Thicker Than Water: a touching film about a mother’s love and care

Seung Yeob Lee, “Thicker Than Water” (2015)

Modern South Korean families, in particular the relationship of mothers with their sons and the extremes the mothers will go to, to get the very best for their male offspring who all too often fail to appreciate what sacrifices Mama makes for them, come under the spotlight in this short film about a couple whose son is a vampire. Mum (Ahmi Jeong) wants son Sungyong (Kiha Kwon) to be a normal kid with high academic aspirations in spite of the fact that he’d rather leave high school because school hours take place during the day when he must wear layers of sunblock and thick clothing even in the summer and his restricted diet of the red liquid stuff leaves him with bad breath and alienates other kids who can’t share their lunches with him. Kissing girls carries an extra risk for the young ladies. In spite of all that Mum does for Sungyong – even organising home deliveries from local blood banks and attending blood auctions to get some special fresh stuff – she gets no support from Sungyong’s father (Seongdeok Hong) who all but disowns the boy. One bad day, Mum fails to get anything at the daily auctions, the blood banks are short on blood and Dad comes home grumpy again and demands dinner on the table. Exasperated, Mum stands in the kitchen and a couple of sharp knives standing in the wash-rack catch her attention …

It is actually a very touching film about a mother’s love and care for her special son, told with dark humour. The characters and the dialogue push the hilarious plot at a crisp pace. Jeong is completely absorbed into her character who will do anything and sacrifice anything – even Dad and herself if necessary – for Sungyong. Sungyong for his part is wimpish and spoilt for a teenage vampire.

The relationships within the family may reflect something of the pressures of modern South Korean society on families generally. Mothers may lavish all their love and attention on their children, especially their sons, if fathers are forced to spend so much time at work by employers that they have little time and energy for their families. Estrangement between parents, and between fathers and children, may be the result. Traditional cultural expectations of the roles of men and women within families may clash with modern-day reality in which women also have to go out to work in addition to caring for husbands and children. No wonder at the end of the day Sungyong’s mother is left with little option other than murder if she is to get fresh blood for her son.

The final frames of the film may come as a shock to viewers, suggesting an incestuous aspect to the suffocatingly close relationship between mother and son. The film is very well done though I don’t see that the plot can sustain a feature-length movie or a television series. Still, stranger and sketchier ideas have been made into successful movies and TV shows.

The big surprise for viewers is that for a vampire film, the vampire doesn’t kill anyone – it’s the human familiar who does this for him.

The Time Agent: a time travel story of loneliness and alienation

Jude Chun, “The Time Agent” (2016)

In its own unassuming way, “The Time Agent” is a deconstruction of a once common style of narrative in genres as different as the Western, hard-boiled pulp crime fiction or genteel English crime / mystery thrillers: a lone avenger character, self-sufficient and sure of him/herself, comes along and finds a community in trouble, solves the problem and leaves a grateful community to continue to the next neighbourhood in trouble. The consequences of this avenger character’s actions are never known but have to be assumed to be positive. An unnamed South Korean man (Gwui-oong Choi) known only as the Time Agent travels back in time in his machine to subtly undermine, change and break up the relationships of couples who are parents of future mass murderers. Once the mission is complete, the Time Agent must wait in self-imposed seclusion – any interactions he has with people in the time of his mission must be minimised to the utmost to avoid unduly influencing the future – until the time machine starts revving up again, signalling a new mission to get rid of another relationship. For this Time Agent, the time between his recent successful mission and the next one is rather long – one would think there is a backlog of work for him to do for the next 10 years – and he unwittingly violates his code of employment when he sees a teenage girl, Yeesul (Young-hee Jeon), about to jump off the bridge over the Han River (in Seoul) to her death and stops her. He invites the girl to stay with him for a week to minimise the consequences of his impulsive action while she decides if she still wants to commit suicide; for his part, as time goes by, he starts falling in love with her and becomes conscious of the isolation and alienation his work imposes on him.

The film’s style is minimal with sparse dialogue and an emphasis on strong and restrained acting that brings out the emotional pain of isolated existences in a fragmented society. Viewers become aware of the emotional consequences of time travel and its potential to inflict dramatic long-term changes on people and society through an apparent minor change in one’s actions. Yes, breaking up a couple’s marriage so that they do not bring into the world a future psychopathic killer may be a laudable goal for some but it also means that two people, their families and others around them might suffer unnecessary pain that in itself could also have long-term social consequences.

The film’s bare-bones presentation and its plot revolving around two lost souls (one of them literally – does the Time Agent remember which future he actually comes from?) are sure to have a deep emotional impact on viewers. At times it can be unbearable to watch, especially when the girl finally makes her decision. The Time Agent discovers that for all the choices he makes that affect other people’s lives and the direction of their futures and their societies’ futures, he ultimately has no influence on his own future.

Shadow Thief: a critique of social and cultural pressure on individuals to conform to other standards

Kim Heeyae, “Shadow Thief” (2018)

Done entirely in black and white and shades of grey with no dialogue, this animated short is a brilliant critique of the pressure on individuals to conform to dominant social standards and values even if these turn people into mindless clones tied to (and to be eventually crushed by) the corporate state capitalist machine. An unnamed man observes the shadows of other apparent physical clones of himself as very similar while his own shadow resembles a Henry Moore sculpture. After being rejected by one set of prospective employers after another and another because his shadow just doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s shadows, our man tries to mould his shadow (and thus himself) into what he believes is required of him. The jobs still evade him so in desperation he attempts to steal a perfect shadow to wear. This requires him to murder someone …

With no monologue or dialogue to speak of, the film must rely on its anti-hero’s facial expressions and body language to convey his disappointment, anguish and panic at being rejected for not being a square peg to fit into a round hole, and on the body language of other people and their shadows to show rejection and mocking. The irony in the film comes when our anti-hero, in doing what he does to steal a shadow, expresses his individuality in full (because what other person would do what he does, in that clone society?) and on doing so, runs away from the consequences and the ownership of his action. He becomes a true individual but cannot cope with that reality.

The animation may be simple and the backgrounds a little cartoonish in appearance but its story is powerful. The ambiguous ending is appropriate for the plot: we are left wondering whether the anti-hero will ever own up to his crime willingly or by force.

Parasite: tale of two families is a stinging attack on capitalism and social hierarchy

Bong Joonho, “Parasite / Gisaengchung” (2019)

A stinging attack on capitalism in South Korean society and its effects on people’s thinking and actions, “Parasite” pits two families, both of which have common Korean surnames, from two polar opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum in a bleak black comedy full of twists and extreme surprises. The film’s tone is not always even, and slapstick comedy easily and quickly slips into a dark and depressive meditation on the effects of poverty and preying on others’ naivety and gullibility. Kim Kitaek (Song Kangho, a regular in Bong’s films), an ex-driver, heads a family of grifters living like rats in a basement unit at the tail-end of Skid Row in a slum neighbourhood somewhere in Seoul or Busan and trying to make ends meet by folding and recycling pizza boxes for a delivery business. One day, Kitaek’s son Kiwoo (Choi Wooshik) meets up with an old college friend who is currently employed as an English-language tutor by a rich family for their teenage daughter; the friend is about to go overseas and wants to recommend Kiwoo to replace him. Armed with documents forged by his sister Kijeong (Park Sodam), Kiwoo goes to the family’s mansion where he is interviewed by Mrs Park (Yo Yeojeong) and meets the daughter Dahye; he gets the job after giving Dahye a lesson while Mrs Park watches. Noticing that Mrs Park’s son has artwork pinned up on the lounge-room wall, Kiwoo recommends that a “friend” of his, Jessica, might be available to teach the son, Dasong, art. Mrs Park is amenable to the suggestion and soon Jessica – in reality, Kijeong herself – is giving art therapy to Dasong.

Kijeong soon contrives to get dad Kitaek a job as the Parks’ chauffeur. No sooner does Kitaek get the job driving Mr Park (Lee Sunkyun) than he and his adult children manage to throw out the Parks’ housekeeper Moongwang (Lee Jeungeun) to be replaced by Kitaek’s wife Choongsook (Jang Hyejin). Thus the entire Kim family is comfortably ensconced in the Parks’ luxurious Modernist mansion and the four celebrate with a loud drunken party at the Parks’ expense while the Parks go on a weekend camping trip – at least until Moongwang turns up unexpectedly to attend to a secret she has kept hidden in the mansion’s basement for a number of years and discovers the truth about the Kims and their ruse to get rid of her and the chauffeur.

After that surprise twist in the film’s plot, the narrative lurches from comedy to horror, back and forth, as the Kims fight Moongwang and the unexpected house-guest husband Moongwang has kept in the basement who is on the run from loan-shark creditors. The threat that Moongwang and her husband pose to the Kims’ secret culminates spectacularly and bloodily during an extravagant birthday party the Parks throw for Dasong. The body count is high, the lives of three families are torn asunder and the film closes on a sad, wistful and very bleak note.

An otherwise silly story is made grave as well as comic by ambiguous characterisation: the Kim family, though very much needy and in desperate economic straits, is also portrayed as greedy and cruel in its own way (though Kitaek does also have some compassion for Moongwang and her husband, whose lives are not all that different from the Kim family’s own difficulties); and the Park family, while privileged and spoilt, is generous in its own way. The children appear more intelligent than their ditzy mother. Mr Park comes across as an overgrown selfish adolescent, concerned more about Kitaek being able to take corners at speed in a way that doesn’t spill his (Park’s, that is) coffee.

The true villain of the piece is the capitalist society in which the Kims and Moongwang and her husband are forced to scrabble for existence like rats literally living underground while families like the Parks, whose fortunes are made off the backs of people like the Kims, splash their money on expensive (but cold and empty) luxury homes and frivolous pursuits. Who are the real parasites here? As in many of Bong’s films – “Mother” comes to mind here – characters are frequently driven by their situations and the social environment they are born into and grow up in to commit acts that are irreversible and have dramatic life-changing consequences and which they come to regret.

Once again Song Kangho is in a class of his own playing a comic character who is not always too bright but is capable of deep insight into his and his family’s condition; the rest of the cast do capable work but are always in his shadow. The Parks’ mansion is a significant character in its own right and mirrors the two-faced condition of capitalist society: it shows off plenty of beautiful (and superficial) surface gleam and glamour but hides a sinister subterranean secret as any self-respecting house of horror should.

For all its bonkers plotting and characterisation, all working out perfectly and logically plot-wise, the film becomes despairing when Kiwoo capitulates to the demands of South Korean society and Korean tradition in order to save what remains of his family after they have struggled through their storm and stress. Viewers are likely to feel short-changed by this treatment of the Kims. What happens to the Parks after they flee the mansion remains unknown.

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1): Western insistence on stereotyping a country ruins a striking travelogue

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1)” (2018)

At least two years in the making, this 2-part travel documentary follows comedian / world traveller Michael Palin during a two-week trip exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / North Korea, marvelling at its visual and audio sights, and trying to engage as much as possible with the people he meets. The trip took place at a time when North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea under President Moon Jae-in were starting to warm to each other more and were seriously considering the possibility of reunification. In his first week in North Korea, Palin was taken by his guides through Pyongyang, and what he sees and experiences in the nation’s capital is the focus of Part 1 of the documentary.

The sights alone are worthwhile watching – Pyongyang is a clean city with wide spaces, some very eccentric and colourful architecture, and (for a city of its 3-million-strong size) not a great deal of car traffic. Fretting over the lack of Internet, the absence of a phone signal and the North Korean authorities’ insistence on holding his and the film crew’s passports once over the Chinese border from Dandong, Palin gradually settles into the life and pace of Pyongyang. He marvels at the government’s early morning broadcasts of songs aiming at motivating and inspiring people to look forward to a new day working for and benefiting North Korea. He visits an extravagantly built underground train station and takes a ride on the Metro. He gets a head massage by a woman in a barbershop – in North Korea, women run barbershops and hairdressing salons apparently – and visits a class of junior high school students. Their teacher looks a bit nonplussed at the strange Englishman blowing up a balloon depicting the globe and tossing it among the kids. When prompted as to what they’d like to do after leaving school, the youngsters say they want to be scientists, teachers and doctors, and to serve North Korea. One girl, declaring that she will be a famous writer, recites her poem about Mount Paektu (the birthplace of Kim Jong-il). Palin concludes from this little episode that, erm, the students aren’t taught critical thinking.

Among other visits, Palin meets a government-employed artist who creates visual propaganda and explains the symbolism behind what he does. He goes to a sports centre where teenagers are training in table tennis. The final day of his stay in Pyongyang is the May Day public holiday and Palin goes to a public park where people are picnicking with their families, drinking, dancing and generally having a great time. One drunken man crowns Palin with a tiara of leaves before being pulled away by his wife.

Palin obviously wants to accept everything at face value and believe that the happy and contented people he meets are genuine in their opinions, feelings and behaviour. Years of his own indoctrination by relentless Western media propaganda about North Korea – not to mention the agenda behind his visit – keep intruding on his thoughts, leaving him troubled and perplexed. The apparent poverty he sees around him – most notably depicted in shots of both Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea on opposing sides of the Yalu River, as the train carries Palin across the bridge – is attributed to North Korean paranoia in sealing the nation off from foreign influence. Nearly 70 years of US sanctions (which target nations that dare to trade with North Korea as much as they do North Korea itself) against the country could just as likely have contributed to the nation’s poverty and its emphasis on cultivating every hectare of available land with rice and other important staple foods.

The constant insistence on portraying North Korea as a repressive police state by Palin and the film-makers is insidious and is sure to colour and shape Western viewers’ abilities and opinions in watching the program. There are moments where Palin comes close to showing a gross lack of respect for his hosts and his two guides especially. One might suspect he is being pushed by the film-makers and the film producers to ask questions he might find offensive. That the North Korean government stresses hard work, being part of a big family and working together, meeting communal and national goals, and generally having a positive attitude seems to be lost on Palin and the film crew, who brush all this effort away as propaganda.

The irony in making a film exploring North Korea and its people, that serves mainly to reinforce Western stereotypes about it being a repressive police state producing robotic traffic police and people unable to think for themselves, for Western audiences living in countries which themselves are increasingly repressive and obsessed with brainwashing people with identity politics propaganda and depriving them of the skills to think for themselves and evaluate differing opinions using reason, may not be lost on Western viewers.

The Faces of North Korea: a soulful visual poem showcasing the humanity and achievements of North Korea

Andre Vltchek, “The Faces of North Korea” (2018)

Visually poetic, even soulful to watch, this documentary is a travelogue of the sights and experiences, along with recent history to establish the context for much of what he saw and heard, of Russian-American journalist and film-maker Andre Vltchek while travelling in North Korea.  “The Faces …” is not just a beautiful travelogue – it’s also a reminder of the humanity of the people of the country and a homage to what they have been able to achieve since the end of the Korean War in 1953, during which conflict all major cities in the country including Pyongyang the capital were completely destroyed and some 20% of the total population were killed by American-led forces.

Vltchek travels around mostly in Pyongyang and to the demilitarised zone so this film isn’t really representative of North Koreans generally and how they live and perhaps flourish. Pyongyang is a clean and modern city with wide boulevards lined with nature strips and trees, and a moderate amount of traffic. There is plenty of astonishing large-scale architecture, much of it either very imaginative or eccentric. Scenes shot from the viewpoint of a front-seat passenger in a car show urban landscapes of quiet pride and matter-of-fact orderliness.

The journalist visits a museum near the demilitarised zone to see photographs and paintings, and to hear talks by the museum lecturer (translated into English by his guide) about the Korean War and its effects on ordinary North Korean people. On hearing of the horrors inflicted on North Koreans – in addition to the carpet-bombing that incinerated entire towns, US-allied soldiers also tortured people – Vltchek better understands the paranoia and fear of another US invasion that North Koreans still carry. To underline his point, Vltchek includes film footage of a US military base in Okinawa from which the Americans launched their invasion of the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, and of part of an earlier trip he made to South Korea where the militarism and anti-DPRK propaganda propagated and promoted by the government there disgusted him.

What sets Vltchek’s film apart from other documentaries and short films on North Korea that I have seen is his delight in photographing or filming ordinary people going about their lives, in particular children skating about the streets on roller-blades and small girls performing songs and dance routines. A continuous music soundtrack of solo piano melodies enhances the intimacy of these scenes. Of course, as with the other films I have mentioned, Vltchek’s film shows up much of the current Western news propaganda about North Korea for what it is: not only does it deal in worn-out stereotypes about the country and its leadership but the constant repetition is mind-numbing, suggesting that imagination and open-mindedness are in extreme short supply among the Western MSM.

The film finishes on an ambiguous note of foreboding and hope that North Korea will continue to progress and follow its own path despite the pressures of economic sanctions and the constant sabre-rattling from its neighbours and beyond, exemplified in the biannual military exercises undertaken during the northern spring and late summer near North Korea’s borders by South Korea and the US. As long as countries like North Korea not only survive but even thrive, there is hope for the rest of the world yet that one day all nations can pursue their own directions towards prosperity and shared wealth among their peoples without the fear that a giant bully will invade them with the aim of taking their land and its resources.

The Tower: formulaic disaster film criticises aspects of modern Korean society in amongst the melodrama

Kim Ji-hoon, “Ta-weo / The Tower” (2012)

Maybe its similarities to the World Trade Center twin tower building collapses are too much in the way of bad taste for some people to handle, and that famous American disaster movie “The Towering Inferno” is an overly obvious inspiration, but Kim Ji-hoon’s “The Tower” at the very least has plenty of melodrama and tension to please fans of disaster thriller films, and has enough explosions and special effects to be easy on the eye. Initially the film moves slowly with too much tiresome slapstick comedy and two trite romance scenarios as it introduces various character stereotypes – the building maintenance / safety operations manager who is a single father who takes his daughter to the Tower Sky twin-towers complex so she can see snow on Christmas Eve, the restaurant manager he secretly loves who promises to look after the girl, two young lovebirds working at a tower cafe and a firefighters’ station, a selfless firefighter captain, an arrogant senior management who cuts corners – in its first half-hour and establishes the various sub-plots. Once the helicopters spreading the artificial snowfall around Tower Sky get caught in an updraft and crash into one of the buildings, setting off the fires that engulf it, the comedy drops right away and from then on suspense takes over as the various characters try to find one another and save people while trying to evade danger and the inevitable decision on the part of Tower Sky’s management to demolish the stricken building before it causes more damage and mayhem.

Much melodrama and theatrics are squeezed out of the screenplay which can slow down the action at times, especially in the scenes where the captain farewells two of his subordinate firefighters as he decides to manually detonate the bomb that will bring down the building. The building maintenance manager goes through a series of personal hells as he almost loses his daughter and the restaurant manager in various scenarios where the chances of survival would be below zero in real life. Tension is generated from the constant flitting from one sub-plot to another and back again, and some comic relief is provided by a group of zealous Christians who laud a firefighter as an angel sent from heaven and whose prayers are always answered in the nick of time – and often in ways far in excess of what they pray for.

Audiences probably won’t care too much for the characters who are only meant to represent what Kim finds admirable or not so praiseworthy in the Korean character: the selflessness and heroism of the firefighters and of those who find themselves tested in extreme circumstances; the selfishness of snooty social climbers; the humbleness of worker bees; the corruption and arrogance of the executives responsible for the Tower Sky twin-towers complex management; and the concern that many characters show for maintaining social hierarchy when they should be trying to evacuate as many people as possible. Perhaps the film’s themes and motifs that explore and question aspects of modern Korean society, and which criticise human arrogance in trying to control and subvert nature with technology are the most memorable parts of what otherwise would be a formulaic B-grade disaster flick.

The Haircut: a quirky quest reveals the nature and extent of the Western media propaganda machine against North Korea

Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vulovic, “The Haircut” (2017)

Two Sydney undergraduate students’ desire to travel to North Korea to see if they can get hipster-style haircuts in defiance of supposed North Korean laws that all men there must have their hair styled in the manner of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is a cover for an examination of Western media representations of that country as a rogue police state led by a deranged dictator and how those portrayals actually stand up in reality. What the two students find in the DPRK is very different from what Western audiences around the world are exposed to and told. For one thing, Aleksa actually gets the hipster haircut – and a twirly moustache into the bargain – he asks for; moreover the job the stylist does is far better than what he’s had in Australia. More importantly, the students discover that much of the media reports about North Korea are deliberately exaggerated in a negative way, and that what the DPRK has done, or might have done, to its citizens is no worse than, and often far less worse, than what Western countries (and the United States in particular) have done to their own citizens and to other countries as well.

To their credit, Apollonov and Vulovic set the context for North Korea’s paranoia and suspicion of Western intentions towards it: after 50 years of being under the brutal domination of Japan, the Korean peninsula enjoyed a few brief months of independence before the territory was carved up into two by triumphant World War II victors the Soviet Union and the US and their allies. While North Korea hung onto its socialist government, the US moved Japanese administrators back into South Korea and not long after began strafing North Korea with waves of warplanes dropping bombs. The result was that all of North Korea’s cities were destroyed and 1.5 million civilians (apparently about 20% of the country’s population) were killed. Even after the Korean War ceased (with no peace treaty signed), the US and South Korea continue to menace the DPRK with massive military exercises (Operation Foal Eagle) held twice a year, apparently during the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons in North Korea, when army conscripts are most needed in the fields. In March – April 2016, the exercises involved nearly 300,000 South Korean soldiers and over 15,000 US soldiers carrying out beach invasions and other large scale assaults that could have turned into the real thing if the DPRK were not vigilant.

While the two presenters present their material in a familiar news-comedy format and sometimes mug for the camera, much of what they deliver is intriguing and ought to encourage people to question how much so-called “serious” or “quality” news can be taken … well, seriously. The funniest moments come when the two take to the streets in the bohemian Sydney suburb of Newtown to interview young people on what they think of North Korea and its society: invariably the respondents say the country lacks freedom, is repressive and its people are brainwashed by propaganda while they themselves are proud of the freedom and democracy offered in Australia. One such interviewee is then asked about how he got his long and luxuriant hair and his girlfriend promptly tells the presenters that she advised him on his hairstyle. The boyfriend unhesitatingly replies that he follows her advice!

The film does drag a bit in its second half when the presenters compare North Korean and US aggression, and discover the DPRK has nothing on the Americans when it comes to military adventures and invasions abroad. North Korea itself, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala (1954), Iran (1953), Panama (1989), Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines … you name it, at some stage in the past a foreign country has been invaded by the United States. The pace of the film though is fairly brisk and for a 20-minute documentary says a great deal about the nature of Western propaganda against North Korea, with much of that propaganda being a projection of Western built upon that country, and the reality behind it. The film concludes with secret film footage of the two students visiting an amusement park, a circus and various other entertainments in North Korea, meeting the local people and seeing how happy they actually are.