June 2, 2018

Two Families in Haeun-dong: Worst Neighbors Ever

The disheartening domestic drama Two Families in Haeun-dong may be the most depressing North Korean movie that I've ever seen. No one is killed, no blood is spilt, no one's health is compromised, no fortunes are lost and yet this stridently pseudo-socialist film has disturbed me to the core. I should've known something was amiss simply by the atypically sexist way that the women are portrayed. Korean movies — North and South — can be generally lauded for depicting female characters who not only can hold their own with men but are rarely helpless victims of them. But here, the two main ladies (a touring pop singer and a gushy tour guide) are defined primarily as wives (though oddly much less so as mothers despite having a child each). Both are married to men who are scientists: One man is kind to his wife and daughter; the other treats his spouse as maid and his son as a distraction. Guess which one turns out to be the admirable one? Apparently, valuing family is antithetical to valuing the party. The true patriot devotes himself fully to the cause or, if that patriot is a woman, to supporting the man in his efforts to further the party agenda.

And so, when the cold-hearted husband (who one suspects at times might be having a gay affair with a co-worker so unmoved is he by his wife's needs and charms) is revealed to be a workaholic quick to spew jingoistic propaganda, the entire community in the apartment building rallies around him to support his efforts while his kinder, sweeter male counterpart falls in stature and is labeled a hedonist. After all, what could be more decadent than ordering a second beer? And why isn't anyone commenting on what appears to be persistent, stress-related herpes sores on the lower lips of the brainwashed drone and the neighbor's wife (who has come to idealize him). Is no one worried about parents — respected and reviled — who shove their pre-teen children to the ground whenever the grown-ups become overly frustrated? Does the world really revolve around a welding gun that doesn't use nickel? Two Families in Haeun-dong is like The Stepford Wives reprogrammed for communist indoctrination.

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