2019년 10월 26일 토요일

Bong Joon-ho's PARASITE(2019): A Parable for Our Polarized World-- Special Review

PARASITE 기생충. South Korea, 2019. A Barunson E&A Co. Production, distributed by CJ Entertainment/NEON. Aspect ratio 2.35:1. 2 hours 12 minutes. Director: Bong Joon Ho 봉준호 . Screenwriters: Han Jin-won 하진원, Bong Joon Ho. Cinematography: Alex Hong Kyung Pyo 홍경표. Production Design: Ha-jun Lee 이하준. Costume Design: Choi Se-yeon 최세연. Special Effects Makeup: Hwang Hyo-kyun 황효균. Music: Jung Jae-il 정재일. Editor: Yang Jin-mo 양진모. Executive Producers: Miky Lee, Park Myeong-chan, Heo Min-hei, Bang Ok-kyung. Producers: Jang Young-hwan, Kwak Sin-ae, Moon Yang-kwon, Lee Joo-hyun.

CAST: Song Kang-ho 송강호
(Kim Ki-taek), Choi Woo-sik 최우식 (Kim Ki-woo ), Park So-dam 박소담 (Kim Ki-jung), Jang Hye-jin 장혜진 (Kim Chung-sook), Jo Yeo-jeong 조여정 (Park Yeon-kyo), Lee Sun-kyun 이선균 (Park Dong-ik), Jung Ji-so 정지소 (Park Da-hye), Lee Jeong-un 이정은 (Moon-gwang), Park Myung-hoon 박명훈 (Moon-gwang’s Husband), Park Seo-joon 박서준 (Min-hyuk), Jung Hyun-joon 정현준 (Park Da-song).

Note: Our intrepid editor Darcy Paquet is scheduled to contribute a formal review of this 2019 Palm d’Or winner for Koreanfilm.org, so be sure to check it out when it goes up. In the meantime, I have decided to write my own take on it from the perspective of a Korean culture/history instructor working in a US academic institution. Think of it as an alternative take!

I was intrigued but not really surprised to find interesting differences in the receptions of Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature film, between U.S. and British (and presumably European) critics. Peter Bradshaw’s review for The Guardian, for instance, makes a reference to a “modern-day Downton Abbey upstairs-downstairs situation,” immediately connecting the film to the well-established genre in which the servant class and the aristocrats served by them are main pro- and antagonists. He calls the film “creepy” and “bizarre,” too, perhaps acknowledging that he primarily sees its unfolding story from the POV of the upper-crust Park family, clandestinely and insidiously being subject to an “invasion of lifestyle snatchers,” the hardscrabble Kims.

Is Parasite truly horror-film creepy in the way, say, Jordan Peele’s Us is? After all, it is a story about ruthlessly manipulative members of lumpenproletariat, conning and cheating its way into the various service professions— an English tutor for the daughter, an art therapist for the unruly son, a seasoned personal chauffeur, and a patient, efficient housekeeper— upon whom the Parks, ensconced in an architecturally prominent house with vast glass walls and blindingly green, impeccably manicured lawn, utterly depend, in order to maintain their so-called comfortable lives. There is no question about it: the poverty-stricken Kims do an impressively meticulous job in pulling the wool over the collective eyes of the Parks, and a large part of the film's (guilty) pleasures are derived from watching the gullible and attention-deficit Parks haplessly suckered into the Kim's web of deception.

And yet, what is refreshing about the Kims and Parks, and not at all odd given director Bong's disposition that does not necessarily sit comfortably with the traditional “left” designation, is that neither of them are monsters or even easily deridable comic caricatures. Kims, while seething with class resentment that manifest themselves almost unconsciously (including a jolting act of violence in the climax tied to that “subway riders's smell”), are actually competent (or could fake competency so well that, socially speaking, it is virtually impossible to differentiate between their “fake” skills and “real” ones) and end up genuinely helping the Parks.

Ki-woo, who starts the ball rolling by faking his college credentials to be hired as a fill-in for his high school buddy Min-hyuk, turns out to be a sensitive English teacher sympathetic to the ennui and anger suffered by Da-hye, Park's high schooler daughter. His wickedly sharp-tongued sister Ki-jung quickly deduces that her charge, Native American-obsessed preteen Da-song, had suffered a psychological trauma of sorts. Even the ordinarily uncouth Mr. Kim turns out to be an experienced chauffeur who knows how to put his boss at ease with the right mixture of flattery and flashes of genuine understanding. Despite their foul mouths and con artist's flair for supercilious grins and other acts of deference, the Kims, instead of blaming or lashing out as in a conventional Korean comedy or drama, display much appreciation and respect for one another, even when things inevitably go south.

The Parks, for their part, are indeed shallow and self-absorbed, but, Bong, without giving them sob-story backgrounds to force the audience sympathy, a standard tactic employed by Korean TV dramas, humanizes them through subtle characterization. The most attention-grabbing character is Mrs. Park, half-contemptuously (but stunningly accurately, as we find out) described in English by Min-hyuk as “young and simple.” She is abjectly ridiculous in her Konglish-spouting monologues, yet is in her own way attractively vulnerable and visibly struggling with internal demons: Mrs. Park is like a Disney princess safely deposited in a glass castle on top of a hill by her Prince Charming, befuddled that her Happily Ever After life is so boring and meaningless and entirely not sure what she could do to remedy this situation.

The film makes a couple of quite surprising turns (avoid spoilers!) in the narrative, yet it never hitches onto a finger-pointing, ideologically certified strategy of demonizing the wealthy and transforming the poor into tragic, heroic figures. Like in many great films about real life, we find our sympathies torn into many directions, often simultaneously feeling disgust and compassion toward its personages. In the end, neither Parks nor Kims really deserve what happens to them, yet Bong infuses his film with a clear-eyed sense of how denial of complex, often painful truths (“keeping it all smooth and wrinkle free,” as Chung-sook, the Kim matriarch, points out, is what wealth enables one to do: “money is the best iron you can buy”) could only lead to further problems, eventually escalating into real tragedies. Faced with the ugly, convoluted truths, we still resort to finding the right scapegoats, Bong suggests, rather than sorting through them collectively.

Bong and Park Chan-wook by now maintain unshakable and wholly deserving worldwide reputations as not only master stylists but also brilliant actor's directors. Bong has always extracted amazing, unique performances from his non-star actors— Byun Hee-bong in Barking Dogs Never Bite, Park No-shik as a mentally incapacitated sex crime suspect in Memories of Murder, Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja, among others— but Parasite is a veritable banquet of great performances, all perfectly pitched to that level of slightly off-kilter realism. The actors are so good and so well attuned to Bong's guidance that they make the film's unusually clever and droll dialogue exchanges – like the “young and simple” description quoted above, even the film's supposedly cringe-inducing interjections of English phrases and words have added layers of meaning— come alive in the way that completely distinguishes it from other South Korean films.

Song Kang-ho, one of New Korean Cinema's essential stars and by now probably recognizable by many American art-house fans, is wonderfully subdued and, as he did in some other projects, generously provides bouncing boards for the young actors playing his children, Choi Woo-sik (Train to Busan) and Park So-dam (The Silenced, The Priests), as well as the veteran theater and indie actress Jang Hye-jin (Poetry) as his kick-ass wife. Among the Parks the critical consensus has predictably singled out Jo Yeo-jeong's (The Servant, The Target and numerous TV dramas) performance as a standout. An actress often typecast in “sexy adult” roles, Jo, under Bong's careful orchestration, conveys layers of inner complexity behind Mrs. Park's socially approved superficiality. She is so good, in fact, that we are genuinely disappointed that we never learn what happened to her character in the film's bittersweet, and some might say, surrealistic coda.

Even though Parasite is a relatively small-scale film in that it mainly takes place in two locations (the production budget is pegged at around 13.5 billion won or appx. 11 million dollars: in comparison, the 2018 South Korean average was 7.9 billion won), it boasts the kind of visual opulence and lived-in detail, masterminded by production designer Lee Ha-joon (Believer) and DP Alex Hong Gyeong-pyo (Burning, Snowpiercer), that we are used to seeing in a top-rank Hollywood production. Astonishingly, both the Park's glass castle on the top of the hill and the Kim's grimy sub-basement abode, both so strikingly realized that you could almost smell the herb potpourri fragrance from the former and the improperly dried wet rag stink from the latter, were not real locations but film sets constructed from the scratch. Even jazz-bassist Jung Jae-il's (Okja, Haemoo) keyboard-based score is suitably sophisticated and restrained, never directly mickey-mousing the emotional outbursts or suspenseful narrative turns.

Parasite is a supremely controlled piece of cinematic art, with Bong's characteristic attention to detail, stylistic innovation and compassionate disposition for his quirky personages all not only intact but upgraded to the next level. The film is hellaciously entertaining (and perhaps equally disturbing) for many South Korean viewers who might recognize one or more real-life figures around them very much like Kim or Park family members, but it clearly has a wider appeal, as polarization of economic classes and the accompanying modes of social conduct-- hyper-competition, denial of reality, both enforced through social media and pharmaceutically-induced stupor, and absurd, illogical ruptures of violence-- have become very visible global phenomena. Parasite is not necessarily more “serious” than Bong's other masterpieces-- Mother and Memories of Murder, to name two-- but it is indisputably a work of a master filmmaker, fine-honing his skills to the point where he, like a fabled chef, could eviscerate a fish so fast that it would swim around in a tub not realizing its guts have been taken out.

Can we use it in class? To start off, Parasite presents an opportunity to discuss the powerful sense of dual polarization (yanggeuk-hwa 両極化) between the haves and have-nots pervading the contemporary South Korean society, especially since the global economic crisis of 2008. It is open to academic analysis whether this type of severe inequality had really become so much more pronounced in 2010s compared to 1990s or 2000s, but many Koreans today subjectively feel that one's economic class is increasingly determined by their birthrights instead of talents or diligence. An ironic twist on the expression “born with a silver spoon in one's mouth” has given rise to the term “earth spoon,” indicating that some Koreans are born into families who simply could not rise up the ladder of social mobility, no matter how hard they try. The younger generation, Ki-woo's cohorts in the film, certainly appear to feel that their economic fortunes have declined in comparison to those of their parents: lacking the racial-ethnic minorities they could vent their frustrations and free-floating resentments toward, some of them alarmingly appear to target women, turning virulently anti-feminist and misogynist.

Bong and company's exploration of this issue, however, is never sensationalistic and impressively non-judgmental, all the while refusing to hide behind melodramatic conventions. At the same time, the film's acute and masterful evocation of the real-life details has the effect of drawing the viewers into the narratives of the Kims and/or Parks. While the film is primarily appropriate for teaching about South Korean society and cinema, I can easily see how its character dynamics and narrative would resonate with non-Korean viewers/students, especially those from the younger generation, who could be either “protected” from the harsher realities of the global economy as the Park children are, or very much exposed to them as the Kim children are.

Undergraduates could be assigned one or more academic studies, in the disciplines of sociology, political science or contemporary history, to contextualize the behaviors of Kims and Parks. In terms of cultural/cinematic studies, Parasite is such a well-designed film that one could also mount a visually-oriented class in which the starkly different two “homes” of Kims and Parks were compared and contrasted in terms of their spatial relationship to the film's themes and narrative strategy. 

2019년 8월 4일 일요일

K-Pop Rising: (Re) introducing the K-pop Music Video Reviews for Koreanfilm.org

In conjunction with the revitalization of K-pop (it is sometimes spelled "k-pop" but, like Germans, I prefer capitalization for country and regional names, so I will stick by K-pop) music video reviews for Koreanfilm.org, I am uploading a brief piece of (re)introduction, mostly catching up with the (for the fans and industry folks) super-exciting development of the last three years or so. It is not meant to be an academic history of the K-pop in the last half-decade, but a rambling thought piece, from a very subjective viewpoint of a "386 generation" Korean academic teaching Japanese and Korean history and culture in a California public university.

          As most of you reading this would know very well by now, K-pop has had its moments of unprecedented global recognition, especially in the US, long considered to be the toughest market to infiltrate, in the last two years or so. For many years, it was the girl groups-- Wonder Girls, Girl's Generation and most notably 2NE1-- who had their turns in trying to penetrate the mainstream US market.  Even though Wonder Girl's "Nobody" did show up in Billboard Hot 100 at the 76 rank in 2009, and 2NE1, managed by the California-based Live Nation, did pull off a well-attended and well-reviewed world tour, stopping over at key American cities in 2012, they did not quite succeed in fulfilling their goals.  Sadly, 2NE1, who many critics agreed were the most likely candidate for breaking into the US market, was crippled by its host company YG's mishandling of an alleged scandal for one of its members, Park Bom, and the subsequent defection of another member, Gong Minzy, leading to its disbandment in 2015. It must be said that YG's Big Bang and 2NE1 were, among the so-called second generation K-pop idols, key recognition figures for a large number of non-Asian fans.  You can read many testimonies in the internet about how these two groups-- and their iconoclastic music videos such as BB's "Fantastic Baby" and 2NE1's "I am the Best"-- constituted their first serious exposure to the K-pop as we understand it today. 

          Of course, we should not forget Psy and his "Gangnam Style," which in retrospect was a one-shot wonder more like "Macarena" than a meaningful exposure to the Korean style of pop music, but its prodigious popularity did contribute to the possibility of a Korean musical artist hawking his wares to the world without having to significantly alter his identity. Psy's song was mostly in Korean, and his in-jokes about the "South of River (Gangnam)" region of Seoul were difficult to fully understand unless you were a Korean. But in the case of "Gangnam Style's" gargantuan popularity, these factors really did not seem to matter.

          The Gangnam Style phenomenon also pointed to the rising power of YouTube and viral communication in the internet. The K-pop fandom continued to grow, and despite lack of representation in the American mainstream news media, including radio and TV, the fans continued to support K-pop artists through clicking on the YouTube MV play and "like" buttons, circulating and sharing information on social media, and downloading and streaming their music in the then-non-traditional and up-and-coming venues such as iTunes and Spotify.  As is well documented by scholars and industry analysts, the current rulers of K-pop, Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boys) or BTS, turned out to be the premier beneficiary of this new global trend in music consumption. 

-- A happy crowd gathered at the 2019 K-Con, Prudential Center, New York City. This massive convention of K-pop, this year held again in LA, is ironically (actually not ironical at all) sponsored by Toyota. 

          Of course, this is not to say the boys had it easy: far from it.  Originally considered a second-tier boy group from a small production company Big Hit (overshadowed by the three giants, YG, JYP and SM), BTS has persisted since their debut in 2013, interweaving their adolescent anger against the hypocrisies of the adult Korean society, and later their own self-doubt and anxiety as a flock of fledgling idols, into their music and videos, keeping their social media presence (including their V-live video logs of their daily lives) afloat, diligently and warmly reaching out to their fandom, called ARMY, whenever possible, and, perhaps most importantly, remaining independent artists in spirit and practice, refusing to bow down to the prospective committee decisions about their future direction, such as, for example, how to appeal to the English-speaking viewers. Although RM, a.k.a. Kim Nam-joon, the leader of BTS, has an extremely impressive command of English (check out his stirringly poetic yet beautifully streamlined English-language speech delivered at the United Nations in September 2018, as a part of UNICEF's Generation Unlimited initiative), the group has not really consciously "adapted" themselves to the US "standards," whatever they might be. 

          All this, again as many of you already know, culminated in the BTS's three consecutively released albums, Love Yourself: Tear, Love Yourself: Answer and Map of the Soul: Persona topping the Billboard 200 chart in less than eleven months-- a feat previously achieved by none other than, and no one other than, the Beatles. At this point, one is compelled to acknowledge either that BTS is as "mainstream" among Americans as Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, or that ARMY's power is simply unparalleled in the history of popular entertainment known to the mankind. Either way, it is an unprecedented situation for the Korean culture in the entirety of the nation's history.  

          Already we are passing through the halfway point of 2019, and quite a few K-pop groups-- Blackpink from YG, NCT from SM, TWICE from JYP, all one might be able to call "upgraded versions" of their companies' previously popular groups, not to mention notable crews and bands such as Monsta X, K.A.R.D. and GOT7 are at this moment eagerly sprinting on the paths blazed by BTS (and, before them, by Wonder Girls, 2NE1 and others) and poised to make their names known to the ever-expanding global audiences/viewers, now including super-enthusiastic already-converted-fans of the United States, thinking nothing of scream-chanting entire Korean-language songs of the group they "stan" from memory.  As someone who has lived the last three decades in the US listening to American sports writers spouting borderline racist bullcrap about how "soccer" is really not a game for full-bloodied American boys, and film industry wags writing that Steven Segal movies always play well in Asia because they "don't have to read the subtitles to know what's going on," I would say this is a huge improvement for American cultural literacy.

          Of course, as the K-pop industry becomes more and more successful and globalized, the shady side of its business-- human rights abuses of its young artists, sexual or otherwise, financial scams, drug problems-- is increasingly coming into the world's spotlight as well.  One of the three corporate giants, YG Entertainment, for instance, was hard hit by a drug-induced-rape and prostitution scandal involving one of its more successful artists, Big Bang's Seungri. Successively hit by other exposures regarding the company's mishandling and whitewashing of the problems of its artists, YG's head Yang Hyun-suk had to step down, although it is unclear whether the prosecution would be serious about getting to the bottom of the muck. Whenever these types of scandals blow up in East Asian societies, it tends to be the hapless artists and performers who get thrown under the bus by the powers-that-be and the politically well-connected. I wish I could be proven as overly cynical, but I am not holding my breath.  

          Another question that remains fascinating but potentially anxiety-inducing for the industry is the K-pop's ambivalent relationship with Japan.  It is no secret that a large portion of the (especially initial phases of) Korean Wave has been sustained by the Japanese consumers. Most K-pop artists still release Japanese-language albums and songs as a matter of course: it would be foolish not to, given that Japan's music market is about six times larger than that of Korea. Yet the K-pop's popularity in Japan has always been negatively affected by the downturns in political winds, often instigated by the leaders of both nations who clearly benefit from stoking hostilities of this kind (see, for instance, the Asahi TV's sudden cancelation of BTS's scheduled appearance in November 2018 following the discovery that a member once wore a T-shirt seemingly equating the "liberation" of Korea with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: I might discuss this episode separately in a later installment, as this provides in my view an excellent teachable moment).  However, browsing the Japanese-language cultural news aside from those emanating from the mainstream media such as Sankei shinbun or NHK, one gets a strong impression that K-pop's popularity in Japan has not really declined as the latter media outlets claim.  In fact, many young Japanese girls and boys are actively familiarizing themselves with the Korean consumer/popular culture, learning Korean language not because they want to use it for career advancement but because it is "cool" (of course, the world in which any meaningful difference between these two-- "good for your career" and "cool"-- becomes non-existent is right there at the doorstep, or maybe even be already here).  Some even enroll in Korea-based training centers, dreaming one day to become internationally renowned K-pop singers (and indeed they have more than a few glamorous role models, most famously the beautiful and talented trio Myoi Mina, Minatozaki Sana and Hirai Momo of TWICE). 

-- TWICE members pose for their Japanese single "Breakthrough" PR shot. 

I was stunned to learn that, following the celebrated formation of the Japan-Korean hybrid girl group IZ*ONE, two members of the Japan's most popular "idol" group, AKB48, Takahashi Juri and Takeuchi Miyu, who had not won the televised competition for selecting members of  IZ*ONE, left Japan to start their careers anew as K-pop singers/idols.  In both cases, they had been the members of AKB48 for eight to ten years, frankly most of their teenage lives: they were willing to depart from such long-standing commitments to pursue their dreams in Korea.  Will this "reverse flow" of the talent eventually fade away, proving itself a temporary trend?  Only time will tell, but as an interested observer (in the sense that I am, unlike the majority of Korean men of my age group, an active listener of K-pop) I advise those in both sides of the Pacific not to underestimate the resilience and adaptability of K-pop.  K-pop or Korean cinema is not Republic of Korea: in fact, it has always been bigger than a mere nation-state, but now more so than ever (And kindly do not start mansplaining to me about the allegedly inherently exploitative nature of K-pop or Japanese idol industry. I am well aware of sexism, racism, ageism and other issues pertinent to the cultural sector. Why don't you try to help your female colleague/friend being caught in a MeToo situation and to fight homophobia, racism and discrimination against transgendered persons in your own sector-- academia, corporate world, medicine, jurisprudence? Frankly, there is so much stuck-up hypocrisy in the way Koreans-- East Asians in general, perhaps-- look down on the enter industry).

All right then, let me unfurl more of my observations and opinions through concrete reviews of select K-pop music videos, some popular, others not-so-popular. Let us begin with NCT 127's Simon Says and Stray Kids's Chronosaurus.

2019년 4월 27일 토요일

Solidarity in Facing the Future- Interview with Ms. Hong Hyewon, a Korean Volunteer in Malawi, on THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND

Helping us appreciate The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a special guest, Ms. Hong Hyewon, with a unique experience of having worked in Malawi as a young South Korean volunteer. Ms. Hong is an undergraduate student at Sogang University, majoring in French Culture and Political Science. A Korean native, she has studied French, English, Japanese, Arabic languages and learned the basic command of Chichewa to work for the Africa Future Foundation in Malawi in 2017. Since January 2019, she has been volunteering at a Korean shelter service for international refugees, many of whom Africans, called Refuge pNan.

The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in April 19, 2019 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Hong Hyewon and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact  Ms. Hong for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “H” indicates Ms. Hong.

Q: My first question relates to the issue I have raised in the review, that William Kamkwamba's initial accomplishment, amazing as it was, was, in real life, not directly tied to the dramatic alleviation of drought as illustrated in the film. Perhaps this level of dramatization was necessary to get the project off the ground.  What do you think about this issue?
H: Right, as you have indicated in the review, this is a question of representation versus reality. I have read Kamkwamba's book [the source for the film], and he does state that the primary motivation for building the windmill generator was to get electricity for his home.
Q: I should state that the need for electricity and illumination, so that one could study at home in the nighttime, does not strike me in any way as less “important” or “desperate” than running a water pump, in the real-life context wherein someone like Kamkwamba found himself.
H: I absolutely agree. I think the irrigation pump was a dramatic device, in a way, to make Kamkwamba's “eccentric” behavior ultimately meaningful for those around him, to show that his accomplishments could benefit the community he belonged to.
Q: I see. So, he had to demonstrate to the community that his projects were not just for himself.
H: Right. And also to show those outside the local community that this type of engineering feat could be done with the meagre resources available within. I think the compressed narrative and dramatization strategy Ejiofor employs was necessary, generally speaking. Otherwise, his messages might not have been conveyed with the kind of urgency and strength seen in the film.
Q: It is worth noting that his peers and friends were the most sympathetic members within his community.
H: Yes, not only in the movie, but also in the Kamkwamba's book on which the film is based, William's cousin Jeffrey and Gilbert, the Chief of Wimbe's son, were early and important supporters of his endeavors. 

Q: What aspects of the Malawi culture and life that you had experienced and observed that you feel were not captured in the film? Or, this is perhaps a related question, what aspects of the Malawi culture you had observed that would have come across as different from what we usually expect from a film of this type?
H: Are we assuming the perspective of a typical Korean viewer?
Q: Well, you don't have to, but that is fine. We are both Koreans, after all [Laughter]. I suppose I could also take on the viewpoint of an American viewer, typical or whatnot.

H: Yes, well, I definitely am not an expert on the Malawi culture, so I hope the readers do not take my comments in that way. Having said that, to give an example, the scene in which the villagers gather together at Chief Wimbe's residence is a lot less like an American town hall meeting in real life than it perhaps appears in the film. The Chief's authority is complexly localized, and there are many types of protocols to follow.  I don't think we could simply assume that the locals would obey the chief's authority and decide what they would with the lands, either. The movie sort of collapses these forms of traditional authority into a series of symbolic depictions, and tends to focus on the individuals who already are "modernized" or being transformed into those in that mold, who could sell their lands essentially without the consent of their community.  So a village meeting is, for better or worse, not as simple as just a show of hands and then moving forward with everyone speaking their frank minds.   
Q: Before that the village meeting scene, I was not aware that Gilbert was Chief's son. William wants to attend the meeting too but he gets kicked out of it by his father [Laughter].
H: Yes, Gilbert is a designated heir to the village's leadership so he is given the privilege to attend the meeting. I thought it was clever for the film to point to the boy's privileged identity through that scene.

Q: Can we touch on a bit more personal dimension, in terms of resonances between Kamkwamba's experiences and your own?
H: Yes, well, I feel that William Kamkwamba had an orientation toward scientific inquiry and Western modes of thinking to start with, and possessed both an ability and a drive to look for opportunities and colleagues who could help him navigate through the complex processes of negotiating with his own society and culture.  At Malawi I did observe some startling cases of the old traditions and these scientific, modern orientations co-existing-- some folks resisting blood tests because they believed that the samples might be used for occult purposes, for instance. Having said that, his father's contradictory behavior in the film-- wanting his son to go to school and “succeed,” and yet stick to traditional values of-- in the film, at least-- a farmer, deeply resonated with my own ambivalent feelings. 
Q: As I have mentioned in my review, Chiwetel Ejiofor could have portrayed Trywell as his son's only or one of the few “supporters,” but I think he goes an extra mile to reject that kind of triumphalist characterization. Instead, he attempts to illustrate the difficulty, on the part of Trywell or someone like him, of adapting to a new world. In a conventional narrative, the obtuse and the unenlightened are either proven completely wrong at the end, or they get “enlightened” by the protagonists at the drop of their hats. This is not what happens in the film.
H: No, it's never that simple. I think colonial and postcolonial modernization of Malawi, mediated through the educational system of the British empire, has not really closed the gap between the “traditional” and the “modern” components of the nation. This is a bigger issue than merely a difference in wealth between upper and lower classes.

Q: I do not believe this type of dilemma was that different from the one that faced South Koreans, as late as in '80s. I believe many among democratic activists of my generation-- so-called the “386” generation, a term that I dislike but keep using, I plead guilty to that-- sometimes inadequately dealt with the gap between what they intellectually understood as “enlightenment” and “social revolution” as members of the elite classes and what the rural population actually wanted, during the former's encounters with the latter during a phase of agrarian activism (so-called nonghwal).  For the farmers, “enlightenmentdid not necessarily mean learning how a world capitalist system worked, but learning such "mundane" stuff as how to keep the book properly, how to get loans without being cheated, or even how to get better transportation, sometime as simple as learning to ride a bicycle better.
H: Oh, what you just said reminds me of the case studies in Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo's Poor Economics. During my sojourn there, one of the strategies for inducing Malawi children to go to schools was to hand out soaps to them.
Q: Tell me about that.
H: We did a brainstorm session with the local project assistants to figure out the reasons for the children dropping out from schools and expressing reluctance to attend them. I eventually learned that the reasons were quite diverse: sometimes they had to skip school because they were too poor, but at other times they were ostracized for being dirty, or not clothed well.  Giving them bars of soap, change for buying clothes or sandals, or bags of salt or corn powder produced positive results in enhancing their “motivation.”

Q: I also feel that the kind of pat criticism directed to movies such as The Boy, to the tune of “Okay, so William Kamkwamba did make it, what about other children who had not have the kind of access to the knowledge he had?” really misses the point.  
H: I think I understand where such criticisms come from, but yes, I do agree that there is no shortage of the "motivated" people, once the kind of hurdles and obstacles more specific to the lived experiences are addressed.

Q: Can you talk a bit about Gule Wamkulu? Have you watched them perform?  
H: Yes, I did.
Q: Wow, tell me about that experience! [Laughter]
H: Well, not at a funeral. I watched them perform at the Kuti Wildlife Reserve in Salima, Malawi. They were introduced as Gypsy-like itinerant dancers.  Looking at their interaction with the tourists, I was reminded of the Korean masked dance troupe, who uses humor and satire to entertain the audience. And they were awesome: until watching them perform, I had never realized a human body could be shaken with so much energy and vigor.  And when they stamped their feet in rhythm, it was like an earthquake. But they demand money for their work, and from what I have observed, pretty on the nose, too.
Q: Well, why should it be otherwise?
H: Of course! [Laughter] In contrast to my first-hand experience, the Gule Wamkulu dancers in the film seem to function in similar ways to shamans and represent the tradition and community solidarity of Malawi.  In the early part of the film, they disrupt the Christian funeral rites led by a pastor, and the attendees cannot help but turn their gaze toward them, despite their professed beliefs in the new religion of the missionaries. They also seem to symbolize the natural world being displaced by the introduction of Western civilization and industrialism, as hinted in the scene where a lone dancer with a baby doll mask mysteriously gazes at William. William Kamkwamba's autobiography refers to the Gule Wamkulu several times: he actually sponsored their dance at a community gathering raising awareness for HIV/AIDS at one point.

Q: Anything else about the film that you have noticed you want to share?
H: I have visited Malawi during a wet season, so I have never experienced the wind the way it was depicted in the film. I felt that the wind was almost like a character in the film: the filmmakers did an excellent job of keeping it present throughout the feature, seguing into the climax where it is finally brought under control by Kamkwamba.  In addition, the struggle between Annie and Agnes I strongly sympathized with, in the sense that even very loving and intimate relationships could be affected by material needs in such a circumstance they faced together as a family. One element that struck me as somewhat--- I don't want to say unrealistic, but perhaps overly idealistic-- is Trywell speechifying his political discontent and hitching a truck ride to another town for the explicit purpose of helping an opposition party candidate. I heard sometimes that the locals describe themselves as complaisant, compared to their neighbors in Mozambique and Tanzania. The flip side of it is that perhaps what looks to some outsiders as indifference to democratic agitation might be, for Malawians, an ingredient of political stability. Given the horrible political struggles taking place in another African nation such as Democratic Republic of Congo, maybe we should not be so quick to judge them for "not being politicized enough."
Q: The industrialized sector is represented by tobacco companies in the film. Near the end of the film, Trywell talks ruefully about how he could have been a tobacco farmer, producing tobacco that “looks like milk chocolate.”
H: Based on what I have seen, the critical positions in the tobacco companies were largely occupied by foreigners such as South Africans. Similar to the case of peanuts cultivated in Senegal, tobacco is a commercial crop that needs to be sold in the market in order to be exchanged for other necessities, including foodstuffs. There is always a concern whether the downturns in the international market for commercial crops such as peanut, coffee and tobacco would become burdens on the shoulders of African farmers. Actually, while I was staying there, I had a chance to meet the former President of the Koreans in Malawi Association, married to a tobacco company VIP.
Q: Wow!
H: There were about 200 Koreans living in Malawi at that time. The oldest generation among Korean residents included those who had settled there during '70s working for the national highway construction projects.
Q: What an amazing level of global reach. The '60s-'70s "national" history of Korea must be rewritten.
H: And the former President was very well-off.  Her husband was indeed a South African, with their children going to colleges in Cape Town.  

Q: Let's return our talk to William Kamkwamba, or more precisely, the resonance between his life and yours. I know there is no one correct answer to a question like this, but if we determine that, even if you are a beneficiary of Euro-American higher education, it is important that you still maintain a form of local connection, how would you reconcile the desire to help those who remain in your local areas to the yearning to reach out to the larger world?  I know this question could be taken as a very personal one [Laughter].
H: Yes, well, it sounds very clichéd but I think solidarity and fighting together is the answer. [Laughter] Solidarity, as I interpret it, starts from finding, organizing and joining in with the like-minded people. But these days I also think a lot about self-preservation, trying not to push myself to the point that, if I happen to buckle from the outside pressure, I would then lose sight of my ideals. I think those who have gained new knowledge and insights should take care to communicate these things in the ways that make sense to those around them.
Q: Do you think William Kamkwamba has managed to resolve this dilemma?
H: Not necessarily. I think he still has many obstacles in the future to face, many hurdles to overcome. As he matures as a social person and a community leader, the issues that he will have to tackle will become bigger and more complex. How would, for instance, ESCOM, the dominant electricity company in Malawi, legally and politically respond to his initiative for self-producing electricity?  In other words, we should be careful not to simply stop at the level of recognizing, wow, there is this very smart young person in Africa doing some great engineering work, and recognize that there are always more things to be done, more problems to be solved.   

Q: Any final comment?
H: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a very inspiring and well-made film. I just wish that those who watch it, wherever they are, and whatever their backgrounds are, do not subscribe to the fantasy that the problems and the issues facing Kamkwamba, his community, Malawi and Africa were even partially resolved, when the movie ended. That is simply not true, as we have discussed above.  William's story is far from finished yet.  I sympathize with him, a brave and talented inventor-community-activist, but also see how tough his life could be from this point on.
Q: It will be a continued struggle with many issues, as your life is likely to be. So there is a feeling of solidarity in that sense between you two as well.
H: Yes!
Q: Thank you so much Hyewon, it was amazingly inspiring to talk to you.
H: Thank you, Professor Kim, for providing this wonderful opportunity to reflect on my experience in Malawi!