Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bandhobi: The Good, The Bad, and The Minor

Back in June I wrote about the movie Bandhobi and the fact that it was going to focus on a migrant worker living in Korea (and his relationship with a teenage girl). I watched it the other night, and it was interesting, for reasons both good and bad. The good is that the film does a fair enough job of humanizing migrant workers in general as the audience gets to know Karim, a Bangladeshi migrant worker.

Min-seo, in her second year of high school, tries to make off with a wallet she found on the bus, but is caught by its owner - Karim. He tries to drag her to a police station, but she offers to do him a favor in return for being let go and kisses him, startling him into letting her go.

Later that night, they both end up at the police station for different reasons (in her case, working at a gas station, she sprayed gasoline into the car of a man who was essentially propositioning her). It should seem pretty obvious that Min-seo isn't the kind of girl 'typically' portrayed in Korean movies or TV. At any rate, she asks him to buy her some food, and he gets her to help him find the address of his former employer, who went strategically bankrupt and owes him a year's worth of wages.

Minseo has a strained relationship with her mom and her mom's unemployed boyfriend, wants to go to an English hagwon, and gets a part time night-job to pay for it. She's depicted working:

Let's just say that I'm sure after her first shift finished, her right arm was sore. And who does she meet there? Her homeroom teacher, who she essentially guilts into buying her dinner.

Minseo invites Karim over to her house, and he makes her Bangladeshi food for dinner.

This is followed by Minseo inviting him into her bedroom where, with no romance even hinted at yet, she proceeds bring her work home, so to speak, much to his chagrin (his wife is at home in Bangladesh, though she wants to leave him because he hasn't sent enough money home). Though he abruptly leaves, from then on they gradually grow closer, until they have a fight after meeting this fellow:

Here we're introduced to a foreigner quite different from Karim, who is most certainly depicted as a kind, patient, wise person. And here, one of the film's purported goals - of humanizing foreigners - takes a detour. As this review at Twitch Film notes:
What is truly interesting is the number of recent features (mostly independent) devoted to this subject matter - from this film to Kim Dong-Hyun's curious 처음 만난 사람들 (Hello Stranger), in which a North Korean defector meets a Vietnamese migrant worker; but also Shim Sang-Guk's 로니를 찾아서 (Where is Ronny), which happens to star Bangladeshi film activist and broadcaster Mahbub Alam just like Bandhobi. Interesting not only because of the novelty factor, but for the new and improved (?) outlook on the subject. If you look at TV's reaction to this matter, we're still firmly planted in the 80s, what with insufferable abominations like 미녀들의 수다 (Chit-chat of Beautiful Ladies), or even the insanely pretty 탐나는 도다 (Tamna The Island), which might be diverting but still oozes those annoying "lookee here, it's a blue-eyed blond monster from the planet weguk" vibes from the sweet old Fifth Republic (although, well, being set in the mid Joseon dynasty, the idea would be quite realistic). [Note: Roboseyo's post on this topic is worth reading]. But then I wonder, is what we see in Bandhobi really that progressive?
In its portrayal of Karim and his friends, perhaps, but not so much in its portrayal of Haines (sounds like 'Heinz'), the native English teacher at the hagwon Min-seo attends. Or perhaps I should say 'native,' seeing as he speaks with a German accent. Back in June, James at the Grand Narrative wondered about the portrayal of the English teacher as what was described as the "occasional rotten apple" and wrote that, "Given that [the film] aims to transcend and/or educate viewers about such issues as racism, illegal immigration, and possibly even teenage sexuality, then it would be both ironic and quite a pity if it resorted to gross stereotypes of foreign male English teachers in the process."

Worth noting is that almost all of the characters in the film have redeemable qualities. We learn a fair amount about Karim, his culture, religion, friends, and his job and position in Korean society. The jobless boyfriend of Min-seo's mother eventually finds a job. Even her teacher who she 'meets' at her night job seems concerned for her future. There are only two unredeemable characters in the movie: The rich factory owner who owes Karim money, and the foreign English teacher.

When Karim goes to meet Haines, at Min-seo's request, Haines is a smug ass who thinks he knows more about Korea than Karim, and shows off to his female students.

Here's the conversation:

Haines: Nice to meet you.
Karim: You too.
Haines: How is it going (sounds like: How eez eet goweeng?)
Karim: Well, everything’s okay.
Haines: I heard you’re from…
Karim: Bangladesh
Haines: Right. And you’re Muslim too?
Karim: Yeah. You’re an English teacher? Are you Christian?
Haines: [Apparently too dumb to see that Karim is making fun of his "You're Muslim?" question] Yes. But I’m also a taekkyeon teacher. Do you taekkyeon?
Karim: Sure. I know taekwondo.
Haines: No, not taekwondo, I’m talking about taekkyeon.

He puts on a display, much to the wide-eyed adoration of his female students:

It was only the second time watching this scene that I noticed Haines leering at his student as he sits down after his display and they clap.

Haines: Pretty amazing huh?
Karim: You look like you’re enjoying to living here.
Haines: Yeah. I love kimchi more than hamburgers. By the way, do you have a Korean girlfriend?
Karim: [looks at Min-seo for a moment, then answers]: No.
Haines: You don’t? Korean girls are so sweet! Right? [Looking at Min-seo]
Min-seo: [Looks confused, then smiles] Yes.
Haines: What about the Korean drinking culture. Do you like soju?
Karim: No, I don’t drink alcohol.
Haines: You don’t drink soju? Everyone drinks it in Korea.
Karim: But Muslims don’t drink alcohol.
Haines: Ah, I see.

"I love kimchi more than hamburgers." Nice to see VANK (or the KTO?) is moving into the screenwriting business. Meeting Haines prompts this conversation between Karim and Minseo:

Minseo: What's wrong with you? Look at Haines. He's enjoying life in Korea. [Is the reason you aren’t because] you are from a poor country?

Karim: Yeah, I'm from a poor country. So, I don't know how to enjoy myself. And I have no time either. But how ridiculous are you people? You brown-nose white people, and look down on us with contempt. You’re hypocrites. Want some more? You know how dirty [Koreans] are? You all screw girls in Southeast Asia and bring them to tears.

Minseo: What?

Karim: How can I explain... You know what that white guy said? ''Sweet.'' He meant you looked like whores.

Minseo: So? Why don't spit it all out while you're at it? Why'd you come here? You came here for money, right? You came here to be rich, didn't you? Just admit you're envious! Don't talk about people behind their backs.

She walks off in a huff, and they part for some time until they're reunited again. While the points Karim makes are valid, I don't know if I'd explain 'sweet' to mean 'like whores.' While 'sweet' in the way Haines used it meant more than "gentle, kind, cute" (I suppose Karim wasn't going to start talking about the intersection of orientalist and occidentalist assumptions), "like whores" is the worst case interpretation, and one that sends Minseo to the English hagwon to see Haines, who (of course!) walks out of class leering at his students (I'm trying to imagine the director in those scenes - "Come on, get into character more! You are a foreign English teacher. More leering!").

Then they have the following conversation:

Min-seo: Hi Haines.
Haines: Oh, Min-seo. How is it going?
Min-seo: You said the Korean girls are sweet, uh?
Haines: Yeah.
Min-seo: What’s the meaning?
Haines: Well, they are gentle, kind, cute
Min-seo: and?
Haines: …and…?
Min-seo: Easy to handle [have?], like a whore?
Haines: No! I didn’t mean that --

It's difficult to see in this photo, but what Minseo is doing (perhaps using skills she learned at her night-job) is grabbing Haines by the balls and squeezing them. I kid you not.

Min-seo: Do you feel sweet?
Haines: No! -arrgh!

So, in opposition to the noble Karim, we have an English teacher who is a smug ass who leers at his students and says he likes "kimchi better than hamburgers" [perhaps to facilitate picking up girls, or perhaps that's what the writer wants to believe foreigners who love Korea (and its women!) would say, though the equivalent in North America would be a Korean who says, "I like ketchup better than bibimbap!"]. But not only do we have the leering foreign teacher, we get to see him grabbed by the balls by a 17 year-old girl who is, perhaps, avenging the foreign English teacher's insult to Korean womanhood (and her hurt pride). The scene is, I imagine, a wet dream for the likes of Anti-English Spectrum, as what she did to Haines is symbolic of AES's goal, which is to prevent interracial sex to avenge the insult to Korean women and their 'unendurable humiliation,' as their front page used to say.

In fact, this poster on their site makes it quite clear:

The caption next to the person being kicked is 'Foreign teacher molester', and the girl is delivering the then popular Hectopascal Kick. As to what that was (I had no idea), I searched and found this blog post, which explains the origins of this internet meme (and provides many examples - scroll down to see them), which originated from this image:

The name hectopascal kick came from the fact that (in the MBC drama '단팥빵', or 'Sweet Bean Bread') as the girl kicked the boy, scrolling along the bottom of the screen was information about typhoon mindeulle, which described the air pressure as 985 hectopascal and windspeed as 23 meters per second, and netizens quickly passed the image around, amused by the accidental correlation. The image of the girl as she kicked the boy was photoshopped into numerous backgrounds, and the final image above was the source of this image (again):

As to why the scenes featuring Karim play out as if written by the Migrants Trade Union (who advocate for migrant workers' rights), and the scenes featuring the English teacher play out as written by Anti English Spectrum, Robert Koehler's description of "Korean-style political correctness" may provide some insight (from about 44 minutes into this Seoul Podcast, which I previously looked at here):
there is, at least within certain segments of the media, the feeling that guest workers, because they’re coming from Asia, because they’re coming from third world countries, are a disadvantaged class, while G.I.s and English teachers are a privileged class because they’re white and coming from western countries.
If this is "Korean-style political correctness," then it's interesting how the Twitch Film review puts it:
On one hand, the film might be accused of being politically correct. After all, Karim is portrayed as the all too mature, gentle and well meaning foreign migrant worker who crosses valleys and oceans to fulfill his Korean dream and find happiness, meeting a hostile and repressive social reality instead.
Well, seeing as Karim is portrayed in that manner, and Haines, the foreign English teacher, is portrayed in the way he is, it would seem that the film is indeed following the dictates of Korean-style political correctness. The description Robert gives above was highlighted when a illegal Filipino migrant worker in Yangju tried to rape a 13 year-old girl two years ago and when she resisted, stabbed her 13 times. The mainstream media barely touched it, giving it coverage only after local media reports stirred netizens and turned it into an "internet sensation" which made clear the biases of the mainstream media (though when Daum posted this Yonhap article, it also provided links to an petition at Agora). The video at the final link shows the man re-enacting the murder.

To be sure, had 13 year old Gang Su-hyeon, above (who had only been a middle school student for less than a week), had been killed by a foreign English teacher or GI, I have serious doubts that mainstream media would have given the case similar treatment. To be sure, some anti-illegal immigrant groups have tried to use her face (and the face of her distraught mother) to gain sympathy for their cause, but the media hasn't been very supportive - nowhere near as supportive as they have been of Anti-English Spectrum, for example. Then again, official treatment of English teachers could never devolve into the way in which migrant workers have been (and often still are) treated. Though improvements have been made over the years - the EPS, though flawed, was an improvement over the ITS, and if extended to five year visas, is much better than three year visas - migrant workers will always have a harder time in Korea than foreign English teachers or GIs (unless, er, a war breaks out). And if the media absolutely must blow off xenophobic steam to sell papers and draw viewers, then I'd rather see foreign English teachers, who have an easier time of it, take the brunt than migrant workers. Of course, it would be nice if no foreign group was unduly targeted by the media, but that seems to be asking too much.

As for the way the rest of the film plays out, these two recent articles should give you some clue. On that note, it's interesting that police saying they were going to a Nepali restaurant (in Changshin-dong, where several Nepali restaurants are located, though only one is big enough to hold 'dozens' of people) to look for a gambling ring, and that immigration officers decided to 'tag along' to 'help,' allowing immigration to circumvent the rules, which state that permission must be asked from the owner of the premises. Police found no gambling ring (really? shocking!), but immigration just happened to arrest an illegal worker they were looking for, and checked passports and found eight more. How lucky for them! It seems they've found a way to get around laws that are in place, but I'll have to wait and see if this method is used again before deciding if immigration is going to make this common practice.

In Bandhobi, Minseo, as the Twitch Film review notes in detail, is very much a representative of the candlelight generation, as she reads the Kyunghyang Shinmun, calls the Chosun Ilbo 'trash', and the film takes potshots at Lee Myung-bak. The leftism championed by both the Kyunghyang Shinmun (which, while sympathetic to migrant workers has interviewed and even published articles by AES's Yie Eun-woong) is reflected in the film in its equally biased portrayal of migrant workers and English teachers. Also fascinating is the lack of comment made on the fact that Karim has a[n almost sexual] relationship with a minor, something that would set off alarm bells (and play to negative stereotypes) had it been a foreign English teacher. In the end, I can't help wondering if Bandhobi distorts reality in its portrayal of foreigners in a way similar to the historical films which played as simplistic, often nationalist or anti-American myths which were released during the Roh Moo-hyeon administration - it certainly comes from the same end of the political spectrum.


Brian said...

Excellent work, as always. A pretty offensive character there, very troubling that movies, TV, and media in general can continue to get away with such portrayals.

Interesting also that the actor who played the teacher isn't credited online. Did you see his name in the end credits? I looked around in English and found nothing, then looked in Korean---I had to login to Naver first because of the movie's rating, and didn't see his name among the eight actors listed on the Naver profile.

Anonymous said...

The movie was both interesting, good and at some points bad.

The portrayal of Karim is rather detailed and complex...this is good.

Min seo is an interesting character as well.

The foreign teacher is an opposing character. He is there to show the flip side and to play off the min seo character. I think you may be reading too much into the intent of the director. The leering could be the actor doing it on his own or through bad acting (he was pretty bad).

I always question myself when reading accounts of the bad portrayal of foreign males in Korea. Some of it is in bad taste and spreads an unfair image. Having worked in Korea for a few years in Education and then in Business, I have to say that many of us foreign males feed this image through our actions and behavior. Look around at how Foreign teachers dress and act in public, at what they say when they hang out.

None of this is criminal, most of it is probably pretty innoncent chit chat or naive inexperience but it projects something.

Then look at Korea when it comes to attitude and dress in work environments.

You start to see a sort of cultural clash at work. Some of us are grossly unaware of where we are (Korea) and of what that entails. This is in large part due to how Korea selects its teachers (the standards being abysmally low) but also due to how we act once here (the I am better than this place attitude is but one example).

matt said...

Thanks Brian. In the credits his name is Ja_ Sebastian. I think Jan would make sense, but it's hard to be certain as the credits are so small on the screen.

No arguments about the attitudes of some (even 'many') teachers. The problem, as you note, is the hiring practices of Koreans, something that is almost never mentioned in the Korean language media (and by almost I meant 99% of the time). The other problem is that the things foreign teachers are accused of (molestation, especially) occur at a rate far lower than the Korean population. Yes, English teachers smoke pot at a higher rate than the Korean public in general, but then that's the product of culture clash and ignorance of just how severe Korea's drug laws are (and a youthful belief in one's invincibility). By culture clash I mean that, say, Canadian police treat pot smoking in the same way some Korean police treat kicking the living shit out of a five year old in an elevator - it's too much trouble to process the paperwork - and it makes AES's "We're doing it to protect the children"(but only from foreigners) more than a little hypocritical.

Yeah, Canadians are nationalistic during the Olympics. And the sky is blue. Also, I'm sure there are lots of food blogs where you could have left that comment, seeing as they have about as much to do with the olympics as this post.

Anonymous said...

The evil foreign English Teacher is Jean-Sebastian Bressy, a Frenchman. He really does practice taekkyon:


He's been the subject of an Arirang monkey special in the past. As for the movie, I won't go out of my way.