September 29, 2017

Ask Yourself: Patriotism Up North

"When your hair turns gray, you look back at your past and ask yourself the question: What have you done for the future generation? What have you done for the mother country?"

So starts Pak Jong-ju's North Korean film Ask Yourself and while you might immediately write off this brief introductory voiceover as pure propaganda, I'd like to request that you, my fellow gray-haired readers, ask yourselves this very question. Put aside concerns about which brand of yogurt is going to help you live the longest and which frying pan surface is least likely to lead to early-onset Alzheimer's. Stop looking at your life as a contest about who can rack up the most number of years and instead embrace your remaining time as an opportunity to do good for those we are leaving behind? As to your relationship to your country, can you please drop the "lower taxes" concern for just a moment and ask yourself how you might make the nation better and more worthy of your pride? It's been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." You can almost hear the knee-jerk response of most people today being simply: "Why?"

Viewed from this perspective, Ask Yourself is a timely, bucolic bit of agit-prop as it confronts personal hypocrisies and the destructive force of egoism while also honoring the beauty of self-sacrifice and the warmth of community. To its credit, its two heroes — a team leader on a government farm and a restless young woman who fears she's throwing her life away there — aren't fully formed ideals we're expected to emulate. They're self-deluding human beings who learn the hard way where their own flaws lie. The happy endings that arrive for both of them may try the nerves of the cynics but when didn't an upbeat movie require some suspension of disbelief.

September 26, 2017

O Youth!: A Romcom for Athletic Women

I don't know if they have elevator pitches in the North Korean film industry but if they did, I imagine if there was some sleazy male producing making one for O Youth, it would go something like this:

"See, there's this dad with five daughters. He always wishes he'd been a professional athlete but didn't have the talent so his kids are living out his fantasy: One's a swimmer, one's a basketball player, one's a soccer player, and one's a weight lifter. That's only four? Oh, make the fifth one — I don't know — a rhythm gymnast. That's cool, right. But there's a problem in the family. No, the mom's not dead. She simply doesn't like girls to be athletic. So when their one son who's not an athlete — interesting, right? — falls in love with a woman, mom wants to make sure his prospective bride is super-femme. Like an embroiderer. You know, a fancy seamstress. Yeah, exactly. But what she doesn't know is that the needlepoint lady is actually a world-class tae kwon do champion. Exactly, we can talk about why it's such a cool sport and how she's doing it all for the generals. Or the great leaders. Whoever you want.

"How do they find out she's not a seamstress? Hmm. That's a very good question. Well, we could have some thugs attack the guy and have her defend him. That's kind of hot. True. Mom wouldn't be around. But she could attend a big tae kwon do match and see the girl in action. What do you mean, what is she doing there? Who doesn't want to see a tae kwon do match? It's like our football or our baseball. We're saving the best sport for her. And we can even have her look like she's going to lose at first and then kick some serious butt. So what do you think? Sure we can find a role for your girlfriend. There's five sisters after all. She's too old? Then we'll add a nosy neighbor. What comedy doesn't have nosy neighbor? So is it a deal? What do you mean you've got to think about it. It's flawless."

And in a way, he's kind of right.

September 20, 2017

Lighthouse: How Far Would You Go

Self-sacrifice doesn't appear to hold much value in the United States these days. It used to be touted as an ideal. Now we value money. Money and power. That's it. Any self-serving, criminal, amoral behavior can be absolved if an eventual paycheck is big enough. So when you see a North Korean movie like Lighthouse in which some regular Joe gives up all creature comforts and a "normal" life just so he can man do his small part for the Communist Party, well, you're likely to label him as certifiably insane. No one would do this. No one. He must be hiding something. He's probably got an underground brothel that traffics white slaves or is a drug runner with a big yacht in international waters. The greater good? Never heard of it.

When did "do the right thing" start triggering an eye roll? Why did we collectively begin to doubt that someone might want to do something positive without personal benefit? How do we get back to morality? I don't know what else to call it. I understand why people write off North Korean films like Lighthouse as kooky propaganda created under the watchful eye of a crazy leader who oversees one of the few nuclear arsenals in the world. But could we also, for a moment, acknowledge, that we could do with a few message films that speak to ideals. When did the high road disappear?

The best of our good guys are superheroes — mutants from outer space or trillionaires whose hobby is crime fighting. In a way, they make goodness the domain of the strange. Which is why I liked the simplicity of Lighthouse. I wouldn't want to live in North Korea — with its fascist government and culture of paranoia, its famine and mind control — but America is further than ever from paradise. I'd be willing to live with the antiquated barber tools of Lighthouse if it promised some old-fashioned values as well as a more consistent follow through of walking the walk that goes with the talk.

September 11, 2017

The Other Side of the Mountain: Why Does He Love Her

To refer to Son-ah (Kim Hyang Suk) "noble" would be a bit of an understatement. As her North Korean town's first homegrown nurse, we see her suck the blood and pus out of the throat of an ailing child, draw blood from her own arm to aid in the recuperation of a weakened young man, and pluck out pieces of shrapnel from an unconscious soldier's face with a pair of tweezers. Factor in her subsisting on the dregs of the porridge so others can eat a full bowl, and you'd be hard-pressed to come out with many other movie characters as self-sacrificing as her. Complicated she is not.

Yet you get the feeling that Il-gyu (Kim Ryung Min), the AWOL soldier who falls in love with Son-ah, is mainly drawn to her rosy cheeks and her maidenly manner, and that her strength of character is somewhat of an afterthought, although, to his credit that changes over time. But it's a lot of time to effect the change — decades in fact — as Il-gyu goes in search of his mom at the end of the war, reunites with his childhood pal (who's now missing half a leg), gets involved in some black market trading, and then heads over to Amsterdam to study to be a surgeon. Only after he's done his residency and established in his profession does he actually make it back to North Korea for a conference... wiser and richer but with a heavy heart.

Once he's landed in Pyongyang, he asks a cheery conference worker to track down his beloved — which she does. You can imagine his stupefaction when he discovers that not only has she stayed single while waiting for his promised return but she's also founded and runs a hospital architecturally modeled after a wood carving he'd made right before he left. Now that's devotion!

Footnote: Directed by Korean-American Joon Bai, The Other Side of the Mountain was co-produced by companies form North Korea and the USA!

September 10, 2017

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time: Buoyant Slime

Choi Min-sik's career encompasses a rogues' gallery worth of tough guys: the serial killer in I Saw the Devil, the title character in The Admiral, the washed-up pugilist in Crying Fist, and — perhaps most hauntingly — the vigilante/victim in Park Chan-wook's messed-up masterpiece Oldboy. Yet as tough as all these guys were, Choi's character in Nameless Gangster could probably beat them all. It's not that he's physically stronger, more intellectually limber, or naturally bloodthirstier. It's simply that he's a shameless slime-ball who backstabs like nobody's business, an evil Everyman with a chip on his shoulder. Never has an ingratiating laugh felt more like a secret weapon.

Indeed there's something so believably sleazy about Choi Ik-hyun, the wheeling and dealing gangster played by the actor, that your disgust rises and rises each time he gets out of another jam by screwing somebody else over. His one-upmanship of a younger, more seasoned gangster (Ha Jung-woo) is ingenious; his self-serving coercion of his brother-in-law (Ma Dong-seok) into a life of crime is heartless; his outmaneuvering of an ambitious prosecutor (Kwak Do-won) is infuriating. When you're loyal to none, evidently, there's no place to go but up! As the old adage goes: "Poop floats."

Writer-director Yun Jong-bin has presented us with an uncomfortably cynical point of view of every level of society: the judicial system, the police department, organized crime, the workplace, your family, your hometown, you name it. And yet, despite Choi's continual deceits, at no point do you feel, "Oh this could never happen" or "someone would have caught on by now." We've all lived with and/or worked with reprehensible success stories like Choi's double-dealer. He's our relative, our boss, our elected official, our next door neighbor, our social studies teacher. Humanity is horrible.