometimes dangerous cargoes throughout the length and breadth of the cosmos. One can imagine that pilots compete for shipment contracts that pay peanuts yet demand a great deal physically and psychologically from pilots. No wonder Rojo looks so drained and seems so unwell!

The acting is minimal almost to the point of it being underwhelming but Rojo’s distress and horror when he discovers something dreadful in the cargo hold becomes all the more poignant. He faces losing the one thing he has sacrificed so much for, the daughter who is his one reason for living. He faces having to go home alone with all the pain of being alone and cut off totally from other human beings.

While the plot and the characters seem small compared to the film’s visual design – the characters are a bit one-dimensional without much backstory that would explain why they do the things they do; and viewers can predict that once Rojo accepts the cargo and tells his daughter not to go near it, she will disobey him and suffer the consequences – they do illustrate the film’s themes of the possible hazards of space travel and how their intersection with the demands of an industry (and the ideological paradigms that have shaped that industry and the corporations in it) impact on humans and their families and communities. One has a sense of Rojo and his daughter Robin being pawns of powerful unseen corporate and individual players in the interstellar shipment industry.

The film plays like a pitch to a possible feature film in which further consequences of Rojo’s decision to accept one last job play out on innocent others in Earth’s space colonies.

The Gate: elegant and polished sci-fi body horror critical of politics and neoliberal capitalism

Matt Westrup, “The Gate” (2011)

Deriving its title from a couple of lines in the seventh chapter in the Book of Matthew in the Bible (“… for the gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear and many choose to travel it…”), in the context of a warning of Hell and damnation for those who prefer an easy path to comfort and salvation, this short sci-fi horror film is an elegant and polished lesson in understatement and visual narration. A series of mystery deaths in London attracts the attention of politicians and bureaucrats who convene a parliamentary select committee to determine what action to take. In a meeting, Dr Ackerson (John Mawson) describes the cases – and as he does so, the film re-enacts them, the second and third cases in considerable detail – and tells Under Secretary Johnson (Robert Rowe) what the most likely causes of the physical transformations leading to the deaths of the unfortunate victims, based on autopsies performed on them and the details noted by the attending doctors, are. Dr Ackerson states that the victims had in their possession at the time of their deaths pharmaceutical products obtained from an unregulated online seller that contained a synthetic hormone chemically similar to one involved in DNA construction and repair, and that it was the uncontrolled use of such products with such a potent hormone that led to the victims blowing up as they did into mutant monstrosities.

The meeting comes to an end with Johnson offering bland assurances that those involved in selling the products to the victims will be found and dealt with accordingly. Dr Ackerson expresses misgivings that other unlicensed and unregulated pharmaceutical retailers will offer the same or similar products to unsuspecting online buyers – but the response he gets from Johnson is curt and patronising. As always, the authorities will take Ackerson’s warning “into consideration”.

The re-enactment of one victim’s transformation and death is a wonder to behold: the camera’s placing in front of a barricade of police cars and an ambulance, so that audiences get only glimpses of the horror stalking about on the other side of the barricade, is ingenious. While the victim’s transformation is taking place, the film jumps to shots of a helicopter landing and police in full body armour taking up their positions stealthily, ready to fire on the monster. That a scene of horror is playing out in a setting familiar to most people – the city streets of London, with police cars and an ambulance vehicle, and police officers in almost full gladiatorial combat mode – may be the most terrifying aspect of this sub-plot in the film.

The body horror theme is expressed in a narrative at once familiar and yet new and horrifying: Western medical technology has now developed drugs that can reactivate dormant so-called “junk” DNA, the functions of which remain poorly understood. With this narrative comes another one suggesting, intentionally or unintentionally, that a capitalist system allowing both individual freedom of choice and an unregulated market of gene therapies could very well lead to disaster. The insinuation is that government regulation of new pharmaceutical products involving gene therapies is required; but when the government in question is one of incompetent and easily corrupted politicians and bureaucrats preferring to look the other way and brush complex matters aside, the most likely outcome will be more suffering and more victims treated as statistics and monsters, not as real people deserving of sympathy and care. The gate leading to damnation remains open and wide for corporations obsessed with profit and rising share price to run through, dragging with them countless numbers of victims seduced by their promises and advertising, and politicians relying on their money for election campaign funds.

The film serves as a pitch for a longer feature film which partly explains the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending and the tedious sequence of title cards which unnecessarily narrows the film’s potential subject matter and themes to one of an unregulated global pharmaceutical industry preying on people’s insecurities and anxieties in a global capitalist system that demands more and more from them.

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