Friday, November 06, 2009

The dystopian world of Boys Over Flowers

[Update: I finally tracked down Gord Sellar's post looking at a later episode.]

From January to March this year, the show that all the young people were talking about was '꽃보다 남자' ('Boys Over Flowers') (which can be watched here). It was based on the Japanese manga 'Hana Yori Dango', which had been made into an anime and live action TV series in Japan (and a live action TV series in Taiwan as well). When I went through an anime phase years ago, someone had suggested Hana Yori Dango, which I ended up watching a few episodes of before realizing shojo manga-style anime was not for me. The live-action Japanese series (which can be watched here) begins with the main character already in class at a high school for the rich. The Korean version, on the other hand, does not, and how the main character, a dry cleaner's daughter named Jan-di, ends up going to the most elite school in Korea is actually pretty interesting. I only managed to get partway through the second episode before giving up on the series, though from what I've read, the rest of the series does not live up to the series' introduction. In that introduction, we see the history of an alternate reality Korea in which seemingly all of Korea's economic power is centralized in a single corporation and the rich have even more privilege in the realm of education. We're shown how one person challenges this, how the common folk react in support of her, and how the powers that be co-opt her and end the rebellion - all in about ten minutes. (The quotes below come from subtitles provided by WITH K-drama subbing squad.)

The opening of Boys Over Flowers makes reference to events from the previous year, in addition to perennial concerns in Korea. It begins with a Korean news anchor telling us that
The Korean Corporation Shinhwa Group has been selected to be the largest corporate sponsor in the 2011 London Olympics.
Suddenly many other anchors appear in other countries reporting the same news.

Portraying all the broadcasters of the world talking about Korea’s economic accomplishment in the same sentence as Olympics may betray a wish for recognition. Or a feeling of superiority: 'Korea's number one! Korea's number one!' While I'm sure this plays extremely well to the domestic audience, I'm not so sure about its reception in the other countries in Asia its producers hope to export it to. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but it's interesting to remember the effect the omnipresent NBC had on the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Or maybe it's just a way, for Korea to fictionally influence the Olympics after Pyeongchang failed to get the winter Olympics... twice. At any rate, before the Olympics have even begun, Korea is already on top. The Korean newscast continues:
And therefore in the global-wide recession... South Korea's economic growth started, it has maintained the status of the best company, and kept growing and growing and then reached the level of a multinational renowned corporation, its name is Shinhwa. Electronics, oil, automobiles, distribution, and telecommunications. If you are a citizen of South Korea, you know the two letters of Shinhwa before you know the president's name, and have created a kingdom and therefore is Korea's largest conglomerate.
A series of scenes make clear that Shinhwa (신화 in Korean means 'myth' - actively suggesting, perhaps, that it's not real, like Thomas More's Utopia, a place that is 'no place'?) is a super jaebol, or conglomerate, appropriating images of other companies such as Hyundai...


...Emart (Shinsegae again, actually)...

...and SK.

As if these conglomerates didn't have enough control of the economy and life in general in Korea already, the series proposes a Korea in which one conglomerate has taken over them all, realizing a world in which, as Jon Stewart once put it, 'we're all going to be fired by the same person.' But then it becomes clearer what the point of this alternative reality where centralization and monopoly have come to their logical end is:
On a day where they had managed to increase their imports by one trillion Won, and were sent to the Blue House, the founder of this company instead of receiving a medal said, "Sir, please allow me to build a school where my grandchildren could attend."
And who is this president?

The ‘president’ shown in the photo is Park Chung-hee, who “even went to make special laws to accommodate the school,” making him responsible for what occured next:
And then, there it was, Shinhwa School. The first school in the history of Korea to be backed by the president, who believed that economic advancement was more important than education, and even went to make special laws to accommodate the school. And now there is a saying, if you do not have Shinhwa School on your resume, don't even bother applying. It is a School made for the 1%, attended by the 1%, and fit for the 1% and therefore has maintained the reputation of the best elite school. Most common people, even if they apply when they are born, they cannot get in to the Shinhwa Kindergarten, but when accepted, then you have the way paved nonstop for Elementary, Middle and High school, and even University. It is subject of jealousy and awe for the rest of the nation's students, and parents who suffer from the hard admissions to universities.

Not unlike More's Utopia again, which used Amerigo Vespucci's accounts of the new world to create a fictional if concrete representation of Plato's Republic, we see the show's writers creating Shinhwa school - pictured above as a sprawling complex which includes Shinhwa Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle and High Schools, and University, as a metaphor for what is known in Korean discourse on education as 'Gangnam' and 'SKY' (the top three universities, Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei). In Gangnam, the top kindergartens, hagwons, schools and even Seoul National University can be found, and a residential game of musical chairs is played by parents wanting to move to the area to get their children into these institutions.

One imagines many (most?) Koreans would see this aspect of the Boys Over Flowers universe as dystopian, however, as its amalgam of the SKY universities and the schools and hagwons of Gangnam is even more elite and self perpetuating, starting with kindergarten (as in the image of kids painting above) and working up to university, highlighting the unfairness of the entire Gangnam-oriented hagwon and school system which rewards wealth and seemingly makes it possible for students to have the way “paved nonstop” to university (except that the denizens of the real 'Gangnam' have to take exams). The advantages of the elite in the Shinhwa schools especially provoke envy, and the ability to escape the college entry exam, like the past and present ability of people of means to dodge the draft, is particularly galling. The fact that it's run by the all-encompassing Shinhwa Corporation means, of course, that the school supplies those that will fill many -if not all - of the management jobs in the company. As it says, " [I]f you do not have Shinhwa School on your resume, don't even bother applying." But then it gets worse:
However, in this Shinhwa High School, a school for the chosen, something unimaginable was happening.”

What's interesting is that in this show aimed at teens, we see such violence, as bullies - in fact the entire school - terrorizes one student, beating him until he's bloody. He fights back, until he reaches the roof, and decides to kill himself.

Until, that is, our plucky heroine, Jan-di, who is delivering his uniform from the dry cleaning business her family runs, finds him and has a chat with him.

-Why [do you want to kill yourself]? You go to such a great school.

-No, this isn't a school, it's hell.

-Excuse me? Real hell is outside of this building. Have you heard of admissions hell?

-Have you heard of F4?

-F... F...what? F4? What is that?

-The moment you get a red card from them, you become a prey for the entire school.
With this, the audience is introduced to the plot line of Hana Yori Dango, but the violence is much harsher than in the Japanese version, which lacked the brutal beating and blood. Not that such violence is absent from Japanese schools, of course; films there like All About Lily Chou Chou or Blue Spring have dealt with the brutal violence of students, but Hana Yori Dango did not. In this Korean version, we get brutal bullying and the recording of the anticipated suicide scene on students' phones. Phones have been used by students in the past both to record beatings by teachers and bullying by students, to encourage it, or used them as a tool with which to humiliate or coerce their victims. It's likely one of these phone cameras that captures Jan-di saving the boy as he tries to jump, which then makes the news.

"Brave Seomin High School girl, Who is She?
Aristocratic Elite School Shinhwa High School's Murder?"

The incident goes beyond internet, however, as we see in the next scene on a subway:

"Today's News : [What is] Aristocratic Elite School, Shinhwa High School's Real Identity?
Shinhwa High group bullying savior is a seomin wonder girl."

In fact, there are various ways in which this news is spread:

"Shinhwa High's group bullying savior is a seomin wonder girl.
What is going on in the best educational high school, Shinhwa High? The brave seomin high school girl, who is she?"

The boy on the left below seems to lack access to such media, but no fear - to his left is a man reading the newspaper...

"Who saved the student being severely bullied by his school at Shinhwa High is not rich nor comes from a family with a title" [Or so the subtitles read, if not this screenshot].

...and to his right is a woman reading a magazine:

"Brave seomin high school girl, Who is She?
The truth about aristrocratic, elite Shinhwa High School."

First, the class term seomin should be explained. As Antti Leppänen describes it,
seomin are those who besides being less well-off, having difficulties acquiring decent housing, living from hand to mouth, are also politically unmotivated and unconscious and do not act out of common political interests but individual or familial economic interests.
Seomin are different from minjung, which refers to politically conscious masses. This term is used to position Jan-di and her family, who run a dry cleaning shop, against the filthy rich students who attend Shinhwa High School. In declaring her a seomin hero, however, the media (portrayed here as monolithic and not ideologically divided - utopian indeed!) seem to be appealing to readers to identify with her in a class conscious way while decrying the abuses of the upper class attending the elite school.

While the scene on the subway may seem to be a showcase of Korea's technology and the extent of cell-phone penetration made to show off to foreign audiences, or could be interpreted as the pervasiveness of what Guy Debord termed 'the spectacle' in Korean life, it also works in connection with the following scenes.

In a cleverly done scene, we see the development of the online conversation about this incident, which has focused attention on the rich students of Shinhwa schools and how unfair the system is. Online discussion moves beyond the media's criticism of the abuses of the upper class attending Shinhwa and decries their privilege. Each internet user above is zoomed-in on as they contribute their opinions:
"There is only so far a special privilege can go, Shinhwa Group confess!"

"As mother with a child, this is something that is unforgivable. Starting from tomorrow, let's not go to Shinhwa Mart."

Those who have to take the university entrance exam, such as the girl above, are especially angered by the Shinhwa students' privilege, with the girl above describing them as "The children of god who are exempt from entrance exams."

One result of all this online attention is media interest. It is soon found out that Jan-di works part-time at 'Bom Juk' (instead of Bon Juk) and reporters try to interview her there.

This results in more exposure.

The other result of all the online grumbling about Shinhwa?

A candlelight protest, of course!

'Help us, wonder girl!'

(Not that wonder girl)

I'm sure the use of the term 'wonder girl' has been noticeable, showing that the influence of the Wonder Girls has spread from the days of spreading the 'Tell Me' dance across the nation, to the application of the term 'wonder girl' to people like Kim Yu-na (In her transition period from 'figure yojeong' to 'figure queen'), to Boys Over Flowers. Actually, I suppose it's not surprising, this use of 'wonder girl', considering that in the Tell Me video, Sohee, as 'Wonder Girl', rescues babies, fights a babari man, and finally defeats a bunch of bullies:

As for the Candlelight protest, we hear the opinions and slogans of people attending the rally.
-"Shinhwa Group, Abolish special education!"

-"I am here where people are protesting against the Shinhwa Group and the special educational system. Let's hear some opinions from the citizens. Hello, why are you out here today for the candle protest?"

-"My friend was also heavily bullied and he dropped out of school, we can say that because of the unbearable stress of the entrance exams, but they have no hardship whatsoever don't you think so?"
A guy in army uniform speaks out:
I mean, is that school a school for the gifted? It's not even a foreign language school or a science high school, like it states, it's a school for the rich. And isn't Korea a republic?
It should be obvious that this -

- is meant to conjure this...

... the first candlelight protest at Cheonggye Plaza in May 2008, which set off months of mad cow protests, which ended less than six months before Boys Over Flowers first aired. The memory of these protests - which may have been taking place as the series was being written - surely influenced the following speech:
- Right now, the PR team is working busily with the press to-

- Do you know why the public is scary? Because they are dumb. If they start getting crazy for a cause then it's impossible to stop them. It cannot be dealt with through reasoning and sense.
That is a pretty obvious reference to the mad cow protests - or at least the right wing view of them. The person these lines are given to is the CEO of Shinhwa (or the director of the school, I forget), a woman who looks more than a little similar to Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the former president who allowed Shinhwa school to be created.

She decides, after seeing a magazine interview with Jan-di, that "The one who started the fire should be responsible for extinguishing it," figuring that the media and netizens will cool down if she allows Jan-di to enroll in Shinhwa school. Her family is thrilled, and sing and dance around the house, deliriously happy that their daughter will attend an elite school, and though she refuses, they browbeat her into going.

As with many Korean dramas, I really find the acting to be grating, mainly because of the way it is stylized, which is not at all to my taste. In one scene, I believe on the roof before Jan-di saves the student from jumping, she replies in confusion - and with a really dumb look on her face - to a question, "W-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-what?" Arrgh. But I digress. And to digress further, her mom is played by Im Ye-jin, who was a teen movie star in the 1970s (and acted in 25 movies in 5 years, which must have been tiring, perhaps explaining her 20-year hiatus), starring in such dramas as 'I Really, Really Like You' (1977, below).

From there, Jan-di starts school, watches the sickening way F4 (a quartet of the school's richest and most powerful boys) act like gangsters but are treated like super(junior)stars, and is either ignored or picked on until she gets a red card from F4, after which the entire school gangs up on her, and when she resists further, a member of F4 sends his minions to gang-rape her, something I don't think was in the Japanese version, and may be a specifically Korean addition. [It seems it is in Hana Yori Dango]. Thus ends the first episode:

It's okay, though, since they fall in love and are together at the end of the series, or so I've read.

The show's concept of Shinhwa Corporation and the Shinhwa Schools acting as symbols of both Korea's Jaebol and the failings of the education system, as well as its depiction of the way in which people organized in order to criticize perceived abuses made for an interesting first ten minutes, but it's too bad this fictional world couldn't have been explored in depth in order to comment further on Korean society. That such a promising beginning turned into such shallow schmaltz shouldn't be surprising, however, considering the source material, so the question remains: Is the inclusion of this very Korean alternate reality at the beginning a disappointment because it inevitably ended so quickly, or is it worthy of admiration for being broadcast at all, especially at the beginning of such innocuous fluff aimed at the youth market?

Fun fact:
Jack London wrote what is considered the first modern dystopian novel, The Iron Heel, in 1908, four years after he visited Korea. Coincidence? Probably. His short story "A Nose For The King", written in 1904, does however depict the arbitrary power of officials in Korea, albeit in a humorous manner.


krissasaur said...

t has been years since i saw HYD.. but i remember a scene where rui saves the main girl from rape in one of the school rooms :/

but this does sound much worse. personally i hate kdrama.. so i dont plan to ever see this.

if you want to see crazy abuse in schools you should watch the japanese drama life, though.

matt said...

Thanks for pointing that out - I made a note above.

Sandy said...

Thought I'd point out that in the London short story, he refers to the East Sea. Score one (non-Korean) for Korea.

Anonymous said...

Boys Over Flowers was mostly a fun drama to watch (I saw all of it.). I think you are reading too much into it. It would take too long to talk about having 4-5 chaebols instead of just pretending that Samsung owns everything (I guess they have been bribing the Law long enough.). They just wanted to get it over with.

If you want to see idol groups parodied, watch "You're Beautiful".


people always ask me why i like korea so much but refuse to watch k-dramas and i tell them that boys over flowers is fascist trash and they get all confused, then say something like anonymous did.

where's the subversion on korean tv? i ought to pitch a tv show.

King Baeksu said...

A Canadian friend of mine teaches at the "Korean Minjok Leadership Academy" in Wonju, which is the real-life equivalent of the "Shinhwa School":

Yes, it actually exists!

Here's some more info on its founding:

Anonymous said...

Save the irritatingly bombastic language, Korea's middle class yearnings are much the same as anywhere else.
I have to say though, usually people who've grown up with whatever measure of comfort are more interesting than Koreans.

Puffin Watch said...

I found the gang rape scene particularly disturbing. Knowing ahead of time the arc is going to be she falls in love with the richest boy, it's hard to reconcile with the fact he sends some goons into the woman's washroom to gang rape her.

But they're cute and rich so I guess no one pays attention.

There's another funny scene where the rich boy tries to buy off the girl's parents by sending them appliances and shiny grey suits. Hrm.

I started to add my own english subtitles:

Poor 15 year old filipinas were quite horrified when they got about half way thru and realized these weren't the correct sub titles.

Lillium said...

Not that it justifies it much, but he didn't order them to gang-rape her. I forget what he specifically told them to do, but when he found out that they tried, he scolded them in a rather hardcore fashion.