August 30, 2017

Spirits and Syncretism in Korean Myth: And Now for a Lecture

Educational television. You don't hear those two words bandied about too much anymore except when Congress is talking about defunding PBS. Sure there are documentaries on Netflix, Amazon and their ilk but they tend towards big personalities, monumental events, or very personal narratives. But what about if you simply want to learn something (as opposed to being entertained by reality)? The internet, endlessly championed as a rich library, has proven itself to be a bit of a junk shop in which you might stumble upon something of quality if you're lucky and can avoid falling into a pop cultural sinkhole. Maybe there's something on Kanopy, the streaming service of the New York Public Library. I decided to find out. Today's little nugget: "Spirits and Syncretism in Korean Myth," Episode 4 of Great Mythologies of the World Course 4 - Asia and the Pacific. Pretty interesting material.

This is basically a half-hour lecture in which Beloit College's Chair of Asian Studies and History, one Professor Robert Andre LaFleur, paces back and forth across a Persian carpet in an impossibly big, strategically decorated study and speaks to various cameras if for no other reason than to pull him from one end of the room to the other. And yet "Spirits and Syncretism" isn't boring or laughable. LaFleur is the department chair for a reason and his talk on Korean mythology — from the Samguk Yusa to the tale of the Herdboy and the Weaving Maiden and onward — is filled with fascinating bits and asides like Korea's scholarly relationship to the Chinese written language (an Eastern equivalent of the West's Latin and Greek) and how living in a land where only twenty percent is agriculturally cultivable impacted one country's worldview. Korean Shamanism may get short shrift in LaFleur's virtual lecture hall but as an introduction to Korean anthropology, "Spirits and Syncretism" certainly leaves you ready and eager for Professor LaFleur's next class. Or his next video as it were. If there were one.

August 28, 2017

Okja: The Host as a Fairy Tale

If Bong Joon-ho's The Host was a cautionary monster movie then his Okja is a vegan's fairy tale. Where the first film showed a modern-day Godzilla accidentally created by indifferent, amoral scientists, the latter positions its genetically engineered super-pig as a kind of potential advancement (psychologically, not just meatily) undermined by the leaders of the profiteering industry who brought him — and his ill-fated siblings — into being. In both instances, humans are the ultimate villains and heroes. And in neither case is there any sort of responsibility being taken by those in charge.

Of the two, though, Okja is an immensely more hopeful movie, because despite the capitalist cruelty of Tilda Swinton's equally unlikable twin CEOs and a lying grandpa (Byun Hee-bong) who just wants to make a buck, there's also a PETA-style ANTIFA staffed by well-meaning animal rights activists who are technologically savvy and doggedly diligent even as they're used for comic relief in the larger story. As the leader of the Animal Liberation Front (a.k.a. ALF), Paul Dano is about a likable as he's ever been while Steven Yeun, as the ALF member who taints then rescues the pig-saving mission, makes a nice comeback after his many years on The Walking Dead.

But this movie really belongs to the young girl whose raised the pig: Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). Much like Go Ah-sung in The Host before, Ahn is playing a complex young woman whose resourceful, determined, compassionate, and periodically overwhelmed. There's something beautiful in Bong's choice to have young heroines like this in such major movies. It's another reminder that the future may look bleak but maybe the next generation will save the day after all. Start praying.

P.S. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the self-pitying, whiney-voiced host for an internationally popular animal show has received quite a bit of criticism but my initial reaction was he took a big risk and good on him for that.

August 23, 2017

Wedding Through Camera Eyes: Unreal Celebrations

Most newlyweds like to take photos (and shoot video) while gaily frolicking on their exotic honeymoon. Look at us! We're having the time of our lives! And we've got the pictures to prove it! But what if the picture-taking component became the whole point of these trips? What if the photographs and DVDs became the purpose of the entire experience? Such is the case in Wedding Through Camera Eyes, a bizarre documentary about a trio of Korean weddings for which staged documentation becomes a ceremony in and of itself.

In the first segment, a fiance and fiancee are put into a variety of costumes and settings intended to evoke an idealized romance for their photo album and commemorative video. The photographer — who's actually pretty good — and the videographer — who's frankly not — direct the engaged couple to kiss, to smile, to tilt their head, to redirect their gazes, to laugh on cue. The groom-to-be describes the experience as if he were an actor in a movie. And he's right. This is a performance above all else. Congratulations are due!

The second segment revolves around an elaborate wedding incorporating period costumes and all-but-forgotten rituals, followed by a grand Western-style ceremony (with a lot of empty chairs). The bride claims that she's learning about different traditions — like the feeding of taffy to female in-laws — but her understanding feels superficial at best. I don't know that the groom learned anything at all. Frankly, this is probably the least interesting of the minisodes.

Where the movie kicks into weird overdrive is with the final section: Here are young couple are part of a newlywed party that tours a resort island where they travel by bus from photo op to photo op, happily posing (and drinking) along the way. Interviewed afterwards, they talk about this constructed reality as if it were truly a happier time when we already know it's really a facsimile of happiness. Chilling? In a way. It would be much creepier though if the cinematography were better throughout.

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?