Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Splendid Vacation at Haeundae

The other day I watched Haeundae, which was out of morbid curiosity more than anything else - I assumed it would be terrible, like most such disaster movies, and I was not let down. And yet, I did find something of value in it after all. [Spoilers follow.] It was when I was watching the scenes of crowds running from the wave as it crashed through the streets that I realized that the scene looked very familiar.

Then it dawned on me:

The above scene is from Splendid Vacation, the 2007 film about the Kwangju Uprising (which I've looked at here, here and here). As it turns out, there are a lot of visual similarities between the two films. One obvious similarity would be the appearance of actor Song Jae-ho in both films:

I remembered him best from President's Last Bang (where he played Park Chung-hee), or so I thought, until I looked at imdb and realized he starred in the 1975 film Yeongja's Heydays, which I looked at before here, without realizing I had posted a photo of him (more for the reason that we can see Yeouido in 1975 in the background, along with an almost-complete National Assembly):

The tone of the plots leading up to the disaster that befalls the characters are different in that Haeundae's characters are in conflict and the tidal wave is the deus ex machina which brings the conflicts to resolution (er, by killing a lot of the characters) while life before 518 in Splendid Vacation is, well, splendid and happy-go-lucky until history intervenes.

Both films foreshadow the darkness that awaits the characters, whether the source is a shifting undersea fault or paratroopers marching out of a darkened hanger.

When the disaster begins, people stare in disbelief.

They try to run, but a vulnerable female falls in the crowd and a male has to fight the crowd to save her.

People flee in terror.

We see things from the point of view of that which will take so many lives.

It gets closer...

...and closer...

...until people are knocked off their feet.

They do their best to survive...

...but people are lost along the way.

[The scene above reveals the true source of the tidal wave - a flood of tears!]

In the end, even though some characters have done their best to survive, the assault of a final wave takes more lives...

...and the survivors mourn the dead.

Now, there are certainly differences between the films, despite similar visual elements. The main characters in Splendid Vacation stand up to the troops that advance through their streets, though considering the fact that they all die for this decision, the stand they took is presented as being as futile as trying to stand up to the tidal wave that washes through the streets of Busan. This 'helpless before the tidal wave of history' theme is present in many Korean films, and so Haeundae's value lies in this tidal wave metaphor, one which makes clear the way recent films about Korea's twentieth century history have portrayed that history and the Korean people's place in it.

This style of film is not only to be found in South Korean films, as this preview of the 2001 North Korean film Soul's Protest (살아있는 령혼들) reveals:

The film is based on the August 22, 1945 explosion and sinking of the ship Ukishima Maru, which was returning forced Korean labourers to Korea, and was considered to be North Korea's answer to 'Titanic.' (The video came from the North Korean online shopping mall which was open for a short time a few years ago (here)).

As for connecting all of this to A Little Pond, that will have to wait until the next post.

1 comment:

moorl said...

Thanks for the screencap comparison, Matt. I've had this hunch for a while about Haeundae leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Basically it repeats that spectacle of victim-turned-martyr complex associated with Sol Kyung-gu's screen image since Peppermint Candy. Now I haven't caught enough 70s, 80s or Golden era-movies to know if this is a crystallization of enduring concepts, or some sweeping new trend (a decade-old now.) What's clear is movie-makers love to milk this arc of folksy hi-jinx, prolonged traumatic suffering, then catharsis. what's disturbing is the commercial movie cliches (e.g. iron-fist hubris of the people in charge, willfully ignore compassionate scientist's warnings), makes it an even easier excuse to skip any critical self-introspection about any historical processes, and allow for facile wallowing in only the emotional purge while reducing all complexity to us/them, linear B/W, etc. historical memories keep using this arc, and people are satisfied with this cookie-cutter approach to history:(