Sunday, August 05, 2007

'Splendid Vacation' and the Simplification of History in Recent Korean Films

Several articles and reviews of May 18 (Splendid Vacation) have turned up since I wrote this, so I thought I'd take a look at some of them.

Donald Kirk wrote an article about the film (here - a reposted version with photos is here (hat tip to Mark Russell)) which is worth reading, especially considering the fact that he was present in Kwangju in May, 1980. Unlike many other foreign reporters who covered the Kwangju Uprising, whose accounts can be read here, I've never read an account by Kirk. Besides his account, he considers the impact of the film:
"The general mood of the film was right," says Chi Jung Nam, who is from south of Kwangju and knew people there at the time of the assault. "People will look at Kwangju in a new light. The younger generation will want to learn."

Still, Mr. Chi, a journalist, worries about the action-packed telling of the story.

In the film, the rebels, led by a fictitious former colonel, revel in defiance and mayhem. Troops fire point-blank into a boisterous crowd – minutes of carnage that didn't happen that way. "Too much dramatization," says Chi. The director, Kim Ji Hoon, he says, "may have overdone it."
Perhaps, but I think the reason it is overlong is due to the fact that the director had to show several simultaneous events in sequence, which drew out the scene. As far as the carnage there is concerned, missionary Martha Huntley was working at the Kwangju Christian Hospital, and wrote (as quoted in Laying Claim to the Memory of May), "In two hours our hospital alone received 99 wounded and 14 dead." As I said before, I think the final assault is exaggerated somewhat (in that not everyone who took part in the last stand was killed).

Having seen the same incredibly gruesome photos that Tom over at Seen in Jeonju has, I agree with his observation that
As brutal as the movie is in parts, I was grateful that it was never as gory as it could have been. In fact, the film does a great job at showing enough violence to provide an emotional response while avoiding sensationalizing the violence a la Saving Private Ryan or Taegukgi.
He also notes the reaction of audience members in Jeonju:
Besides the movie itself, I found the people in the theaters interesting to watch as well. Perhaps it was the time that I chose to watch it, but most of the audience were older- Every once in a while when a certain scene appeared or a particular shot struck a cord, their would be a murmer through the audience with people remarking to each other, “that really happened” and similar phrases. Normally, I don’t like any talking during a movie, but this actually hightened the feeling of dread and unease.
Tom's review is a positive one, though others are more mixed in their judgement of the film's relation to the historical event. A review in the Joongang Ilbo states that
The biggest virtue of the movie lies in its emphasis on the “liberated Gwangju.” As film critic Hwang Jin-mi rightly pointed out, it is the first film about Gwangju seen from the point of view of the civilian militia.
It has some criticism, however:
The movie seems to illuminate the 10 days of Gwangju in detail, but in reality, the incident is confined to the traps of typicality and abstraction. For instance, the citizens of Gwangju before the massacre lived a very peaceful life, equaled only by the life of Dongmakgol, the imaginary village of the 1950s that was distanced from the woes of the Korean War as described in the popular Korean film “Welcome to Dongmakgol.” Innocent people who lived in the vacuum of politics suddenly fell victim to soldiers, demonic outsiders against their will.
Actually, it would be interesting to look at recent historical films about Korea's modern history, and see how often the protagonists are happy-go-lucky innocents before events beyond their control tear them apart. That certainly applies to Welcome to Dongmakgol, Taegukgi, May 18, and Hanbando (if 'Korea' can be considered the 'innocent character'), and even perhaps to Silmido (which portrays the commandos as victims). One film that does not fit in this category is President's Last Bang, which may account for its much more meager box-office take in comparison to the other films (as well as a lawsuit against it by Park Chung-hee's son). Double Agent also fits in this category.

It wasn't always this way, of course, especially in the 1990s, where movies like A Single Spark portrayed the life of labor martyr Jeon Tae-il, and films like Taebaek Mountains, Partisans of South Korea, Spring in My Hometown, and To the Starry Island provided a much more complex vision of the Korean war. To the Starry Island and Welcome to Dongmakgol could easily be compared, as they both deal with isolated villages which become involved in the war; in To the Starry Island, however, it's the villagers' petty squabbles, jealousies, and divisions which lead to tragedy, while in Dongmakgol, the big happy family of villagers are saved by Northern and Southern soldiers by killing... Americans. Of course, Dongmakgol is supposed to 'just' be a fairy tale, but it seems the complexity (or just plain honesty) seen in films dealing with the recent past seen in the 1990s (when it was first possible to do so openly) has been abandoned in favor of more slickly produced genre mishmashes with simple messages which hope to draw in as many viewers as possible.

The next history film to be released in Korea will be the movie about Nogunri, titled Jageun Yeonmot (a small pond, likely named after the 70s folk song about two fish who fight each other in a small pond, eventually dying and polluting the pond so that nothing will grow there). Anyone thinking that this would be a complex portrayal of a contentious incident might have second thoughts after seeing the poster:

I'll make the assumption that there will be no scenes of US soldiers blowing a toddler away at point blank range (in slow motion from several different angles, intercut with blood splattering all over the child's already wounded, hysterical mother), and that this is simply designed to create controversy and get people's blood boiling (though I imagine we'll see such scenes as they're killed from a distance). I'll leave it to you to decide if the film will have a simple "we were innocent victims"-style of narrative:

What's even more impressive, if you watch the making of video here (click "메이킹"), is that in the final photo above, the man holding the boy is shouting in English, reminding me of Kim Sun-il pleading for his life in English when he was first captured in Iraq back in 2004 - not a pleasant memory.

Jang Sun-woo's 1995 film about the Kwangju Uprising, A Petal, is as far from this kind of simplistic narrative as possible; as Darcy Paquet writes, the film is not "a simple indictment of the government and the soldiers' actions -- as guilty as they may be, everyone in the film possesses the will and capacity for violence." Unlike many recent films (including May 18 and Silmido) which refuse to point fingers, "A Petal", which tells the story of a girl who has been driven insane by what she experienced in Kwangju, and who has been raped by numerous men while wandering the countryside, juxtaposes the image of the bedraggled girl walking through a market full of people standing still for the national anthem with the pledge of allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the Republic of Korea to devote my body and soul to the eternal honor of my country and the people." It's very clear how her "body and soul" have been devoted to the "eternal honor" of the country, and it's a stunning indictment of the state.

May 18 doesn't point fingers at Chun Doo-hwan (or the US - though CJ entertainment did try to conjure the spectre of US involvement in order to create publicity exactly a month before the film was released), and is much more simplistic than A Petal (though the latter film did not try to describe the uprising from beginning to end). Unfortunately, the economics of an increasingly risk-averse film industry generally tend to view complexity and finger pointing as box office poison or an invitation for lawsuits (unless the finger is pointed at the US or Japan). Worth remembering is that May 18 cost 10 million dollars (which is quite high for a Korean film) and is aimed at an audience 12 years old and higher.

In an excellent review of May 18 at Left Flank, Bal(t)imoron writes of the film:
I want the political subtext, the controversy, the partisan anger. Instead I got a mawkish fairy tale.
In his view, the film is only partly redeemed by one thing:
The only provocative scene is the epilogue, where the movie finds its center. As all the characters, from both sides, meet in a wedding portrait, we notice how sad and angry the survivors, most remarkably the bride (Lee Yo-won) are. The dead, including South Korean officers, the retired colonel turned protest leader (Ahn Sung-ki), and the groom (Kim Sang-kyeong), are smiling and joking with one another. The love affair should have blossomed into a marriage, if only the groom had lived. The dead have made their peace with one another; the living were denied that right.
The aforementioned Joongang Ilbo review suggests that the film may allow viewers to make peace with their guilt over the Kwangju Uprising:
The movie succeeds in recalling the collective memory of 27 years ago, yet that’s where it stops. The movie does not clearly describe the meaning of the Gwangju democratic movement. It touches upon a completely different aspect ― the feeling of guilt that people have who closed their eyes to Gwangju and the poignant appeal for the historical victims. This is why the viewers feel ill at ease after having a good cry. Just as someone said, “Splendid Vacation” is a movie that targets people who want to ease their feelings of guilt.
An article in the Hankyoreh elaborates on this:
Viewers of "May 18" have reacted with tears, but the cause of their sadness seems to differ depending on their age and historical perspective in terms of the events of 1980 in South Korea.

Some of those who remember the massacre in Gwangju in 1980 expressed a guilty conscience about their uncomfortable memories of the event. A 40-year-old Internet user named Kwak Hye-jeong asked, "What did I do at the time when our brothers and sisters were suffering? I have no choice but to weep because of a guilty conscience." Another Internet user identified as "Alpican" wrote a review titled, "I was a coward." The user said, "At that time, I was in Gwangju, but I didn't take to the streets and hid under the bedcovers at home. I cried with a deep remorse when I saw the film."
Though Jang Sun-woo's film is more thoughtful (which may account for it only selling 213,979 tickets in Seoul back in 1996), it's not the straightforward presentation of the events of May 1980 that May 18 tries to be. The greatest flaw of May 18 is revealed by the question a friend's 12 year-old nephew asked when he returned from seeing it: "Why? Why did it happen?" The movie never even begins to broach the "Why?" questions, such as why troops were sent, or why people chose to take part in an armed rebellion against their own government. On the other hand, telling a story which provides a broad outline of what is arguably the most important political event in Korea since the Korean War to a large audience is a worthwhile endeavour, I think, and some seem to think it has served a social function by relieving the guilt of older viewers while making the younger generation curious about what happened.

How successful the film will be is hard to know. It sold 126,000 tickets in 490 theatres on its first day, and was number one last weekend, taking 42.9% of the box office, and selling 1,325,000 tickets by Sunday. On the other hand, D-War sold 417,298 tickets on its first day. Though one theatre I looked at had an equal number of showings for both May 18 and D-War, May 18 doesn't have the benefit of being the first Korean Sci-fi blockbuster. As a few people have told me, "It's our duty as Koreans to go see it." I guess these days nationalism means watching movies about dragons destroying LA and not movies about a massacre by and uprising against the Korean government a generation ago which helped pave the way towards democracy.


According to this, May 18 has sold 3 million tickets in 11 days (up to Saturday); my guess is that it should be able to turn a profit. D-war, on the other hand, sold 2.9 million tickets in 5 days, even though it's terrible. Don't try telling that to its fans, though:
On the internet, a large-scale battle is also raging on. At major portals, many online users are posting messages praising the film's computer graphics and entertainment aspects, and a dissenting voice is being crushed. Lee Song Hee-il, an independent filmmaker, criticized "D-War" on his blog, only to face a tremendous backlash -- a sort of cyber terror -- from angry online users who support director Shim and "D-War" feverishly.
Those online users are probably 9 year-old kids - or not. One of my 9 year-old students saw it and when asked what he thought of the special effects, he said they were good. When asked what he thought of the story, he said it was bad. You know you have problems when a 9 year-old thinks your story sucks.


Anonymous said...

RE: "the protagonists are happy-go-lucky innocents before events beyond their control tear them apart."

I think The President's Barber, and recent romance Once in a Summer also fall into this category. There must be oodles more out there!


matt said...

Right, I'd forgotten about The President's Barber. It's funny, I didn't know about Once In A Summer until a student showed it to me (he'd rented it) two days ago. It sounds vaguely interesting, from what I read here.