February 18, 2018

On the Green Carpet: Don't Leave Us, Coach!

What's the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a North Korean athlete? Winning the World Cup as a team? Taking home a medal at the Olympics as an individual? Playing in a good-will-ambassador basketball game with the United States initiated (then derailed) by Dennis Rodman? Nope! The top honor would be to perform in front of the "great leader" and to receive his praise. As such, this laurel is actually available to a wider array of athletes than those other options. But just like the Olympics or the World Cup or any other international sporting event, the expectations are going to be high. This isn't amateur hour or your local talent show, even if the audience is not the world (or even televised). Everyone is expected to push themselves to the limit even if that means doing a dozen more round-offs in a gymnastic routine, even if you're just a talented elementary school student who is one of hundreds performing in a giant stadium amid fireworks and flags.

The self-sacrificing, eternally single assistant coach who more or less runs the children's athletic club very much understands this as he bullhorns his way through the practices for an upcoming May Day celebration intended to honor Kim Jong-il. He makes the kids do prolonged headstands and drills them, lovingly, in an elaborate, physically demanding sequence meant to symbolize the stars of the universe revolving around the sun. If the science behind that idea sounds a bit off, well, so are the politics. And anyway, this is actually a love story between the assistant coach (who's mother died when he was a mere boy) and his new boss, the vice-chair of athletics (who was his gymnastics partner when they were children and somehow never knew about the untimely death of her partner's mom!). Their eventual pairing off seems predestined more than romantic. Like many North Korean love stories, co-directors Jon Kwang-il and Rim Chang-bom's On the Green Carpet keeps the heat low and the shared dogma high. If there's a gay subtext here about the bachelor coach, it's pretty buried.

February 6, 2018

Do You See Seoul?: Field Trip to Nostalgia

Does framing an event in the past immediately heighten the nostalgia factor? It would seem so from watching Do You See Seoul?, Song Dong-yoon's soft-focus memory drama about a well-intentioned, somewhat ineffectual school teacher (Lee Chang-hoon) who goes back to his hometown to heighten his recollections of a romanticized class trip to a cookie factory during his youth. It's hardly a warm-and-fuzzy excursion into his earlier carefree days, however, as a few of the children (himself and his young sister included) get lost, are repeatedly caught in the rain, and then eventually forced into some sort of weird child labor situation washing dishes for a cranky restaurant owner. Their own teacher and guardian (Oh Soo-ah) seems less alarmed at their sudden disappearance than she is dogged in her efforts to find them again. When she gets weepy, you sense she's more tired of walking than panicked the kids may be gone for good (and all that implies). I suppose, she could be considering that their home lives aren't so great — the parents are universally gossipy, cranky or drunk. Maybe getting lost would end up a good thing!

That's not the weirdest aspect of Do You See Seoul? either. What's stranger still is that its narrator — while clearly inspired by his elementary school instructor — is also unable to make a similar event happen at the school where he teaches, even as he's confronted by the harsh reality of one pupil whose mom appears to be dying of some disease. The kid desperately needs some joy! And whether that parent survives the summer break during which our protagonist journeys back to the island on which he grew up is also disturbingly unclear. It seems more than likely that this woman has died by the grim way in which the young student relates her supposed recovery via his "What I Did This Summer" story shared with the class. Perhaps the underlying message of this movie is don't let the tough stuff in life get you down. The world is a beautiful place which you can tell just by looking at the cinematography.