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.

US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm: a sketchy report on the insidious effects of US military activity on a South Korean village and farming region

Yoichi Shimatsu, “US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm (Lens.tv Report: THAAD Deployment in South Korea)” (2017)

Structured as a news report rather than as a documentary, this item by investigative reporter (and former Japan Times Weekly editor) Yoichi Shimatsu focuses on the effects of an American missile base deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile defence system on an agricultural region centred around the village of Seongju in southeast South Korea. According to THAAD’s Wikipedia entry, the system is “designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach”. One presumes THAAD has been deployed in South Korea to protect that country from inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from North Korea.

Shimatsu and his cameraman travel to Seongju where he meets protesters who tell him they have been protesting against the missile base since July 2016 when it was established. A local person called Kang (who turns out to be a Buddhist monk) takes Shimatsu’s crew to Bodhidharma mountain, named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, where they survey the missile base and take photographs. Shimatsu identifies a Patriot launch vehicle, part of the Patriot system which targets low-flying intermediate-range missiles that the THAAD system does not target. To Shimatsu, the deployment of the Patriot system at the Seongju missile base suggests that the US intends to use the base as part of an offensive attack against North Korea, and possibly China and Russia, and is not intended solely to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear attack.

Shimatsu and Kang also discuss the strong electricity vibrations being generated in the missile base for the radar unit there and the effect of these vibrations through the mountains on the growth and development of the area’s fruits, vegetables and flowers. Shimatsu later interviews a young university student who tells him that flowers have stopped growing and that produce has dwindled since the missile base was established.

Not much background context is provided in this 12-minute video and viewers need to do their own research on why and how Seongju came to host the missile base – the luxury golf resort at the missile base was the conduit by which the US military obtained access to the real estate at Bodhidharma Mountain and converted it into a military site – under the auspices of former South Korean President Park Geunhye, daughter of the notorious dictator president Park Chunghee (1961 – 1979) who was impeached in early 2017 for corruption linked to her aide Choi Soonsil. There is scanty explanation on how the strong electricity and electromagnetic vibrations from the missile base could be affecting vegetation and people’s health, and if the video had been a bit longer and its budget bigger, an animation or diagram explaining the possible origin of the vibrations and how they are linked to the activities at the base could have been useful.

The most useful aspect of the report is as a wake-up call to communities around the world contemplating hosting military bases for the US, and the consequences these may have for the communities, their economies and their natural environments.

Masquerade: a historical drama inspired by a bizarre episode in a Korean king’s reign becomes an inquiry into good government and social class

Choo Chang-min “Gwanghae: Wang-i Doen NamjaMasquerade” (2012)

Korean actor Lee Byung-hun may be better known for his gunslinger roles in flicks like “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and the not-so magnificent 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” but he may have reached his career peak in playing two roles in Choo Chang-min’s historical drama epic “Masquerade”. Inspired by an episode in the reign of early 17th-century King Gwanghae, during which in the year 1616 a 15-day period was deliberately not recorded in the archives of the king’s Joseon Dynasty, the film proposes that during this fortnight King Gwanghae went into hiding after being drugged by his palace enemies and allowed an imposter to take his place while he recovered his health.

The action starts very quickly: temperamental tyrant Gwanghae (Lee) orders his defence secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to find him a double to stand in for him in case he, the king, is ever poisoned or drugged in an assassination plot. Heo just as speedily finds an acrobat and jester, Ha-seon (Lee again), who of course resembles the king and who has been satirising him in bawdy live performances in Seoul’s red light districts. Ha-seon gets a quick crash course in imitating Gwanghae’s voice and style of kingship, which is just as well since the king is indeed poisoned and he lapses into a coma. Loyal courtiers quickly cart the monarch away to a secret rural location while Heo and the loyal Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) try to hammer their lowly protege into presentable kingly material sufficient to fool queen consort (Han Hyo-joo), personal bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In-kwon) and the various assorted politicians and courtiers, few of whom can be trusted and nearly of whom would throw a knife into Gwanghae’s back if they could.

After about half an hour of Ha-seon adjusting to his new role, he discovers that Gwanghae has been running something less than an upright administration that holds the welfare and needs of its Korean subjects utmost in mind and he sets about carrying out land and taxation reforms that Heo already had drafted but which Gwanghae had been stalling on. This of course upsets Gwanghae’s courtly enemies even further and they start their own investigations into the king’s recent sudden changes in conduct and behaviour. The queen, the concubines and the women of the court and kitchen are equally perturbed by the king’s sudden studiousness and interest in State matters and avoidance of the harem, and his new-found compassion and care for the kitchen servants, in particular the teenage Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) whose family fell on hard times, selling her and her mother into bondage; Sa-wol ends up working for the palace but does not know where her mother has gone.

Choo’s direction emphasises technical and historical accuracy and detail, and the result is a lavish recreation of both the intrigues and the commonplace affairs that occupied King Gwanghae’s reign and made it so eventful if rather short (the fellow lasted 15 years before being deposed and forced into exile). As contemporary Korean audiences may not be very familiar with this period of their history, the action follows a fairly strict chronological order and the style of direction is straightforward. This allows several themes to come into play: that high birth doesn’t determine one’s place in history whereas conduct and behaviour do; that rulers, even kings, are ultimately servants of the people and must govern fairly and compassionately on their behalf; and there is the danger of identity slippage as at times Ha-seon seems to be dangerously close to regarding himself as the real king. The result is that as Gwanghae’s enemies gradually discover the deceit played on them by the king himself and begin to encroach on and threaten Ha-seon’s life, Ha-seon’s real enemy may be the king himself as he regains his health and prepares to take charge again.

Lee’s bravura acting, from grim tyrant to a lowly bawdy comic who rises to his sudden and unexpected destiny and finds in himself talents and abilities he never thought he had, holds the film together and the supporting cast is no less outstanding. Through Ha-seon, the royal court rediscovers what true kingship is. The plot includes and unites elements of comedy, drama, action and tragedy in a seamless manner. The pace is fairly brisk but I never felt it was hurried and it leaves plenty of room for Ha-seon and Heo to deal with courtly machinations against them and the day-to-day business of governing. The film unites the grand and the epic with the humble and the lowly, and this unity is what gives “Masquerade” its depth and range. In its own way, “Masquerade” interrogates the role of social class in Korean society and finds it wanting.

Pieta (dir. Kim Kiduk): a cruel and absurd grotesquery mocking the poor and the marginalised

Kim Kiduk, “Pieta” (2012)

This tale of dark revenge centres around a class of people at the bottom-feeding end of the capitalist social hierarchy pyramid, those people fated to work at essential jobs paying little money, in dangerous life-threatening conditions and little hope of advancement. You know who these folk and what these jobs are: these people are subcontractors who work on projects given them by large industrial firms, or who recycle machines and other objects discarded by companies and consumers. These workers earn very little and borrow heavily simply to sustain themselves and their families but then are often unable to pay their crippling debts.

Enter Kangdo (Lee Jeongjin), a brutal enforcer working for a loan shark moneylender, going about threatening these people with severe injuries if they don’t pay back their debts. When they plead for more time, he breaks their fingers or throws them off ledges onto hard ground where their legs are broken. The money they receive from government agencies to pay their medical costs is instead claimed by Kangdo. Kangdo operates in the concrete underbelly of Seoul, in a labyrinthine maze of dreary garages, machine shops and junkyards. His personal life is as depressing and cold as his working life: Kangdo lives alone in a filthy flat in what appears to be a derelict apartment building, he has no close relationships and his diet consists of meat from animals that he kills himself, and whose innards grace his bathroom floor. A house-proud tenant he certainly ain’t.

Unexpectedly one day he meets a strange middle-aged woman (Cho Minsoo) who pursues him, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a tiny baby. Kangdo rejects the woman and warns her to stay away from him but she continues to pester him. He then puts her through some hair-raising tests including an incest rape which she passes with flying colours (of mostly blood-red hue). Over time, Kangdo and the woman accept each other, they start behaving as son and mother, and Kangdo starts to regain some of the humanity that he has always kept deeply buried in order to survive on the streets and to cope with being a brutal and loathsome thug. He starts to feel shame and guilt about the things he has done and he resolves to give up his brutal occupation and to start anew.

Alas, when he starts to open up and rediscover his connection to others that he had to suppress in order to survive on the streets, the woman herself discovers the full extent of his misdeeds as a moneylender’s enforcer and she determines to teach her son a lesson about accepting the consequences of his crimes and understanding how much his victims have suffered …

From then on, the plot becomes shaky and melodramatic as each of Kangdo’s past victims (or the ones we have seen anyway) return to haunt and taunt him in some way. As a result of being reunited with his mother, Kangdo returns to a child-like state and is unable to defend himself. One implausible incident leads to another even wackier one and while the plot descends into farce, earlier themes about how impoverished and marginalised people are bullied and exploited, and how capitalist society creates changes that crush, corrupt and sweep away people, and damages relationships and communities, are swept aside. Minor characters are treated as both pathetic victims, often for comic effect, or as brutal and corrupt themselves: either way, the film hardly shows much compassion and understanding for them in their debased states as they try to survive in the best way they can.

While the cinematography (filming was done with a hand-held camera) is beautifully if minimally done with well-placed shots, and the plot runs on very spare if sometimes brutal dialogue with long stretches of silent film that takes in the griminess of the life led by the urban poor in a derelict neighbourhood of tiny machine shops and scattered junk, “Pieta” frequently has an air of self-satisfaction and parody. As a Korean film, it appears to send up other well-known art-house Korean films on vengeance, redemption and dysfunctional mother-son relationships characterised by smother love, debasement and mutual psychological and physical violence. After the halfway point of the film, when Kangdo finally accepts his mother, the plot goes downhill with Kangdo progressively becoming more infantile in pleading for his mother’s life (while unaware that his mother, driven by her own demons, is playing a cruel trick on him) with unseen kidnappers. When the worst happens, Kangdo is left adrift and helpless, unable to survive on his own. The paradox is that when he was brutal, Kangdo did well enough on his own, but once he comes to know love and human connection, he reverts to the state of an infant and when the connection is broken, the only thing left for him is death. The social circumstances that led his mother to abandon him as a baby continue as heartlessly as they did before. If this paradox is supposed to be a blackly humorous comment on the human condition, I’d hate to know what a deadly serious comment would be.

The cosmic-joke nature of the film, its self-conscious cleverness and the way fate smacks Kangdo about, while leaving out any criticism of the industrial society that brutalises people and makes possible violence, corruption and degradation of individuals and society alike, leaves “Pieta” with a bad smell. Revenge may be pitiless, redemption may come with a heavy price and that price may be death, yes, but the way in which Kangdo is manipulated into debasing himself in a completely abject way is unconvincing. For all the fine acting and an undeveloped sub-plot about the purpose of existence and ordering your life away from the pursuit of material wealth, the film turns out to be an absurd and cruel grotesquery.

Oldboy: arthouse film trappings cannot disguise a flimsy plot, flat characters and an empty message

Chanwook Park, “Oldboy” (2003)

When I saw this film the first time over a decade ago, I was impressed with its style and colour and the way it was filmed but now that I’ve become familiar with Chanwook Park’s little bag of tracks, on second viewing  I can see all the surrealism and the artfulness can’t quite disguise the lame Swiss-cheese plot. Adapted from a Japanese manga, “Oldboy” follows the sufferings of one Daesu Oh (Minsik Choi) who one evening has one drink too many and ends up in police custody. He is freed only to be kidnapped by unseen assailants and he ends up imprisoned in a hotel apartment for 15 years. During this lengthy time, he learns from watching TV that his wife has been murdered, their daughter taken into foster care and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s killing. He passes the time learning to shadow box and writes copiously, plotting revenge on his kidnappers.

He is released unexpectedly and spends the rest of the film trying to pinpoint the place where he was imprisoned and who might have jailed him. He meets a young girl Mido (Hyejung Kang) who tries to help him with his investigations. Eventually a wealthy man Woojin Li (Jitae Yu) meets him and admits that he was the kidnapper; he then gives Daesu five days to find out why he, Daesu, was abducted and held for so long against his will. If Daesu succeeds within the 5-day period, Woojin will commit suicide, if not, Mido will be killed.

The second of Chanwook Park’s revenge trilogy – “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” being the other films – “Oldboy” is a sly examination of revenge and how it can consume people so much so that after they’ve achieved their vengeance and forced others to suffer the pain they suffered, they discover there’s not only no purpose left for them in life but vengeance itself doesn’t bring the satisfaction and closure they thought it would provide. This is a theme of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” as well.  Whereas the initial reason for the main character in that film to seek revenge was a school-teacher’s abuse and killing of children in his care, here in “Oldboy” the rationale that sets off the chain of actions seems trivial, at least to Western audiences.  You punish a man for fifteen years because he spied on you and your sister up to no good and he tells the entire class at school about you both, and your sister flings herself off the top of a bridge and drowns? You might at least be a little thankful you weren’t reported to the Department of Community Services. The film seems to say that some family secrets should be kept secret – one might raise an eyebrow at the ethics of covering up certain forbidden or illegal acts.

The climax and the denouement come as a surprise: on learning of his role in the sister’s suicide, Daesu becomes completely craven and suppliant towards Woojin; Woojin for his part finds Daesu’s self-abasement hilarious (as no doubt some viewers will) but the other man’s reaction does not satisfy Woojin’s desire for vengeance on the man who as a teenager did something childish and thoughtless. Woojin then has to cope with the consequences of pursuing an unsatisfying vengeance that still eats at him.

Surveillance is a theme threaded right through the film and its destructive effects on both the spied and their watchers are noted, usually very brutally. Daesu stops at nothing to get the information he needs that will lead him to Woojin while Woojin plays puppet-master and stays one step ahead of Daesu most of the time.

While the film is well-acted and Choi and Yu acquit themselves admirably in quite arduous and intense roles, their characters essentially remain flat, undeveloped and quite bestial in morality. There is something odd about Woojin and how his cosseted life-style seems to have made him asexual. His penthouse is absolutely spotless, antiseptic and sterile, hinting at the emotionless robot beneath the youthful leering face. Choi’s Daesu is a desperate man on the edge: he appears to repent of his earlier indulgent and hot-tempered ways during his incarceration but once free, he goes all-out to punish to the extreme the people he finds who contributed to his torment over the years. No mercy is shown to anyone or his (rarely her) teeth. The fact that very little character development takes place or supposedly takes place off-screen throws the weight of plausibility entirely on the insubstantial and hokey plot.

While Park undoubtedly has great technical ability and attracts good actors and crew to create a stunningly beautiful and artful movie, he is unable to overcome a brutal plot in which cartoonish characters basically compete to see who is the more lacking in insight, grace, understanding of the human condition and maturity. The film ultimately seems to say that humans are bad and brutal through and through, and no redemption or escape is possible. Daesu is forced to live with his punishment and self-abasement for the rest of his life: a chilling and despairing conclusion that reeks not a little of the too-clever manipulation, not on Woojin’s part, done to reach that finale.