Wednesday, August 31, 2005

North and South

This past weekend I had a chance to watch ‘A State of Mind’, a documentary which follows two young girls, aged 11 and 13, and looks at their lives at home, at school and as they go through intense gymnastics training. Sound pretty ho-hum? The fact the girls live in Pyongyang, and that they’re preparing to take part in the mass games North Korea is well known for tends to give it a bit of an edge over other documentaries of the genre.

When this documentary was filmed (by a British crew during the first 8 months of 2003) it was the first time foreigners had been allowed to see the home life of North Korean families, let alone film them. The result is a fascinating look at not just North Korea, but at South Korea as well, because such an intimate look at two North Korean families highlights the similarities and differences between Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.

Anyone with some awareness of Korea knows that the division of Korea has resulted in the Southern half being very much a part of the global economy, as well as inundated with western (read: American) popular culture, while the North has been, for the most part, cut off from the rest of the outside world (until very recently, with the influx of Chinese cell-phones and South Korean cultural products).

Therefore there are a number of things I noticed in the film, in the way the North Koreans acted, that must have come from the shared culture both Korean states arose from after 1945. In the end, these aren’t huge revelations, but they were, well, neat to see on the big screen. A lot of them were facial expressions, be they of exasperation, fatigue, or happiness, that I see in my students (many of whom are the same age as the girls in the movie), which I recognized as being very Korean traits. A lot of the interaction between the girls and their friends is no different than what I see among my students (playing ‘Rock Scissors Paper’ at one point, for example, though the words were different). There are a number of moments of home life shown, and we see typical scenes we’d see in apartments in any developed country, as many reviews have mentioned, like a mother scolding a daughter for not eating enough, or for watching TV when she should be doing her homework.

Seeing this kind of interaction would only have been possible in a documentary of this type. North Korean films (I’ve only seen one, and that was Bulgasari) are known for their overacting (and so are not so far removed from typical South Korean TV melodramas), and are not going to give us a very good look at how people actually act on a daily basis.

Now, one could argue that this film is not realy representative of North Korea, and that the people being filmed had to make sure they portrayed their country in the 'correct' way. Seeing as they were chosen by the government this is probably true; it’s quite likely that because the filmmakers were not censored by the North Korean authorities in any way, the onus was on the families to make sure there was nothing to censor. And yet, in comparison to another film (which I’ll get to in a moment) the people in ‘A State Of Mind’ seem quite relaxed and open. The reason for this, I would bet, is that they filmed these families for 8 months, which is more than enough time for someone, no matter how paranoid, to get used to your presence. (Of course, it goes without saying that a family in the central district of Pyongyang is not representative of the rest of North Korea.)

What struck me in watching some of the ‘quaint’ group dancing, or the family sing-alongs accompanied by accordian, guitar, or home karaoke machine, is that many of the styles of these sorts of things seem like they’re from the 1950s. One could argue that, being closed off in so many ways, the culture hasn’t ‘progressed’ the way other modern cultures have in the last 50 years, though this is basically just another way of saying that globalization has not really had much of an effect on the country as of yet. In the arena of popular culture, of course, the main exports American-led globalization has foisted upon the South has been computer games, pop music, movies, fast food and the internet itself, I suppose (as well as comics and animation, but in South Korea these arrived via Japan). Much of this is, if we take a second to notice, based on youth culture, something that first took off in the US (and Japan) 50 years ago, with the advent of rock and roll, which coincided with the US taking on the role of global superpower and allowing its corporations to become transnational and move around the world. This same globalized consumerist youth culture only began to really take off in South Korea around the time of the 1988 olympics, after the end of the dictatorships and organizing of unions drove up wages and created the internal, consumer-based economy (as opposed to the production-oriented export economy it had utilized to achieve its startling economic growth). This consumerist culture has changed the face of Korea (the massive increase in cars and freeways being one example) and Korean culture (and hell, even Korean faces and bodies, if you want to consider the popularity of plastic surgery and the effects of eating too many burgers, donuts and fries).

The westernization of South Korean popular culture (and of indeed, much of the world’s popular culture or their societies in general) makes the behaviour of North Koreans look rather bizarre; this film goes a long way towards making them seem like people, albeit people in a very bizarre set of circumstances. The differences caused by the South's adoption of western popular culture were very clear in a clip I saw awhile back of a South Korean boy 'band' performing in Pyongyang. They danced and sang their Backstreet Boys, uh, homage, the same as they always did in the South - except the North Korean audience just sat there, stone faced, not clapping. I was reminded of this when I read about Cho Yong-pil's performance in Pyongyang last week. At first the crowd gave him a similar response, but in the end he won them over, but not without having been gone through what he told the audience was one of the more nerve wracking performances of his life. Apparently, the newer songs did little for the audience; it was the classics which caused them to break into applause. Perhaps, to break into the Northern market in the future, Southern artists (I use that term loosely) may have to delve into past styles of music - which is not an impossible task when one considers that K-pop artists [>cough<] have always been good at mixing genres, often on a single cd. As the Minjung movement reclaimed (and rejuvenated) traditional art and musical forms to use in its battle against the dictatorship, perhaps reunification (one of the goals of the Minjung movement, after all) could be another opportunity to narrow the gap between the two populations by finding common ground in older, shared culture. Who knows if it could happen, and if it did, whether it would be motivated by social justice concerns, or by profit. In considering the gulf between the two populations, I can’t help wondering if it’s precisely because of the fact that the North hasn’t run headlong into an embrace with the west (like the South has), that it has perhaps preserved some of things that make Koreans, well, Korean, in a way the South hasn’t. There. I said it. Now, I realize what constituted their shared identity before the division had been very influenced by Japan for 40 years, (and China for centuries, and Mongolia for decades). I also realize that what could be termed North Korea's 'better preservation' of this identity has come at a cost that’s far too high, and that it has engendered ‘non-Korean’ behavior (like eating tree bark, corn cobs, and, refugees say, human corpses). I’m also fully aware that the reason western culture hasn’t made any inroads into North Korea is because of an information blockade designed to keep its people isolated from the rest of the world in order to make possible the belief that they are lucky to live in the country they do (and uphold the system their rulers exploit). B.R. Myers goes into some detail here about the xenophobia that has been the result of such a blockade policy, which is on display in the film. All I am really saying is that I hope when South meets North, the culture clash that reunification will bring about may cause some reflection amongst the Southerners – that they ask, “why are we so different?”

One reason they’re so different, anyone with a healthy antagonism towards the Northern leadership will tell you, is because of 60 years of propaganda, the effect of which is made clear in the film “North Korea: A Day In The Life,” which was filmed last year. The film traces the experiences of a family over the course of (ostensibly) a single day, and cross cuts between each of their experiences. A girl is taken to a kindergarten and told ‘as flowers need the sun, you need the love of the great leader’, before being shown an exemplary story of Kim Jong-Il’s childhood. Her mother goes to work in a textile factory that suffers through blackouts, (blamed on the US - like I needed to say that) and takes part in a self criticism session. The girl’s kindergarten teacher takes part in a criticism session, as she and other teachers discuss the meaning of the parable she was trying to teach the children that day. The girl’s uncle goes to an English class, which showcases, remarkably, the most humorous and light-hearted parts of the film. At the end everyone goes home and the girl’s grandfather shows his pleasure at his young granddaughter cursing the Americans, and explains how a US bombing raid killed his father and brother and destroyed his home. While those who suffered under American bombing raids in Germany, Japan, even Vietnam, have in general forgiven those who bombed them, in North Korea this intense hatred of the US is inculcated by the state.

Throughout the film we are inundated with propaganda, much of which is so woven into the fabric of the family members’ lives that it seems to escape their notice. Propaganda posters (like these), showing the life of Kim Il Sung in such a way as to remind one of illustrations of biblical scenes in childrens books, can be found everywhere in the film. The oppressive feeling the film creates is helped by the fact that the subjects of this film are nowhere near as comfortable with the camera’s presence as they were in “A State Of Mind”. Worth mentioning as well is the fact that the North Korean government actively took part in the making of this film, though as a commenter at IMDB put it “there is a jarring dissonance between what they must think is their "best face" and what international viewers will probably see as grim, claustrophobic, and stultifying”.

Still, while the scenes of kindergarten students sitting perfectly still for minutes at a time seem utterly alien and disturbing to someone who has taught South Korean kindergarten students before, the scenes of the uncle’s adult English class seem incredibly familiar. In fact, some of the students in the film remind me of some of my own adult students, making it clear that, whatever the differences, they are still people of a similar culture and the same language learning English, so the differences aren’t going to be vast. On the other hand, my experiences as a teacher here have made it clear that the culture shock South Korea alone is going to experience during the coming of age of a more selfish, consumerist generation raised on the internet during the backlash against past authoritarian governments is going to be startling. In the end, the generation gap in the North is likely quite small in comparison to that which will become apparent in the South as years go by. In ten years time, which gulf will be larger - that between that between the North and South, or that between the generations in the South?

Both of these films can be found by searching on emule. A State Of Mind is playing in Seoul for 2 more days (as well as across the US at the moment). It's well worth it to watch the trailer and music video on the State Of Mind website if you get the chance - the video has some of the dizzying footage of the mass games the girls perform in at the end of the film.

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