Mama Loves Her Baby and Daddy Loves You Too: Maternal Instincts and The Host

Welcome to edition #3 of the 2011 Korean Blogathon! Hope you enjoy reading this one as much as I enjoy writing it and possibly as much as I enjoyed watching it. I have a feeling this one is gonna be extra fun to do!

It is probably no accident that Bong Joon-ho’s latest entry into the Korean cinema canon is entitled Mother and centers around a maternal figure. His films seem to contain a great deal of discussion about the female body if not direct reference to the birthing figure, as in the 2009 film. While that may seem like an odd thing to say about a filmmaker who has made crime films, comedies and a monster movie, his oeuvre can actually back him up.This director is able to use subtext as skillfully as a trained circus performer, making it look just as natural and easy, and thumbs his nose at convention when he feels it is unnecessary. Like many of his peers, he involves Korean politics and culture, but unlike them he features them within a context of entertainment, humor and realism. To a certain extent, he is the Marvel Comics to everyone else’s DC. (1)

While we can see Memories of Murder(2003) as a dissection of the feminine form (it was a film about a serial killer, after all), and Mother(2009) as a study of true maternal dedication, what could we say of a monster movie?  How could the The Host(2006) possibly tie in to the themes presented in those other two films?

When I sat down to watch this film, I was in a very strange space. I had just gotten home from seeing a midnight showing of Battle: LA (2011) and I had just gone through Every. Single. Facebook post/Twitter and news item about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. I was wondering what was coming next. Really, in the last few months we’ve had random groups of birds falling from the sky, school of fish washing up on the shore…maybe this was it. Is it time? Is this our last hoorah? I mean, really folks. I saw the footage of those cars and that ocean. Unfathomable. So I figured the hell with it. Perhaps it was time for me to watch my copy of The Host (2006). We seem to be going down anyways. Let’s see how the Koreans think we’re gonna get it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Bong Joon-ho ended up doing something with this that no other Big Ass Monster Movie That Engages In Serious Politics (although- don’t they all?) has ever done for me before: it soothed me. Now I wasn’t entirely calm, mind you, there were bits and pieces that upset me (in a good way), but my reaction to The Host felt very similar, at times, to my reaction to Frankenstein (1931), one of my all-time favorite films. In a sense, The Host is not only a monster movie, but it is also a tragedy- of maternal proportions.

US Foreign Policy hasn’t always been the nicest kid in the world. In fact, I would venture to say that if every country’s Foreign Policy were represented by the kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory , the US would probably be Veruca Salt. With this in mind, it is important to look at the relationship that the US and Korea have had for a little over 60 years. This relationship had a great deal of bearing on The Host, and indeed is what helped make it what one Korean critic called “Korea’s first legitimate anti-American film.”(2) While Bong Joon-ho shrugs off the harshness of that title, he in no way denies it. Frankly, looking at history, I might have considered putting that description on the back of the DVD…if it wouldn’t’ve hurt sales. But that’s why I don’t make movies or try to sell them, right?

So let’s talk Korea, 1945. It was a good year, a grand year, a…not really. In fact, realistically, Korea hadn’t been in charge of their own country since before the Japanese took them over a couple decades earlier. Was there hope? Sure. World War II was done. There was hope for many things. But not for Korea. It is said that General John R. Hodge stated, just before arriving with his troops to peaceably “help” Korea post-Japanese annexation, “Korea is an enemy of the United States and any Korean who harms either Japanese or American personnel will be punished by death.” This attitude was not a singular one, nor was it one that dissipated. In fact, it was this general sentiment that led to the development of the 38th Parallel/Division of Korea, the United States Army Military Government in Korea, and the Korean War itself.

One can argue a plethora of motivations as to why the US, in 1945, went into a trusteeship with the Soviet Union for Korea in at the Potsdam Conference; a conference that not a single Korean figure of import was at. However, I would argue that one of the most salient reasons is what I call the Mommy Knows Best Syndrome. Those present- the US, the UK, and the Soviets- decided that since Korea hadn’t been making their own decisions since their diplomatic sovereignty had been removed by the Japanese in 1905, why let them start now? In any case, they didn’t. They moved right in, established themselves against the wishes of every Korean citizen, and divided up the country into North and South. If you hadn’t noticed, the lines ain’t changed much in the last few years.

But that wasn’t enough for the US. Every mommy needs to take care of her baby, right? And in a trusteeship (according to the United Nations, the biggest parent of ’em all), we had to make certain that the decompression from the Japanese annexation went smoothly. While the Soviets had their way with the North, General Hodges came in with the 24th Corps of the US 10th Army and proceeded to set up a military government in South Korea. Just what they needed, right? After all the time of living under Japanese subjugation, it must have been of great assistance to have the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK, for short!) come in to a country that they knew little to nothing about (language, culture, people…you name it!) and try to run things. I’m sure that they were sensitive and caring and probably listened to the citizens’ needs, right? Yeah.

It was no secret that the US was interested in staying in South Korea indefinitely. While South Korea had more independence than it had previously had under Japan, that wasn’t saying much. Politically, they still had to get all of their friends approved by Mom. And if she didn’t like them, well…they didn’t get to come over and play. This was a big problem. 1948 came around, and finally a governmental candidate came around who the USAMGIK found acceptable. This one would, essentially, make nice with the US and not cause too much of a fuss. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Syngman Rhee, the first President of  South Korea had lived in the US long enough to have gotten a BA from George Washington University, Harvard University and a PhD from Princeton. He had a gold star from Mama!

The US left the Korean peninsula in 1948, as did the Soviets. However, they just. Couldn’t. Stay. Away. In 1950, the Korean War began, a lovely addition to the Cold War and a proxy war due to the fact that everybody’s parents had come home early to “protect” them- North Korea was being supported by the Soviets and South Korea had US backing…again. Ultimately, after the Korean War, the US never came home. In fact, there is still a military presence there, as part of the Armistice that was agreed upon.

There were other conflicts as well, such as the Korean DMZ Conflict, which was essentially another set of conflicts between North and South Korea…and the US. Additionally, in order to make themselves even more indispensable, the US supplied a hefty amount of economic support needed to rebuild Southern Korea. You might say that Mom paid the bail for the items that she had shoplifted and put in your purse. You’re still left with a record. And South Korea, although it is far better today than it has been in times previous, has scars that simply will not go away thanks to a foreign power that simply will not go away, either.

So what does all of this have to do with The Host? Well, everything really. While it may seem like just another monster movie, at first, this film is based on a true event that Bong Joon-ho states occurred in 2000 when a Korean mortician who was working for the US military poured formaldehyde down the drain. According to Green Korea United,

On February 9th, in the US Eighth Army Mortuary Building 5498, 20 boxes of toxic fluids used for embalming, formaldehyde and methanol, were dumped without any detoxification in a drain.  Mr. Albert L. McFarland GS-11, DAC, after issuing an order to pour these fluids down the drain, was refused by his subordinate on the basis that the drain led to the Han River, and that the chemicals are known to cause cancer and birth defects.  Mr. McFarland swore at the soldier, and ordered him to execute the order. Although Mr. McFarland, the subdirector of the mortuary, was required to send the boxes to the American base in Okinawa, the boxes were covered in dust, and he ordered the chemicals to be poured down the drain. (3)

While American military websites have insisted that this is all environmentalist hogwash, the case was actually brought to the attention of the military by the soldier who got quite sick after dumping the contaminants. While the military still insisted that the formaldehyde-dumping was nothing to be alarmed by, it was reported to Green Korea United, the environmental website, who simply wish formal apologies to the Korean people and for the US Military to be more responsible and prevent things like this from happening in the future.

Bong Joon-ho’s film opens with two men, a Korean and an American- arguing about discarding some chemicals down a drain- in English. When I first put the film on, I thought that my DVD player had misfunctioned, and the subtitles were not showing up. Then I realized the linguistic choice was intentional. The young Korean man protests greatly against pouring the chemicals down the drain, as they would go straight into the Han River, one of the largest rivers in South Korea. The older American man says, condescendingly, “The Han River is very broad. Let’s try to be broad-minded about this, shall we?” The young man’s face falls, and the chemicals get poured down the drain.

"Broadminded foreign policy"

Cut to the Han River. We see a few things happen around the river that seem, well…a little “fishy” (please don’t kill me! It was there!). We meet two friendly fisherman, fishing in the river. One of them finds something in his cup! It escapes! And that is the last we hear of this oddity from them. They continue to fish. We witness a man about to commit suicide from jumping off a bridge. Before he does, he notices something…odd in the water below him. Not that this keeps him from sending himself plummeting to his death, but it’s still there.

These are what I call her little “peek-a-boo”s. Every monster movie has ’em. They are the “Oh, oh, oh, ALMOST saw it!!!” parts of the film before the Big Reveal. In standard Monster Movie Logic, this takes up most of the film. But she’s a different kind of Monster. This is a different kind of Monster Movie.

Next, we meet the Park family. Initially, we meet the seemingly lazy and slovenly Gang-du.

Gang-du, as played by a Bong Joon-ho favorite, Song Kang-ho

As a friend of mine said, “The Host is great because it is the only monster movie that he knows of with a mentally challenged father in the main role.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s mentally challenged, Gang-du is definitely different. He works at his father’s food stand right beside the Han River. His Dad, Hee-bong, spends most of his time watching out for his son and the shop as well as for his granddaughter (Gang-du’s child), Hyun-seo. We also find out at this juncture that Gung-du has a sister who is a highly-ranked professional archer (Nam-joo), and a brother who went to college and used to be a student protester but is now on the drunker end of the spectrum (Nam-il).

The folks that we physically meet at this point are Gang-du, Hee-bong, and Hyun-seo, and we see how their life is interacting with customers by the riverfront.  At this point we are about 12 or so minutes into the film. Within the next 2 1/2 minutes, the entire riverfront goes to hell, and we SEE THE MONSTER. Now, if that didn’t get you the first time, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host hasn’t even been running for 15 minutes and we already know what our monster looks like. And not just a “peek-a-boo” anymore, either. She’s out there, running around, in the bright and gorgeous sunlight, gobbling up people like they were Milk-Duds.Run, Gang-du, run!

As this is happening, not only does Bong Joon-ho insert an American who (vacationing or living within Korea- it is unclear) tries his best to “take charge” and “save the day” in a way that only an American Superhero Type would do (he gets brutally devoured- it’s pretty awesome), but Gang-du, while running away from the gigantic monster, finds Hyun-seo, grabs her hand, and then loses her…to the monster. Instead of maintaining his grasp on her hand, he falls while running due to his clumsiness, and his panicked state leads him to grab the next small hand about- another little girl. He looks back as he is running only to see Hyun-seo be snatched up by the monster and carried off across the Han River.

This is now the crux of the film and where everything changes. At this point the Korean authorities move in, and are seeming to quarantines and investigate the area, while Gang-du and his father move off to the site of mourning with everyone else, where they are joined by Nam-joo and Nam-il. However, once there, everyone is then also moved off-site and quarantined for having been within range of the monster and the river. Gang-du volunteers the information that the monster’s blood hit him in the face, making him an extra special candidate for study.

Once the government representatives who are dressed quite smartly in their bio-hazard suits have moved the Park family to the hospital and informed them that Gang-du will be tested on in the morning, the real story begins. Everyone goes to sleep, and Gang-du, against doctor’s order’s, fishes out a can of squid from the pocket of one of his belongings (they informed him not to eat before his tests the next day). As he is eating, his phone rings. It is Hyun-seo. She is alive, and stuck in a dark place but she is not certain where. And then the phone dies.

About this film, Bong Joon-ho says,

It’s easy to lose your sense of humanity making any film, not just monster films… With The Host, what kept this film human was the quality of the characters and the acting. In monster films you typically have a scientific reason for why the monster came to be and what their weaknesses are. Most of the story focuses on the monster. But in this film the monster comes out right at the beginning and then it’s mainly about the family, what each character is about, the details of their stories. I think that’s why the film retains a human aspect. If you want to be really picky about it, I don’t think you can say The Host is a monster movie. It’s more of a kidnapping movie. The kidnapper just happens to be a creature. It’s all about the family coming together and what they overcome. (4)

While I wholeheartedly agree with all those points, it is essential to look at this “kidnapping” feature of the film  as well as the monster-on-immediate-display feature in order to reveal one of the more prominent aspects of the film: the maternal features of the monster, which serve as her “humanity.”  This asset underscores the kind of pathos that many monsters throughout horror history have had (Frankenstein, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll, etc) and also serves as an integral cultural symbol. Multiple times within the film there are references to older Korean customs that are dying out and are being used by/taught to younger generations. There are discussions about the “generations” and the “generation gap.” What the monster and the kidnapping serve to do, in a way, is show that Korean youth is still relevant and important; they are not forgotten about, the way that Hee-bong admits that he forgot about Gang-du, when he was a child.

After the phone call is when we get a chance to see where Hyun-seo has ended up. She is in some kind of chasm, filled with dead bodies. But Hyun-seo does not remain stuck down there. The remainder of the film is spent trying desperately to locate her, by her family. Meanwhile, other (dead) adult bodies are dropped periodically, as the creature comes back. During the “drops,” Hyun-seo lays on the floor, still, pretending to be dead. Each time the bodies drop, Hyun-seo checks for signs of life, to no avail. Until there is another child. It seems that the monster, who drops these bodies, has the capacity for tenderness, whatever her version of that is. Upon dropping off the latest child and his older brother (who doesn’t make it), she was shown to possibly be giving Hyun-seo a gentle lick upon arrival. It is an ambiguous lick, but there, nonetheless. Paired with later actions of the creature, I read it as maternal interest in Hyun-seo.

While Hyun-seo deals with culture on the inside, the Park family deals with politics on the outside (although, really, they are inherently mingled). Gang-du and company have to beg, borrow and steal to get out of the hospital. Not only do they have to bribe Korean officials to look the other way but Hee-bong has to spend his life savings (he is insanely overcharged) to get a car, guns and other items just to escape properly. When asked about this kind of cynical portrayal of Korean society, Bong Joon-ho said simply, “The funny thing is that Korean audiences don’t receive it cynically or seriously but as comedy. Bribery and corruption are both very familiar but also very funny. Audiences don’t feel anger or grief. They accept this as a realistic picture of life. Koreans don’t react defensively, witnessing corruption for them is as natural as breathing.” (5) In addition to this, when the escape does not pan out, and Gang-du is recaptured, it is indeed the American military scientist (in tandem with a young Korean to translate) who pretends to be kind to Gang-du simply in order to capitalize on his misfortune. He reveals to his colleague that there really was no virus, and therefore all of the work that they are doing on Gang-du is for naught. Of course, the American military scientist underestimates Gang-du and his comprehension of English (naw, no throwbacks to history there at all, eh?). Even though Gang-du is unable to stop the totally unnecessary major brain surgery from taking place, he is able to escape and go after his daughter.

Meanwhile, back in the lair, Hyun-seo and the little boy are attempting to plan their getaway. But the creature has returned before they can fully enact it. This is where the creature truly reveals her function as a mothering character. Hyun-seo has strung up a line of clothing as a “rope” but cannot reach it. She must run up on the sleeping creature’s back in order to get to it. She tells the little boy to wait, and she runs up the creatures back, when all of a sudden…she is stopped, caught, and very gently returned to the ground.

Within the commentary for The Host, Bong Joon-ho says that he hates the conventions of the monster movie. Thusly, there was no “big reveal” and the monster never hid in shade of night. The monster’s gentle treatment of Hyun-seo, and even the small licks and cleaning procedures seem to go against everything we “know” of a monster. These things all not only depart from generic models but lead us to a more alternate way of looking at what or who this being is.

Our creature was created out of the US military’s thoughtless tainting of Korean soil. This is not the first time that US foreign intervention has created massive disturbance within this country. However, this is the first time that the country has gotten ample opportunity to fight back. And yet the offensive seems to be to protect its young. The adult figures that the creature meets generally meet a dark fate, and yet the children, the new generation, seem to get saved. While the monster will eventually meet the same end that all monsters in monster movies meet, the maternal instinct that she has must get recognized.

Children have traditionally played an important role in progressing culture. To spend an entire film searching for a child is clearly sending a message. The Host is an incredibly message-laden film that tells us that the future is important, not just within the narrative but perhaps for historic and cultural purposes. Bong Joon-ho’s film is not heavy-handed, even if it is seen as “anti-American” and blatantly political. Every which way you look there is a reference to the way that US foreign policy deconstructed a country that never wanted to be split up in the first place and was always looking to have a voice and never allowed one. Gang-du’s angry cries of “Fuck you, no one ever listens to me,” could simply be Korea’s cries for the last 60 years. However, all of this is deftly contained within the context of a good ol’ monster movie, and really- what else are monster movies for?

(1) DC comics located their heroes/villains in made up locations that were analogous to large cities (ie Metropolis or Gotham City), while Marvel located their heroes/villains in the actual locations.

(2) unidentified Korean critic quoted in Lee, Kevin B. “The Han River Horror Show: An Interview with Bong Joon-ho.” Translated by Ina Park and Mina Park, Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.2 (Spring 2007). Accessed 3/11/2011. http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-bong-joon-ho.htm

(3)  “The Eighth US Army Division Discharged Toxic Fluid (Formaldehyde) into the Han-River.” Green Korea United. Accessed 3/11/2011. http://green-korea.tistory.com/74

(4) “The Han River Horror Show: An Interview with Bong Joon-ho.” Interview with Kevin B. Lee. Trans. Ina Park and Mina Park. Cineaste 32:2 (Spring 2007). http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-bong-joon-ho.htm./. Accessed on 3/12/2011.

(5) ibid.

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The Politics of Solitude: Oldboy and Korean Noir

This is my second entry for the Korean Blogathon. Enjoy!

When I asked a friend why he thought Southern Korean cinema seems to offer so many films based upon the theme of revenge, I got a much different answer than the one I was expecting. Most people I know simply chalked it up to the North/South Korea thing, which was fine. I get that. No big deal. Really, as one of my girlfriends stated, you’d want revenge too “when half of your extended family probably died of starvation or were put in a work camp making asbestos-covered paper flowers for French weddings.” But I was personally of the opinion that the revenge thing couldn’t entirely come from the schism. There had to be more. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t altogether wrong.

While I did think that the Northern/Southern Korean explanation was too much of an easy way out of explaining the severe proliferation of violent and vengeful films, I was unprepared for my friend’s other answer. It seems that Southern Korean filmmakers use revenge as a trope in a way that is similar to how US filmmakers have done in the past. He noted that the contemporary South Korean attitude is one of complete and total self-reliance due to massive distrust of authority figures. In essence, if something needs to get taken care of, the individual takes care of it themselves, as almost every professional agency is seen to be corrupt in some regard. Director Bong Joon-Ho corroborated my friend’s statement when interviewed about his film The Host. Bong states, “It would seem that only the little guy and his family have the best interests of Seoul at heart — the government could care less.” (1)

What struck me most about this was that, beyond these directors’ desire to align their main characters with a kind of  “everyman/little guy” mentality, their primary focus still remains in underscoring the fact that Joe Everyman is a very lonely place to be, existing more readily in a location of solitude and self-sufficiency than any kind of communal wealth. In doing so, they inadvertently have made it so that nearly every single one of their Revenge Films feature what is, essentially, the perfect noir protagonist (2). Like the noir guys of yesteryear, the male heroes of Korean cinema tend towards a violent methodology and don’t listen to anyone but their own inner voice. Of course, this may also have a lot to do with the fact that the outside world has seriously messed with their existence and thus their entirety is now dedicated to getting back at those that ruined their lives, but who knows?

Like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) or Cliff Robertson in Underworld U.S.A (Sam Fuller, 1961), South Korean cinema is populated with characters whose main goal in life is to even the score with the figures who caused them the greatest pain without any help from a higher authority source. In the American and Korean films, the heroes chose to take matters into their own hands…with markedly different results. But they are also markedly different countries. That said, what should be noted is that both of these groups of films (American noir and what we will now call Korean noir) indicate a severe distrust of authority/authority figures. While films like Heat and Underworld were directly correlated to American political contingencies, revenge films within South Korea are a very specified and specialized kind of noir that is reflective of South Korean political culture and climate. In order to clearly see how South Korea looks at its own people and develops its own noir, looking at one film in particular may give us a more conclusive feel.

OLDBOY: Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone

Noir extends beyond a mood and beyond a time. It is not a genre and it is as complicated as a chess board made from a silken spider’s web…and just as sticky. Park Chan-wook’s film, Oldboy, was released in 2003 as part of his “Vengeance Trilogy.” I would argue that this film fits the category of Korean noir perfectly and that the political discourse being laid out could be seen as somewhat revolutionary and yet not extraordinarily unusual in that respect for the highly volatile country of South Korea. While Oldboy‘s sibling films also work for a discussion of Korean Noir, I feel that the overt visuals and meticulous aural planning make this the primary film of importance within the threesome.

In one of my favorite essays about the environment of film noir,”No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir,” the author describes the protagonist as never actually being able to fit the word “hero” due to the shape of his surroundings. He says that “his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.” (3) If that description doesn’t fit Oh Dae-Su’s world to a T, I don’t know what does. As the film begins, the poor guy is just drunk and in the police station, having been done for being drunk in public. His pal comes to get him, they make a tragic last phone call to Dae-Su’s family, and…the alcohol takes over, leading Dae-Su to take off from the phone booth. The next thing he knows? He is trapped in a hotel room for the next 15 years, and he has no idea who put him there or why.

While the meat of the film may take place outside of the hotel room, post Dae-Su’s “escape,” that 15 year period is not to be ignored. Within his room/cell, he is allowed a very essential piece of information: a television. This media object serves as his sole escort- historically, sexually, and socially. We watch as he communes with soccer games, dance shows, and intensely important world events. Time passes and we are privy to his attempts at escape, all the while the screen is split, and we get to see the political changes taking place or the death of Princess Diana on the right while Dae-Su is trying to dig his way out on the left.

As Henry Sheehan so deftly notes,

Dae-su’s imprisonment begins in 1988, the last year of the rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a brutal and murderous military dictator who ruled South Korea with the help of a secret police force, intimidation, indoctrination, and all the tools of a modern authoritarian state.  Dae-su has a television set in his cell, so he is able to watch political developments more or less as they occur.  But they come at him in the weird, leveling flood typical of TV images.  The return of political dissident (and future president) Kim Dae-jung, for example, is given no more (and no less) emphasis than the wedding and subsequence death of Princess Diana.  Dae-su’s greatest television fixation is reserved for a young singer he seems to regard as his lover, but most of the time he flicks from channel to channel.  Politics and sex, both a factor of imprisonment,  get all mixed up in the gently pulsating beam. (4)

While we recognize what is going on in these initial diegetic circumstances , it is also integral to recognize where Oldboy itself comes from. Not unlike The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, or other famous films noirs, Oldboy had literary beginnings. Oldboy was borne out of a comic book written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. If those names don’t sound Korean, it’s because they’re not. They’re Japanese. Started in 1997, this 8-volume manga was bought in 2005 by Dark Horse to translate and then distribute in English due to the immense popularity of Park Chan-wook’s film. Although widely considered to be a comic with a noir-like storyline, the Japanese version of Oldboy differs from the Korean film greatly. While one might say that this is due to simple translative book-to-film issues, I would argue that with this property, it goes deeper.

Historically, Korea became annexed by Japan in 1910, making it part of the Japanese Empire. It remained so until the end of World War II in 1945, when Korea became what it is today, divided into North and South. Those kinds of scars don’t easily heal. One possibility with Oldboy is that Park Chan-wook saw the manga, saw the capacity it had for expansion, and simply lifted it, just wishing to use the narrative elements in an artistic manner. However, there is far too much political content within his film to argue such a thing. While these political elements are indeed gracefully hidden, they are most certainly there, making them seem just as much part of the storyline as anything else. Park Chan-wook’s ability to mask politics with characterization, music, and plot is nothing if not masterful.

When asked about the politics in Oldboy, the director’s response was coy. He said simply, “That is not what I intended. I can understand why people think that, and I have no intention of blocking that line of thinking!”(5) While this response may seem like a denial of having placed political messages within his work, Park Chan-wook’s relaxed attitude towards other’s people’s interpretations and his unwillingness to “get in the way” may tell another story. The heart of Oldboy does lay in a noir-like narrative, but the politics set the stage.

As Dae-Su’s story continues out of his forced isolation, he meets Mi-do, a woman who accompanies him on his journey to try to find the individual(s) who robbed him of his life. His involvement with Mi-do only leads him to more complications, and in the final face-off with the villain he discovers more about things in his past and Mi-do’s past than he ever wanted to know. Dae-Su sacrifices a great deal in order to make sure that Mi-do’s past never has to effect her in the way that his has caught up with him.

In this final scene, we witness Dae-Su, the man who has massacred people wildly and exacted the most horrific torture and revenge, is shown to be down on his knees in front of Lee Woo-Jin, the man who had imprisoned him for 15 years. Is he begging for his life? Not even a little. Dae-Su has shown that he cares nothing for his own existence. His body has pumped almost nothing but pure revenge since being released from that tower. No. Dae-Su is begging for the existence of Mi-do. Within this exchange, Lee Woo-Jin has said the most essential thing of all. Aside from threatening, Mi-do’s life, he said, flat out, “You’re notorious for not protecting your women.”

When Japan conscripted over 5 million Korean men beginning in 1939 for labor and a couple hundred thousand for the war effort, they also decided that they needed some ladies for “comfort.” They established brothels for their military men, and 51.8% of these “comfort women,” as they were known, were Korean. Due to the fact that Korea was under Japanese control, there was nothing that the men could do to stop this from happening. Thus, this became part and parcel of Korean history.

Dae-Su’s relationship with Mi-do is problematic, to say the least. She wants to make him happy, no matter what the cost to her is, even if it is physical pain during sexual intercourse. However, he knows that the emotional pain is on an entirely different registry. He will prevent this at all costs. It is almost as though through by using a Japanese text, Park Chan-wook is attempting to reinscript a new history for Korean women, one without the Japanese annexation and sexual slavery. Within this Oldboy, a film that is rewriting the comic through filmic means, the story is still relentless and painful, but Mi-do maintains dignity even if Dae-Su does not. In his final interaction with the heavy, he plays it so that she will never know her past. She will only know a future. To an extent, this is also a rewriting of Korea, over what Japan had attempted to do.

Dae-su’s final showdown with the man who organized his capture is of great import. It deals with a multiplicity of issues, but more than anything, it deals with matters in and around speech, image and control. The history of Korea isn’t far off from that storyline. While the details aren’t quite the same, both Dae-Su and Korea spent a decent amount of time being locked away, under someone else’s control. Then, upon release, they had to readjust, which still didn’t guarantee a happy life! In fact, in both storylines, there was a reasonable amount of violence, paranoia, and isolation. And at the end of the day, both Dae-su and Korea end up having to be split up into separate entities, with an indeterminate ending; hoping for a good conclusion, but based upon the previous visuals…it’s not lookin’ so hot for anybody at the moment.

While politics provide a solid foundation for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, it is film noir that adds the ambiance and gives it the flavor. Park Chan-wook is a very meticulous filmmaker, from his casting right down to his costuming. The mood that was set for this film and the darkness of the piece, was not entirely due to the fact that much of it took place in what were supposed to be hidden or underground locations. To begin with, the entirety of the soundtrack was designed to play as much of a character in the film as each actor. Almost every track was named after a film noir. Whether it was In a Lonely Place, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Sleep, each track played a role in rooting the film in a kind of historical background where the protagonist of the film exists in a universe of alienation, solitude and nihilism. Additionally, many (if not all) of these tracks also had a literary background, similar to Oldboy itself. The soundtrack presents Oldboy as a fully formed and musically textured piece that asks you to look beneath the surface.  

Dae-Su, upon waking up in his confinement, begins to narrate the film via voiceover narrative. Now, if one were to take a survey of all the films noir that have voiceover narration…well, let’s just say it would take a long time to name them all. A voiceover is a very tricky thing. As an audience, you become automatically aligned with whomever is speaking to you and telling you the story. It is a fabulous way to curry favor for your main character, and especially if your main character is not so ethically or morally…favorable?

Oldboy does not begin with a voiceover, nor does it maintain as much of a strong presence throughout the film as it does in the beginning. As the film starts, we are simply watching Oh Dae-Su. But he is quite sympathetic. He’s just a drunk family man. Then we are drawn even closer to him through Park Chan-wook’s use of the voiceover after he has been captured and incarcerated. Indeed, it is at this point that some of the most basic notions of film noir become verbally expressed by Oh Dae-su  as he experiences 15 years of pure, unadulterated isolation.

Karen Hollinger notes that unlike other 1940’s genres, where the voice-over narrative is used primarily to “increase audience identification with the main character,” the narrative that is used in film noir is much less heroic. While there is certainly identification going on, the noir voice-over will “most often contain weak powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the events of their lives to their own design.” (6) While Dae-Su is able to express himself physically and seek out those who caused him harm, the continual voiceover seems to express how powerless he still seems to feel over the 15 years he lost (amidst other plot points). In truth, by the end of the film, the revenge that he has worked so hard to get falls more than a little flat.

Of the concept of revenge, Park Chan-wook said this:

The act of vengeance is a meaningless one. Killing the villain does not bring back the dead. Even the stupidest person knows that. But despite that, people are still captivated by a desire to avenge. And it’s not easy to walk away when the means are provided to “pay back.” [But on top of that,] vengeance requires a tremendous passion and energy. People have to abandon their other everyday activities in order to cling to that purpose only. Why do people want to devote their whole life to this meaningless, fruitless thing? Is this incomprehensible, dark passion the human characteristic, distinguishing us from other animals? (7)

Oldboy, like many films noir, is investigating what it is to be human while living within some kind of existential panic. Oh Dae-su’s solipsistic identity, caused primarily by the machinations of Woo-jin, the evil “puppetmaster,” created a humanity that was so far collapsed that it could only seek the kind of vengeance that Park Chan-wook is talking about. In the end, he truly does attempt to follow the film noir path. As Robert Porfirio writes, “set down in a violent and incoherent world, the film noir hero tries to deal with it in the best way he can, attempting to make some order out of chaos, to make some sense of the world.” (8)

 

(1) Interview w/Bong Joon-Ho, Rue Morgue Magazine #64, Jan./Feb. 2007.

(2) Noir scholars might insist that I refer to this as neo-noir based upon Oldboy‘s 2003 release date and noir’s temporal restrictions, but due to the fact that I see this film as referring to noir in its originating capacity and also due to the fact that it is existing within the confines of another culture and country entirely, I will continue to refer to it as “noir.”

(3) Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 77-93.

(4) Sheehan, Henry. “Oldboy.” Film Criticism & Commentary. Accessed 3/9/11. http://henrysheehan.com/reviews/mno/oldboy.html

(5) Interview w/Park Chan-Wook by Neil Young for Neil Young’s Film Lounge-Park Life. Conducted during the Edinburgh Film Festival, 8/22/2004. Accessed 3/10/2011. http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/reviews/neil-youngs-film-lounge-park-life/

(6) Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice Over, and the Female Narrative.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight, 1998.

(7) Interview w/Park Chan-wook by Carl Davis. “Oldboy Director Disses Vengeance, Looks Toward Upcoming Cyborg-Teen Comedy.” 8/22/2005. Accessed 3/11/2011. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1508066/oldboy-director-finds-revenge-meaningless-looks-toward-teen-comedy.jhtml

(8) Porfirio, ibid.

transcscript of an interview with Park Chan-Wook, writer-director of
OLDBOY
conducted at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, Lothian Rd, Edinburgh
during the Edinburgh International Film Festival
on Sunday, the 22nd of August, 2004
between 10.00-10.30am

by Neil Young

Wonderwall: The Red Chapel and the Principals of Cultural Exchange

The Red Chapel is not what you would call a typically Korean film. I am using it for my first entry in the Korean Blogathon because I feel like it is far too important to go unnoticed, especially amongst people who have more than a passing interest in Korean Cinema.

The identity of Red Chapel has a semi-permeable membrane. Sometimes identifiable as a Danish picture, sometimes Korean, sometimes an amalgamation of both, this film has nationalism floating in and out of it like rubber toys in a kid’s swimming pool, creating a piece that is, above all, complicated as hell.

Directed by Mads Brugger (a caucasian Dane), and starring Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell (two adopted Korean Danes), this documentary tells the story of how the group of them traipsed into the hermetically sealed, totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea to perform a comedy bit/routine.

“Comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships,” says Mads’ voiceover during the first 10 minutes of the film, and he is not incorrect. It is common knowledge that Hitler himself owned a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, and was said to have loved it, and that was the film that made fun of the man himself! However, as Red Chapel moves forward, it becomes a harder and harder film to watch, and the comedy drains from it.

Reviews called this film a “more intelligent Borat,” and one of my best friends even acknowledged that, essentially, North Korea gets “Punk’d” within these somewhat harrowing 87 minutes. But I have a difficult time with either of these simplifications (even though I realize that my pal’s comment was just an off-hand remark). The reasons for my discomfort have to do with what I feel is a very tenuous situation that evolves within the film between the filmmaker, his actors (friends?), and the North Korean company that they keep/situations that they are in.

Jacob and Simon are young men who have been raised in Denmark virtually all their lives. It seems that they were given up for adoption by South Korean parents when they were extremely young, and have grown up in Denmark. While they are aesthetically Korean, they speak Danish and are, more or less, culturally Danish as well. In addition, Jacob is a self-described “spastic,” making language even more of an issue (even his English is subtitled).  Upon being approached to do this project, one could see how these young men would find it appealing. While North Korea has clearly not been even slightly part of South Korea for 50 years and counting, it is still close enough to these boys’ heritage for them to want to go back and want to investigate, dictatorship or not.

Oh North Korea…what a place! The Red Chapel is an incredibly important film because it goes behind the scenes of North Korea in a way that nothing has in many years. It is also crucially important because it dissects Korean individuals who have been once removed from their home country, and are asked to revisit not only their originating culture but also come to grips with aspects of their history that they didn’t necessarily know that would have to face or want to face.

While Korea was split into North and South in 1945, and the two locations could not be more distinct at this point, the simple fact is that the country used to be one and it is the location that Simon and Jacob both hail from originally. The most fascinating element of the entire film was that, while skewed to “expose the evil of the system” (as Mads’ voiceover states), the most evil was revealed through the smallest and most seemingly insignificant details. While we are told about people starving by the millions and the various tortures and death camps, it was actually Jacob’s total experience and the reappropriation of the comedy show that truly seals the deal.

While discussing all the North Koreans that they have been dealing with throughout the film, Jacob says sadly at one point in the film, “It’s psycho, cuz they’re all really nice to me.” While he’s right, it also made me wonder what his treatment in Denmark was!

The North Korean treatment of Jacob was gut-wrenching. First of all, they wanted to look good in front of the camera. Not only did they want to look good so that they could make their Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) happy, but they did so in order to make North Korea look less like the totalitarian regime that it is. According to Mads, had he been born in North Korea and not in South Korea, Jacob would’ve been aborted or killed due to his disorders (spastic/cerebral palsy). His “specialized treatment” by their “handler” Mrs. Mak was not only completely unusual but also basically impossible in the Kim Jong Il Reign.

As the film progressed, and we were introduced to the comedy routine that Simon and Jacob were to perform, we were also introduced to what North Korea actually was. It became clear to me that the voiceovers by Brugger that told us of all the Kim Jong Il horrors were almost unnecessary when we saw what became of the show: it was ripped to shreds. The “cultural exchange” that Brugger kept discussing with the North Korean handlers that had been assigned to Simon, Jacob and Brugger became nothing but another form for North Korean propaganda. Big surprise, eh? Not only that, but they managed to marginalize Jacob’s character as well, frustrating the young actor and depressing him even further than he already was.

Mads Brugger commented over some stock footage of North Korean dancers that people in North Korea lost their identity to the totalitarian government of Kim Jong Il, their Dear Leader, and were nothing but pixels. This analogy fit the bill just perfectly. Within the new show, Jacob lost his voice and his agency and Simon became nothing but a robot for political discourse. Pixels, when put together, fit into a picture. This is exactly what the North Koreans were hoping to see happen. There was to be no cultural “exchange” within this particular experience. In a way,  the most disturbing part of the film was that Mads Brugger knew that this would happen and Jacob and Simon did not. Not only were they pixels for the North Koreans, but they were pixels for Brugger’s own political agenda.

At a particularly painful section in the film, Jacob spits out at Mads, “You have no moral scruples, do you Mads?” and, at that point, it is quite clear that he seems not to. There is always the chance that when they get back to Denmark it will be fine and good, all will be explained, and things will be peaceful again, but in a sense the director seems to be as much of a totalitarian as Kim Jong Il, just with Leftist ideals. Jacob spends a good amount of the film in pain, and is the one person who points out that the North Korea situation is not as simple as we think it is.

The beautiful thing about this film is that we are able to view the film through the eyes of two young Korean-Danish boys and one Caucasian Danish adult, and it seems that the outcome is more deftly complicated than when we started. One can argue that a totalitarian government is always wrong, and politically that is 100% correct. But what about the people?

Mads Brugger’s voiceover seems to be intentionally black and white, so as to lay out the “evil vs. good” arguments that many people in the world seem to be obsessed with. What balances it out is Simon and Jacob, the Korean youth, who see that experiences with human beings in a country make any black-and-white argument problematic and place it into a state of grays. North Korea has never been seen in this way due to the political nature of the country, and it is a groundbreaking move.

While it did not take place within the confines of the country itself, there was a cultural exchange that took place within the context of this film and the participants in it. When Jacob and Simon sing Oasis’ Wonderwall with a group of North Korean schoolkids you can see that these two young men have broken free of what they previously were in Denmark and reached a new identity that encapsulated their Korean-“ness” as well as everything that they were before. They regained whatever agency that the North Korean “handlers” had attempted to remove from them and reinstated it within themselves. The two young men that returned to Denmark were not the same men that went to North Korea, and that in and of itself is a big deal.

The Red Chapel is a wonderful film and, while it is alternately disturbing and emotionally wrenching at times, I found it to be highly worthwhile. If you get a chance, please please please put this on your “to see” list.