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 continues as heartlessly as it 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.

 

 

Snowpiercer: silly social satire reveals a conservative and narrow view of human nature and potential for change

Joon-ho Bong, “Snowpiercer / Seolgugyeolcha” (2013)

Joon-ho Bong’s first outing in the English language is an enjoyably silly ride into the post-apocalyptic dystopian SF genre. Concerns about global warming in 2014 lead to governments agreeing to an audacious geo-engineering experiment in which jets spray crystals in the upper atmosphere. Scientists believe that these crystals are likely to cool the planet down sufficiently to avert the climatic extremes, unusual weather phenomena and all other natural disasters associated with climate change, temporarily at least. Damn right those boffins are: climate modifications plunge Earth into a new all-enveloping Ice Age and all life becomes extinct. Some several hundred humans manage to crowd onto a super-long train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine and built by the Wilford Corporation, headed by … who else? – the eponymous super-engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) himself. In order to get along, these humans have sorted themselves into a rigidly stratified society depending on the category of rail ticket they bought originally: the people who purchased the most expensive tickets obtain accommodation near the front of the train and get to enjoy lives of streamlined luxury and endless pleasure; those in business class have to do some work but still enjoy amenities appropriate for their money’s worth; economy class ticket-holders are mostly relegated to manual work serving the needs of the rich while some of their brothers and sisters who drew the short straws must serve as security guards to make sure the freeloaders in the crowded cattle cars at the back of the train stay in their allocated places.

In these cattle cars an elderly man Gilliam (John Hurt) and a younger passenger Curtis (Chris Evans) plot rebellion with their fellow Great Unwashed, especially after a number of children in their section have been whisked away by the security guards and taken to the front of the train. Their rebellion leads them through succeeding train carriages where they face implacable and bloodthirsty hooded guards in charge of the food vat (that supplies the freeloaders with protein blocks made from cockroaches) and the water-tank. The rebels collect a security guard Minsu Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yuna from cryogenic chambers as Minsu is needed to open the gates and he won’t agree to go unless Yuna accompanies him. Needless to say, Curtis and Gilliam lose huge numbers of followers in their battles – in this degraded world, the art of negotiation and diplomacy has been lost – and at times the struggle is tedious and gory. Curtis loses his best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gilliam along the way.

The rebels collect a hostage, Mason (Tilda Swinton), who is responsible for enforcing the rules on the train, and force her to take them through the carriages where the upper class lead their lives of idle pleasure. They pause for rest at a sushi restaurant and in an elementary school where they observe the upper class children being indoctrinated with a belief system in which the train represents an iron Tree of Life and is their entire reason for living. To leave the train is to die and Wilford is to be regarded as a god.

By the time the rebels reach the engine-room, their numbers are whittled down to Curtis, Minsu and Yuna. Curtis meets Wilford who tells him some alarming home truths about himself (Curtis) and Gilliam: it turns out that on a regular basis, Wilford and Gilliam foment rebellion in the economy class cattle cars so as to give the security guards an excuse to cut down on overpopulation in the train carriages in the interests of sustainability. Curtis slowly realises that he has been groomed to head the rebellion and been allowed by the security guards – some of whom are so psychopathic that they can will themselves to rise from the dead! – to reach the engine-room where Wilford is waiting to pass on his mantle of overlordship.

As social satire “Snowpiercer” just about holds together: there are gaping plot holes where the stitching has come loose or was forgotten and parts of the film look as if they re-used old sets from recent Hollywood sci-fi efforts. The plot is a mess especially in its last half-hour where it piles on one twist after another: Curtis reveals his cannibal past to Minsu and Minsu and Yuna spend a lot of time fighting off a zombie security guard and hordes of angry upper class party-goers from some of the carriages while they desperately try to blow open an engine door with the industrial waste plasticine stuff that Minsu had been hoarding for many years. The acting ranges from barely adequate to hammy and in a film where the script has no brakes, character development is sketchy indeed. Swinton steals every scene she is in as the despot deputy and Alison Pill as the Stepford-Wife school-teacher is hilariously cartoonish and creepy. Hurt goes through his routine of wise geezer with a sinister secret. Kang-ho Song manages to inject some thoughtfulness into his one-dimensional role and Evans almost but not quite succeeds in making Curtis as something more than the stock character stereotype of an everyday man thrust unexpectedly into a revolutionary leadership role.

The technical details can be astonishing to behold on first viewing; repeated viewings though reveal the flat CGI landscapes outside the train and some of the interior sets appear to be hand-me-downs from other Hollywood blockbuster SF films and are in need of some imagination. The culture of the upper class moochers has barely changed since 2014; heck, much of it hasn’t changed since the turn of the century in 2000 – or the 1800s as Curtis discovers in horror when he and Yuna peek into the engine’s innards and see the cattle car children toiling in Dickensian conditions.

Plot as such is threadbare: the aim is to progress from the back of the train to the front and Bong treats us to a sociological survey of the train society as moulded by Wilford. Wilford’s vision of human nature is essentially Hobbesian and pessimistic: people are basically irrational, highly emotional creatures motivated solely by material pleasures but since the train’s capacity to carry what people need is very limited, everyone on the train has been shoe-horned into a highly stratified society in which socioeconomic inequality is vast. The folks in the over-crowded cattle car economy class are kept in a state of ignorance and are tightly policed. It obviously never occurs to Wilford to think that the more he represses the Great Unwashed, the more they will revolt; neither does he realise that if everyone was treated equally and received equal shares of food, clothing and material comforts, train society would be more peaceful, there would be less over-breeding in the cattle cars, and there would be no need for periodic purging of the population. This is where the film falls flat as an examination of society and reveals the essentially conservative mental paradigm about human nature and its potential for change  that prevails in Hollywood and by implication the rest of the United States. In this narrow worldview, the law of the jungle dominates, people solve problems with violence instead of negotiation, there is little pity for underdogs and those who overthrow the elite are expected to replace them as a new elite and society with all its social layers continues as before.

The film ends on a pessimistic note as (spoiler alert) the train’s engine door is blasted open, unleashing an avalanche in the mountains that stops and buries the train and leaves very few survivors.  Even if that hadn’t happened, there is still a punchline that all isn’t well with the train: Curtis and Yuna learn that the perpetual-motion engine powering the iron beast on its endless journey is wearing out and losing parts, and the children from the cattle car section have to substitute for needed spare parts. This horrific discovery spells out that Wilford’s utopia-turned-dystopia in which the endless search for material comfort and pleasure by a few ends up cannibalising humans and must eventually reach its telos. Whatever purpose Wilford and his corporation built the train for, beyond maintaining human survival, remains unknown: there is no suggestion in the film that the upper classes really have a better life spiritually than Curtis, Gilliam and their people do in their barracks-like conditions. An underlying message that some lives can be so lacking in purpose beyond material gratification that people living such lives might be just as better off dead as lives lived in sheer poverty and hopelessness is hard to miss.

 

 

Night Fishing: delving into the world of Korean shamanism and spirituality with an Apple iPhone 4

Park Chan-kyong, Park Chan-wook, “Night Fishing / Paranmanjang” (2011)

Filmed using an Apple iPhone4, this fantasy-horror film delves into the little understood world of Korean shamanism and spirituality, and the role they still have in modern Korean society. A fisherman (Oh Kwang-rok) working in a swampy area at night (a strange time to be out fishing) throws a line out into the water and almost immediately snags a good trout. He rushes over and next thing you know, he’s entangled in the line and falling on top of a drowned woman (Lee Jeong-hyeon). The woman gradually comes alive in a fairly comic scene and initially viewers think the man has choked and suffocated on all the water she threw up. The two recover and have a conversation, during which the woman starts rattling some bells on a staff (in Korean films, an indication that something isn’t quite what we expect it is) and begins to wail …

The version of the film I saw had no English-language sub-titles and was dubbed in Russian instead so I flat-out had no idea what the main characters plus the rest of the cast were talking about. However Western viewers will quickly work out that the young woman is an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The scenes that take place in the world of the dead are filmed in black and white and those in the land of the living are in colour. A mother (Lee Yong-nyeo) and her wheelchair-bound daughter consult the young shaman as to why and how their husband / father died tragically. The shaman, after visiting the land of the dead, asks for forgiveness from the mother and child on behalf of the dead man.

The ceremony in which the shaman contacts the dead man and relays his message to the anxious family is marked by solemn droning music and the entire scene is intense and emotional. The bright colours heighten the drama of the ritual and actors Lee JH and Lee YN demonstrate remarkable restraint as well as almost histrionic emotion together. Lee JH in particular commands the viewer’s attention with her performance in a wooden tub filled with water and immediately afterwards, when she steps out to grab the child, in a highly theatrical act of spirit possession.

The film can be beautiful to watch, especially in its final scenes where there is a tranquil scene shot of a blue lake with a peaceful blue sky above followed by a number of painted scenes of perhaps important historic Korean personalities and saints that perhaps reference Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Andrei Rublev”. True to form, Park Chan-wook includes macabre humour early on, a twist in the plot and scenes of extreme emotional outpouring. The use of an iPhone 4 for filming gives the short the appearance of cinéma vérité: there is one scene filmed from some distance showing people preparing for a ritual in the shaman ceremony and viewers are given a taste of what it might feel like to be a voyeur spying on other people’s private sorrows.

The plot cannot sustain a length longer than 30 minutes and the fact that the twist is a major part of the film’s narrative and cuts it into two nearly equal halves that mimic eastern Asian philosophical and spiritual ideas of a universe in which polar opposites, represented by the yin-yang principle, govern its structure, means that “Night Fishing” does not bear very many repeated viewings by the general public. The film showcases Park Chan-wook’s  style of fantasy film-making and directing combined with his particular interpretation of how a Korean cultural tradition still grounds modern Korean society and allows people to express their frustrations, grief and troubles in dealing with personal crises.

Sleep Tight My Baby: one take is all it takes for an effective horror short

Pansu Kim, “Sleep Tight My Baby” (2001)

Very devastating film about a teenage girl trapped with a baby and quarrelling parents filmed in one continuous take; much of the film’s effectiveness is achieved simply by the movement of the camera which captures the changing mood of the story, and by the soundtrack which pushes the viewer to imagine the worst simply by the way it sequences an unseen baby’s wails and the sound of water pouring into a bath-tub. Initially the handheld camera moves too quickly for my liking but after Emma the girl sits on the couch and starts talking into her mobile phone, Kim’s control of the camera asserts itself and the camera starts to move more purposefully, flashing about once Mum and Dad charge into the lounge-room yelling at each other; and wildly rotating after they leave the house and the teenager lapses into a depression.

The surprise is that at a critical point in the film, Emma looks into the lounge-room from the corridor and sees a projection of herself dancing while holding the baby (Kim uses identical twins Jessica and Felicity Pell to play the girl) when in fact the viewer is fully aware of where the baby is and what has happened to it. The baby itself is never seen in the film; we only know of its existence because of its off-screen crying, the presence of the stroller and the striped blanket the child is wrapped in. The projection of Emma’s fantasy suggests despair and derangement enough to endanger the baby’s life: the dancing girl could be an angel or demon taking away the child. As if to reinforce this impression, Emma’s parents are seen in separate rooms doing cooking and ironing chores and smiling at their wayward daughter.

Although the film doesn’t look entirely credible in its details – not being seen, the baby must be assumed to be old enough to sit in a stroller yet young enough to be wrapped entirely in a blanket and Emma appears as too well-scrubbed to be a single mum – the tension and horror build up steadily thanks to the soundtrack which includes solo violin and piano melody that become frenzied. The house is made to look claustrophobic and creepy by the camera’s movements and close-ups of toys and other objects strewn about on the furniture seem to increase Emma’s isolation and alienation. The use of black-and-white film permits no warmth that might come from the colour of the furnishings.

A good example of a film whose story emerges from the skilful combination of camera movement in one take, sound and music … and the characters didn’t have to be all that good or sketched out! The twist in the story is that while the major characters dream of or try to escape, only one character can be said to have escaped a dreary domestic situation and unwillingly at that.

Silmido: excellent film about a series of incidents in South Korean history that has a universal resonance

Kang Woosuk, “Silmido” (2003)

Apparently based on actual incidents, this epic film ought to have been just a straightforward “Dirty Dozen” action film with a sketchy plot, loads of violence and boot-camp brutality, displays of macho camaraderie and a schmaltzy message about dying for your mates and country; “Silmido” is all of that on one level yet turns out to be more. Perhaps its Korean setting and the very contemporary nature of the politics invoked – the Korean War technically hasn’t finished – help shove the film into a realm audiences inside and outside the country can relate to but I’m not sure that explains the feeling I have that “Silmido” would affect a lot of people who have no knowledge of the country’s history in a very personal way.

The plot is easy to follow: in the late 1960s, after some North Korean agents have been captured and executed by South Korean military forces after confessing that they were on a mission to kill President Park Chunghee, the South Koreans themselves toy with the idea of sending men on a similar mission to kill North Korean leader Kim Ilsung. Under orders from the government, the army sends over 30 hardened criminals on death row and other outcasts to Silmido island to undergo a brutal training regime that will transform them into elite assassin force Unit 684. For much of the film, viewers are treated to harrowing if well-staged scenes of unrelenting Spartan training and often sadistic torture; the proceedings can be hard to watch sometimes and the film’s pace never lets up. When the men have been disciplined and honed into an efficient fighting force, the government orders change and the army is now faced with a fanatical killing machine it does not know what to do with.

The plot is mostly predictable: men who can’t handle the training drop out and there’s a token death; the army leaders and soldiers who train the would-be assassins are suitably granite-faced and apply the requisite beatings and excessive machine-gun fire punishments. There’s room for slapstick humour in one scene where a man runs into a river before his minder even has a chance to brand him with a hot poker! The music soundtrack is stirring and heroic to excess and there is plenty of Korean-style OTT melodrama; compared to other east Asians, Koreans have a reputation for being highly emotional and intense people and “Silmido” milks the emotional potential inherent in scenes between individual characters who have personal crosses to bear and old scores to settle.

Where the film really lifts its game is in what goes on between the army and the government represented by stock character stereotypes outside Silmido island: the general political situation changes, South Korea decides it’s better to co-exist with and even do deals with Kim Ilsung, and senior bureaucrats and politicians waive away the creation of Unit 684 as though the 31 remaining men in the unit are just so many flies to be swatted away. The hoplites’ loyalty to their country and fighting zeal count for nothing but their very testoterone-charged fanaticism, the bonds of loyalty among themselves and to their superiors, and their readiness to face death so that they can truly feel alive now make them a serious threat to South Korea’s security. At this point in the film, non-Korean viewers realise there are two ways to go: the plot could just let the men go off to North Korea with the army and government cynically figuring that the North Koreans can handle them their own way; or the men could self-destruct. As Koreans know already, the men do self-destruct but the ways in which they do it turn out quite unpredictably. Their demise is at once heroic and pathetic and the film’s coda is quietly powerful and depressing in a way that only skilful and clever Korean film-making can make it.

The incidents of “Silmido” are very particular to Korean history, so much so that I don’t expect Koreans born after the period of military rule (which ended more or less about the late 1980s or early 1990s) to know those events, but the film’s themes of political expediency, bureaucratic indifference, the cynical exploitation of loyalty, camaraderie and patriotism, a government’s inability to consider the consequences of creating a killing machine with only one short-term purpose in mind and the psychological effects that intense military training might have on people are surely issues that will resonate with viewers beyond Korea. Above all there is something exhilarating about men who, in training to face certain death, discover purpose and new life, and you can’t help but feel that in spite of their brutal training and psychological transformation, they experience a kind of freedom and become supermen, far beyond the confines of the society that originally produced them. Somewhere in the heavens above, Friedrich Nietzsche is smiling.

 

Doggy Poo: cute existential heartwarmer about the value of all creation

Kwon Ohsung, “Doggy Poo” / “Ganggajidong” (2003)

Here is a very sweet and beautiful little film about having purpose in life and being valuable in the greater scheme of things, even if you are a little, uh … a little piece of shit. In a rural part of South Korea, a small dog does his dump on the side of the road and leaves behind Doggy Poo, the cutest little turd you could ever avoid treading on or kicking. Doggy Poo is visited by various living and non-living beings including a lost lump of soil from a farm but all either reject him or leave him. Doggy Poo grows despondent from the ridicule and, as he can’t move at all, becomes very lonely as potential companions either avoid him or are taken away. The seasons pass, snow falls on him and melts away, a star streaks across the sky and Doggy Poo wishes that one day he too will be beautiful and bring beauty to all around him.

The early half of the film can be very dark as a couple of characters discuss death and having a purpose in life with Doggy Poo. The lump of soil laments causing the deaths of some pepper plants during a spell of hot, dry weather and is sure that the next time the ox-cart comes by, he will be crushed to death under its heavy wheels. The autumn leaf tells Doggy Poo that her life-span is short and that she has no control over her life as she must go wherever the wind takes her. These characters demonstrate a few philosophical views about the random and often cruel nature of life and natural systems. Some viewers who see the English-language version of “Doggy Poo” may object to the English-language opinions expressed by the lump of soil who mentions God quite a lot in his US Southern accent, seeing his views as indicating a Christian religious slant to the film. References to God may be just part of an awkward translation of the original Korean script: what the soil means to say is that everything that comes into the world has a purpose in life but only the Supreme Creator knows what is in store for Doggy Poo. The soil can only speak for himself but has no other knowledge of what other beings, living and inanimate, come into existence for.

The stop-motion clay animation looks very good and the later parts of the film in which seedheads of a dandelion disperse and float through the air and over the countryside and mountains are visually gorgeous and uplifting. The music, most of it plaintive piano melody, matches the drama well as Doggy Poo endures changes in weather and humiliating treatment from a hen and her chicks. The central character himself is very weepy and his little eyes spend much screen-time brimming with tears but his earnest nature, appreciation of the natural beauty around him and desire for meaning and company in his life are sure to win him many fans. For a doggy poo, he looks very well-scrubbed with smooth fat cheeks and a little wispy kink on his head and it may be no coincidence that his little poo pieces around him make him look like a toy dog splayed on the ground with paws sticking out in all directions. How cute!

Comparison with the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling” and maybe also that writer’s “The Little Mermaid” is obvious as Doggy Poo eventually realises his dream of becoming beautiful and finding companionship but this requires self-sacrifice on his part. Doggy Poo’s life and transformation might be seen as part of a Buddhist spiritual view of life: life is transient but is part of a cycle of birth, living, death and rebirth, and each step in the cycle may involve a transformation to something different, higher and more beautiful perhaps, depending on how one has lived one’s previous life.

Had this film been made outside South Korea, Doggy Poo would be looking for love, not purpose, in his life and the story would be much less effective and emotional and more queasily sentimental than it is. A Japanese treatment might have made Doggy Poo a more stoic and perhaps less appealing character and the treatment dished out to him by unfriendly birds might be more sadistic. It is quite possible that some politically conservative politicians, economists, academics and others may interpret and exploit the film as urging self-sacrifice on workers for the so-called “national good”.  We should worry if that happens for “Doggy Poo” is a deeply compassionate yet simple film about a lowly little shit who doesn’t ask for much, just some respect and a purpose that makes his mean lot in life worth enduring.