November 17, 2017

Wolmi Island: Unexpected Feminism

Hollywood's misogyny is the stuff of legend. All you need to do is look at your Twitter feed for fresh reports of horrors that continue unabated. Producer Harvey Weinstein, director James Toback, studio head Roy Price, actor Tom Sizemore all now have atrocities associated with their names. Yet while the particulars of each man's offenses may make you recoil, such crimes seem hardly surprising in an industry that has so consistently portrayed women primarily as eye candy. Smart women in leading roles is still a news story in the USA circa 2017. Which is what makes my recent viewings of North Korean movies so mind-boggling. Time and time again from the 1970s (Centre Forward) to just a few years ago (The Other Side of the Mountain), female characters in North Korean flicks are shown as strong, independent, no-nonsense, and driven. Even the 1982 war pic Wolmi Island, which reflects the sexist attitudes of some recruits and officers towards the young, female communication officer who has just been sent to assist the troops, eventually reveals that any condescension is unmerited. This woman is — if anything — one of the movie's primary heroes.

When it comes to patriotism in North Korean movies, the women are never outdone by the men; director Cho Gyong-sun's Wolmi Island is no exception. Yes, she's girlish, maybe even immature, but she's committed, steely, persistent, and reveals a rebellious spirit devoted to the cause that puts all the men here to shame. You eventually learn that the commander (Choe Chang-su) is not heartless; the cook (Choe Tae-hyon), not foolish; and the master-gunner (played by the director himself!), not afraid to die. But only our heroine (Yun Su-gyong) earns our respect and never loses it by being soldierly and sisterly as the situation requires and without any need of a medal. When the gorgeous red smoke billows across the screen at the end, she was the one I missed the most.