August 18, 2017

Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women: Japanese Denials

Going into writer-director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson's saddening doc Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women, I already knew a little bit about the systematic mass sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese Imperial Army (although I didn't know it included minors and forced sterilizations) and it's remarkably painful to see Japanese historians and academics and soldiers denying the fact with the ultimately flippant explanation, "We'd never do something like this." When they're pushed as to why these female survivors would make up stories about being raped and drugged, the self-righteous men fall back on the old "blaming the victim" excuse as they label these women — all of them old, unashamed, and refusing to fade into the background — as amoral mercenaries who made good money on the front lines. Someone literally says there was no bigotry by the clientele as if that were a progressive way to spin it. Well, while there's a great pain that comes with admitting a great crime, there's also a great character stain that comes with denying it. One leaves this documentary aware that some of these nay-sayers are leaving a record of their own complicity for future viewers to watch. "Look, there's grandpa defending rapists as soldiers satisfying a biological need!"

And while it is rare for members of a given group — in this case soldiers active in World War II — to bear witness to the atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians (truly prisoners of war) by their fellow soldiers, a few do bravely come forward to speak truth. One is a Japanese translator who witnessed crimes firsthand; another is a Western soldier who admits that while apologies were issued to European women used as sex slaves by soldiers, evidence documenting the crimes inflicted on the Korean women was largely destroyed after the war. What could be the possible motive for these men? Huh? I, for one, admired the tenacity of all these old women who are using their last days on earth to cry out for justice or at least an official apology. I'm only sorry their battle is an uphill one.

August 13, 2017

I Am Sun Mu: He's Not the Only One

I Am Sun Mu isn't just about Sun Mu, a North Korean artist who defected to the South and now makes Warhol-esque pop art with a sly political bent. Adam Sjoberg's multilayered documentary is also about Liang Kegang, the risk-taking director of the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing who decides to mount a fairly large show devoted to Sun Mu's work. And it's also about Cui Xianji, a Chinese-Korean artist who helps make this exhibit happen. Of course, it's also about Sun Mu's wife and his two kids because you can't be creating work causing such strong sociopolitical reverberations without impacting those nearest and dearest. As such, Sjoberg's doc is a portrait of a time and place as well as it is of a particular person.

The present power of North Korean loyalists in China is felt; the censorship of the Chinese government is seen in action; the courage of a few talented artists taking chances despite the monolithic nature of the institutions set against them is witnessed and then archived and thereby publicly acknowledged. Watching I Am Sun Mu you become aware of how much fascist regimes are intent on restricting their populace's very thoughts by preventing certain countercultural images from ever reaching the masses. It also reminds you that commercial art is really just a form of propaganda serving a less-obvious regime that's backed by the almighty dollar. (I know that it's not Korean but can everyone please check out the mind-expanding PBS doc Trudell?)

I worried about Sun Mu's saftey though. Throughout this doc, he never shows his face. He's seen from behind or blurred out or in silhouette. But his wife and kids are seen clearly. Surely his anonymity has been compromised. You can hardly call this an attention-seeking stunt since he's literally putting his life and livelihood on the line. And you can't say that his art isn't agitating his former homeland, otherwise why would the Chinese government have been so quick to shut the exhibition down?

August 10, 2017

Eungyo: A Summer-Winter Romance Gets Weatherproofed

I was ready to detest Eungyo. Truly. I mean, do we really need another movie about a horny old codger (Park Hae-il) who falls for a naif of a woman (Kim Go-eun) half his age? And are there really that many young ladies out there who have a thing for geriatric men outside of Woody Allen's universe? But Eungyo isn't actually telling that mass-produced story despite some early indications to the contrary. Because in Eungyo, director Jung Ji-woo's central love triangle doesn't culminate with Mr. Wrinkly and Ms. Baby Soft in bed. Any "action" scenes between these two are actually fantasized on the elderly poet's part and feature a much younger version of himself sticking his head under her T-shirt. She's never caressed by varicosed hands. He's not imagining getting it on with his young housekeeper. He's imagining being young again. That's an important distinction, and one that his plagiarizing protege (Kim Mu-yeol) is unable to fathom when he stumbles upon his mentor's manuscript detailing this dreamed of romance.

The inability — or unwillingness — to understand deeper feelings that might cross generations and exist outside of sex (not to mention flirtations that have no true intent in leading to physical intimacy) is really at the root of Eungyo. What is one character's undoing ultimately isn't his prudishness, his recklessness, his ego or his disloyalty. It's really his lack of imagination. What emotional ties might exist between a woman who's 17 and a man who's 70? Where is the wellspring of inspiration? Why might it be unwise to get involved sexually with a minor outside of the legal reasons? What is the nature of the very act of creation? For the younger man, such questions never arise. His desires are not to be an artist but to be a success. He doesn't want to write a masterpiece. He wants to win an award. So what is success when you haven't really done anything. At the risk of sounding too poetic — and why not go there given the nature of Eungyo, can a person die if he's never really lived? Or is that just another reason to mourn?