Monday, January 19, 2015

A review of "Ode To My Father"

Youn Je-Kyoun's film "Ode to My Father" [국제시장, or 'International Market'] has become the first film this year to top ten million admissions after its release on December 17. I saw the film new year's eve, and it didn't exactly leave viewers in a cheerful mood afterwards. It's a sad film that depicts several events in Korea's modern history through the eyes of one man who sacrifices to take care of his family after the loss of his father during the Korean War. Despite melodramatic excess and some other flaws, it's an interesting film for many reasons, and is well worth watching. (The following review is full of spoilers.)

The film begins in the present and introduces three elderly characters: Deok-su, his wife Yeong-ja, and his best friend Dal-gu. Deok-su runs a store in the international market in Busan, and we follow him as he interacts with: developers who want him to sell his store (he refuses); his adult children (who seem entitled and dump the grandchildren on him and his wife so they can travel); and his memories of the past. These flashbacks reveal that he has participated in some of the more dramatic touchstones of Korea's modern history, starting with the evacuation of UN forces and North Korean refugees from Hungnam during the Korean War, the dispatch to West Germany of Koreans to work as nurses and coal miners, the large role played by Korean civilian contractors and soldiers during the Vietnam War, and the 1983 KBS TV show "Reuniting Separated Families," which was so successful in its first live broadcast that it continued for over four months and led to the reunion of over 10,000 separated families, most of whom had been living in South Korea since the war. In many ways it is like Forrest Gump, in that Deoksu takes part in these historical events and interacts with a number of famous Koreans during these flashbacks.

Director Youn has a flair for integrating the smaller, personal stories with the large scale of some of these historical events, and the actors do an admirable job of portraying characters who age over a 50 year period, though this is definitely a tale of men - after their romance leads to marriage, Yeong-ja fades into the background, and we're left with the tale of the sacrifices made for his family by a son, a brother, and a father. Still, for all these strengths the film doesn't have a lot of narrative depth; the film proceeds by repeatedly presenting a scene in the present which triggers a flashback. The audience does have certain pieces of information withheld from it, and certain flashbacks serve to explain why he acts in inexplicable ways in the present. We also see Deok-su change after reflecting on the past, and the film at times implicitly criticizes the younger generations of today for being too self-centered and unappreciative of the sacrifices their elders made. As the Korea Times noted, "One critic caused controversy by calling Youn's latest film a 'conservative' movie that 'glorifies the sacrifices of the older generation.'" "Glorifies" seems too strong a word, partly since the criticisms it makes - often through juxtaposition of past and present, seem fair enough. The film does lay on the melodrama pretty thickly, in the way only a Korean movie can, though the reunion scene on the KBS TV show set in 1983 was guaranteed to bring the audience to tears regardless of the way it was presented. I was reminded of when I saw the 2004 documentary 'Repatriation' and a fellow audience member said to me, "It really does remind you that we're sitting on an open wound."

For all of its blockbuster and melodramatic elements, there is a lot to unpack with this film, and I thought I'd look at its depiction of history and the way in which the film imagines how Korea's role in the world has changed during fifty years of economic development.

The aforementioned Korea Times article mentions that director "Youn also became the first director with two films to top 10 million. 'Haeundae,' a disaster film released in 2009, attracted 11.45 million viewers the same year." A few years ago I looked at Youn's film Haeundae, which I hadn't realized did so well at the box office. I didn't like it, but thought its crashing wave provided an excellent metaphor for the way in which Korean films of the 2000s have dealt with Korean history, portraying people as blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet. Some of these films have blamed outsiders (such as when South Korean and North Koreans team up to shoot down American aircraft at the end of Welcome to Dongmakgol), and have rarely attempted to explain why the events portrayed occurred - a far cry from the history films of the 1990s. Haeundae's wave inadvertently provided a useful metaphor for these kinds of films (and one could profitably make 'Korean wave' references here, since it's the fact that Korean films (and TV dramas) are so slickly (and expensively) produced now that a larger box office is needed to recoup costs, which encourages simplistic films which appeal to a broader demographic).

It could be argued that 'Ode to my father' also follows the 'wave pattern' in certain ways. While the main character, Deok-su, works to keep a promise to his father to take care of his family (and makes sacrifices in the hope of meeting his father again), the moments in modern Korean history he takes part in occur when he follows others. He (obviously!) follows his parents when they attempt to flee Hungnam, while its his friend Dal-gu who suggests going to Germany and Vietnam. It's also made clear that the 'decision' to have a child and get married was essentially thrust upon him by his soon-to-be wife, so much of his life is shaped by others' decisions.

One thing I noted was the similarity with 'Welcome to Dongmakgol' of having a lone Korean officer beg the Americans to save Korean lives. In 'Dongmakgol' the officer protests the bombing of a village, while in 'Ode to my Father' an officer begs a general to take refugees aboard at Hungnam. In 'Ode' the general relents at the last second and the soldiers are ordered to take the tanks they just loaded aboard the ship off again, much to the anger of one profanity-shouting soldier, and refugees are put on instead. Unlike the 2004 Korean War film 'Taegukki,' in which American soldiers were not even shown, 'Ode' depicts refugees waiting by the ocean while American soldiers retreat and we're told that behind them "The Chinese are coming!" I don't remember the South or North Korean army being mentioned.

What this leaves out, however, is why these refugees were fleeing, and why filmmakers might want to gloss over the actions of the ROK military in North Korea between October and December 1950. Callum MacDonald, in his 1991 Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars article "So Terrible a Liberation - The UN Occupation of North Korea" (which can be downloaded here, and is on pages 3-19) points out how, though the ROK was not given legal sovereignty over liberated North Korea, ROK troops often were the first to arrive in the north and were followed by police and bands of paramilitaries such as the Northwest Youth League (which had carried out much of the repression in Jeju, for example; the dissertation I recently linked to also looks at the use of paramilitaries by the ROK before and during the Korean War). These paramilitaries and police were known to have killed thousands of suspected communist sympathizers after the Incheon Landing in South Korea, so one can only imagine the horror they visited upon North Koreans. As MacDonald notes,
Just before [Syngman Rhee] returned to Seoul [after the Incheon Landing] he informed Hugh Baillie, president of the U.S.-based United Press, that he planned to extirpate communism throughout Korea: "I can handle the Communists. The Reds can bury their guns and bum their uniforms, but we know how to find them. With bulldozers we will dig huge excavations and trenches, and fill them with Communists. Then cover them over. And they will really be underground."
General MacArthur offered his own take on the situation in October 1950 in a conversation with the tutor of the Japanese crown prince, Elizabeth Gray Vining:
"Each house has a North Korean flag and a South Korean flag, and most of the time they don't know which to wave. Both sides line them up and shoot them down. The country was poor to begin with. They will be destroyed, utterly destroyed."
So when the tide of the war turned, it might be easy to understand why those who championed the arrival of the UN forces - or who simply feared being caught in the middle - would want to flee. While starting the story in the middle as the family flees can be explained as wanting to get the story started quickly or due to lack of time, the lack of context, or even reference to the DPRK army or the ROK army, puts the beginning of the film squarely in the "history washed over us" camp of recent Korean films.

As well, while the 'begging for help' scene is not really what happened, it accords with the basic facts,  (to be elaborated on in my next post) which are that Dr. Hyun Bong-hak, an assistant to Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, commander of the US X Army Corps in Hamheung, convinced General Almond to evacuate tens of thousands of refugees along with the soldiers and equipment; when there turned out to be 100,000 refugees, attempts were made to evacuate all of them, with one ship, the Meredith Victory (which is depicted in the movie), taking 14,000 aboard, a world record.

In the film, during the evacuation, Deok-su's family is separated from his sister and father, and they go to their aunt's house in Busan, where she runs a store in the international market. In the next flashback, years after the war, Deok-su has grown into a young man who works as a labourer to support his family, and who puts off his own dreams to support his younger brother's university education. He is convinced by his friend Dal-gu to apply to work in West Germany as miners, where they can make lots of money. Germany, however, proves to be a struggle for Deok-su and Dal-gu, and the miners are all depicted as being homesick. They all cry in their bunks as they read letters from home, while Yeong-ja, a nurse Deok-su meets and falls in love with, is also depicted as having a difficult time, washing corpses and studying when she's not working. Again, this appears to be different from the memories of the nurses interviewed in the Kim Won article I cite in my next post, who saw their time in Germany as an opportunity. In fact, as the article notes, "At present [2009], about 5,000 out of the over 20,000 padok workers continue to live in Germany, and some 5,000 padok workers eventually chose to immigrate to the Americas." That over half of the 18.000 Koreans who went to work in Germany didn't return home seems to stand against this portrayal of suffering Koreans who made so many sacrifices (more sacrifices, it's implied, than those who remained in Korea).

However, I would argue that what we're being presented with in 'Ode to My Father' is in fact a national coming of age story. The presentation of Korean refugees at Hungnam as 'shrimp among whales' caught between their powerful neighbours -  Chinese and Americans - and the depiction of a Korean begging an American general to save their lives, along with a last minute decision by the general to do so, contributes to a social Darwinist view of the world as a harsh place in which a weak Korea, beset by poverty and war, must beg the (initially cold and unwilling) Americans for help in order to survive.

Once in Germany, this happens again. Koreans, forced to work hard, often shown in tears, missing home, once again beg the powerful - in this case the German head of the mine - to let them save their missing Korean compatriots who have been caught in a mine shaft collapse. Yeong-ja, in tears, begs for their mercy, switching from German to Korean - just to hammer it home for the audience - that the missing are Korean and they should at least be the ones to find their bodies. The request is denied; it's a harsh world out there. But then, in a moment of self confidence, the Korean miners eschew such dependency; they stop their crying, pick up their tools, and, taking matters into their own hands, they defy the mine owners and rescue their compatriots.

After returning from Germany, the newly married Deok-su goes to Vietnam with Dal-gu to make more money (for reasons we find out later). In Vietnam, Korea is still growing and sits between the US (Dal-gu tries to go into a club for American soldiers, and is told by Deok-su, "You can't go in there - that's for Americans!") and Vietnam, which is poorer than Korea and is going through its own civil war that Korea went through twenty years earlier. After seeing a child die in a bombing by the Vietcong, Deok-su writes to his wife, saying that he's glad it's their generation that had to go through this suffering, and not that of their children. At the end of their time in Vietnam, Deok-su and Dal-gu are rescued from the Vietcong by an ROK military unit which is about to blow up a pier and leave, only to find several dozen Vietnamese villagers asking to be taken with them, Deok-su initially refuses to step up and help them, however, only reluctantly agreeing as the Vietcong close in. Clearly this rescue of the Vietnamese refugees is meant to mirror the evacuation at Hungnam that Deok-su went through as a child. This time, however, Korea has grown up enough that it's no longer the victim, but is the one doing the rescuing.

As a result of this rescue, Dal-gu returns home and marries one of the Vietnamese refugees in what is touted as the "first Korean-Vietnamese marriage." While this isn't true, and the story of the relationship between Vietnam and South Korea is a complicated one (as I'll discuss in my next post), it does mirror the way in which Vietnam is seen today. In "The Bride(s) From Hanoi: South Korean Popular Culture, Vietnam and 'Asia' in the New Millennium"(available as a pdf here), Stephen Epstein looks at this relationship through the lens of the reality show "Meet the In-Laws," which inadvertently compares the poor rural life Vietnamese marriage migrants left behind to their new life with a higher standard of living in Korea. As these migrants are always depicted as female, "Meet the In-Laws both mirrors, and further encourages, Korean attitudes of superiority to an Asian hinterland, which are then coded in gendered terms." As well, the requests by these women's families in Vietnam that they be dutiful daughters-in-law or wives "subsumes Vietnam within a traditional Confucian patrilocal framework and acknowledges a position within that hierarchy that reinforces the gendering of Korea as male and leader." Epstein adds that
Since the turn of the millennium one finds increasing evidence of a radical shift in Korea’s gendering of its encounters with the foreign away from the aggressive male intruder, whose presence in Korea has often been symbolized in tropes of rape and violation, as in gijichon (camptown) fiction, to the foreign as the female to be dominated and domesticated within the national fabric.
This accords, I believe, with the depiction in the film of Korea 'growing up,' moving from a state of dependency to a mature member of the world of nations. The final step in this process is healing the psychological wounds of past trauma, in Deok-su's case the loss of family members during the evacuation of Hungnam. As previously mentioned, in 1983 KBS broadcast the TV show, "Reuniting Separated Families," planning only to do a single broadcast, but when it proved successful it continued for over four months and led to the reunion of over 10,000 separated families (episodes can be watched here). In an incredibly emotional scene, Deok-su is finally reunited with a lost family member, and in the present, remembering this event as presented in a flashback, he is finally able to let go of the past and move on.

Near the end of the film, there's a birthday party where it's learned that Deok-su had taught his five-year-old granddaughter to sing "굳세어라 금순아 (Be Strong, Geumsun)," a trot song about the evacuation of Heungnam, which horrifies her parents, who wonder why he would teach her such a sad song. Deok-su retreats to his room to be alone, and the shot of his apartment from outside, showing two windows, one in which his wife, children, and grandchildren celebrate happily, and the other in which Deok-su weeps alone, remembering the past, visually summarizes the divide between generations. Korea has grown into an adult, developed into a modern nation, but the film admonishes the younger generation for forgetting the struggles along the way. At the same time, however, the way in which Deok-su "moves on" and lets go of the past involves him giving in to a redevelopment project, so the film both criticizes the materialism of the present and gives in to it.

Interestingly, criticisms of the film for being conservative miss the fact that it presents Korea as being cosmopolitan. While it portrays Korea's relationship with different nations, it also portrays how those relations (and others) have changed the make-up of Korean society. When teenagers make fun of a South Asian migrant worker, Deok-su defends him and criticizes the teens, precisely because he himself was once a migrant worker, in Germany. Not only that, the Migrant worker says that because he's lived in Korea for some time, he's Korean too, which is certainly not a conservative statement. Deok-su's best friend marries a Vietnamese woman, echoing the marriage migration occurring in Korea today. And his lost and rediscovered sibling is married to a white American man, and, in a montage of the years passing, is shown present at a family dinner, with no fuss made about his presence.

In my next post I'll look more closely at the historical events the film predicted and at how the film followed or strayed from the facts. Despite certain omissions, and despite its melodramatic excess, and narrative shortcomings, "Ode To My Father" is well acted, and portrays often-forgotten historical moments as stepping stones to Korea's emergence as a modern, confident, and inclusive nation, though perhaps one which could stand to remember the difficult path taken along the way.


Kevin Kim said...

Awesome review. Very educational. Your article made several promises for what will appear in the "next post," so I look forward to reading that next post.

matt said...

Glad you liked it. As someone who's long enjoyed your film reviews, I take this as high praise. The next post is all set and will be posted tomorrow.

refresh daemon said...

I appreciate the more meaty comparison with the parallel Korean history in your review. Looking forward to the next too.