2021년 8월 9일 월요일

Depicting Korean History Beyond "Factual Accuracy"-- An Interview with Professor Ki Kyong-ryang on Representation of History in Contemporary Korean Cinema and TV Dramas

Having been teaching Korean and Japanese history at a wonderful American public university for more than 25 years, I have always been meaning to put up a series of discussions regarding representation of history in Korean and Japanese cinema. Those who have been following my Q Branch blog know that many of my reviews of the Korean and Japanese films have engaged with the question of whether they could serve as good educational texts for my students interested in learning about Korean and Japanese histories.  

With this entry, I seek to launch a new series of interviews with some real academic experts on Korean history and culture that go beyond the usual hair-splitting exercises on how “accurately” a particular work of New Korean Cinema reflects Korean history and culture.  The recent controversy regarding the hybrid-genre TV drama Joseon Exorcist [Joseon Gumasa, hereafter JE] which was abruptly cancelled by its home station, SBS, in March 2021 after airing only two episodes, I believe provides an entry point for tackling the complex question of the representation of history in New Korean Cinema. 

The first expert who had graciously agreed to an interview despite his busy schedule is Professor Ki Kyoung-ryang, Assistant Professor of Korean History at the Catholic University of Korea.  He received his Ph. D. in Korean history, specializing in ancient period, from Seoul National University in 2017, and is currently conducting research on the castle-towns of Goguryeo kingdom.  Professor Ki has always been interested in the close communication between professional historians and the general public: he is a regular panelist in the podcast group Maninmansaek Yeoksagongjakdan and has been one of the vocal critics of the chauvinistic pseudo-histories that have gained a good deal of popularity over the years.  

This interview was conducted on June 20, 2021, through Zoom.  It has been edited and somewhat shortened for clarity and economy. However, I have done my best to capture the actual flavor of the exchange we have had throughout this highly informative session. The contents of this interview are copyrighted to Professor Ki Kyoung-ryang and Koreanfilm.org.  Any citation or reproduction without an explicit permission of Professor Ki is forbidden and will be regarded as a breach of copyright laws as defined by the United States and South Korean courts.  “Q” refers to Kyu Hyun Kim and “K” refers to Professor Ki Kyoung-ryang in the subsequent text.

Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview despite your busy schedule! I found your writings regarding the convoluted and complex relationship between historical studies as an academic discipline and popular cultural presentation of Korean history extremely illuminating.  Your latest reflections on this issue were spurred by the abrupt cancellation of the TV drama due to the public outcry that it was “historically distorting” (waegok 歪曲) and subservient to the Chinese interests. I thought this unfortunate incident would mark an interesting occasion to examine this issue of the relationship between history and popular culture in the context of Korean cinema and TV dramas. Do you think the criticisms levelled at the drama were typical or somewhat unique? 
K: It is somewhat unique in the sense that this reflects a very recent trend. First, it was assumed that JE was reflecting the ideology behind the so-called Northeast Project (東北工程, short for Research Project on the History and Current State of the Northeast Borderlands, originally slated as a five-year plan between 2003 and 2007).  This project has angered many Koreans for its perceived treatment of Goguryeo, Pohai and other regions that Koreans consider as a part of their history as Northeastern borderlands of China. Throughout the subsequent decade, the Northeast Project has become a shorthand for Chinese arrogance and imperialistic intent among many Koreans. In truth, there is hardly any content in JE that explicitly promoted the Northeast Project.  However, the hostility directed at Chinese “appropriation” of Korean history, and in fact the underlying anger toward the imperialistic condescension implied in such behavior, happened to find a powerful vent through this episode.  One of the most controversial scenes set in an Euiju inn featured Korean characters eating what appeared to be Chinese food presented as “Korean” in a rather barbaric, brusque manner, provoking some viewers to see this as both misrepresentation of Korean culture as well as sly infiltration of Chinese-ness into a popular cultural product clearly set in Korea.    
Q: Generation gap may be a factor in this turn of events, don’t you think?
K: That certainly seems to be one of the reasons. The older generation probably does not quite understand how young South Koreans— those under 30s— take strong pride in the global success of their popular culture. And many among the latter are intensely aware how some Chinese pop cultural products seem to “copy” Koreans. 

An official poster for Joseon Exorcist.
Q: That is precisely the kind of behavior that Korean pop culture industry shamelessly used to indulge in three to four decades ago with Japanese pop culture. Comic books, TV variety shows…
K: Absolutely. Of course, Japan used to wholesale “copy” Hollywood and American pop culture, especially immediately after losing the Pacific War. The difference perhaps is that Chinese government, if not Chinese people, considers itself a “big nation” and many Koreans, who, like many other citizens of today’s world, tend to see the nations in terms of a hierarchical order, with Republic of Korea now at least in terms of affluence and cultural sophistication “ahead” of China, take a strong umbrage at this behavior.  There was in fact a Korean TV drama titled Mr. Queen [哲仁王后, 2020], which if I remember correctly was moderately successful.  However, there was some criticism of the drama at that time, because it was based on a Chinese source novel.  Its writer subsequently wrote JE and the critics quickly found a connection.  The station released an explanation that Chinese capital was not involved in producing the latter TV drama, but it was wholly inadequate in stemming the negative tide. 

Q: So, the “nationalistic” negative surge regarding JE is different from the familiar “nationalistic” animosity against Japan?
K: I think it is different. The latter tends to be tied to the issue of resolving the painful history of colonial experience. In contrast, the issue with JE is connected, I think, to the recent global success of the Korean popular culture and its incommensurability with what Koreans perceive as “hegemonic” behavior of the Chinese government as well as some among the Chinese population. In any case, the TV drama was more of a symbolic item, functioning as a lightning rod that attracted the powerful electric charge building up in the storm cloud of negative public opinion for some years.

Q: Most interesting.  Things have indeed shifted greatly since the times in which I had grown up in Seoul. Can we expand the scope of the discussion a bit, and inquire your opinions about the relationship between historical dramas (sageuk) and history as studied by academic historians as reflected in Korean cinema (and TV dramas) in the last decade and a half or so?
K: Broadly speaking, they have become more beautiful to look at, more aesthetically pleasing, better designed and materially better endowed.  Recent TV dramas appear to evince a stronger trend of moving away from the “realistic recreation of the past” model, mixing in deliberate anachronisms, fantastic elements and so on. But this trend is also discernible among theatrical feature films. Also the more successful TV dramas like Daejanggeum [Jewel in the Palace, 2003], I think, show a greater level of creative reinterpretation, rather than following conventional stories that every Korean knows already.

Oh, I cannot go any further without asking what you thought of Daejanggeum!  [Laughter]
K: I actually enjoyed it a lot.  The drama focused on the everyday details of Joseon dynasty folks and upped the ante in terms of aesthetic quality.  Of course, many of the details took creative license with historical studies had so far revealed about the life in early Joseon dynasty, beginning with some of the impossibly appetizing cuisine that Janggeum and other members of the royal kitchen staff come up with in the show, which more often than not reflect our modern conception of the Joseon dynasty “great food” than the historical reality.  But what was really significant about Daejanggeum was, in my view, its characters and narrative were far more important than “history:” Korean history served as a background, neither its theme nor its raison d’etre. Watching the drama, or other ones like it, while superbly entertaining and even moving, does not necessarily give us new insights or understandings of the past. 

Q: So even Daejanggeum is limited as a historical drama? 
K: Well, to be honest, I sort of disagree with some of my colleagues, professional historians, who tend to believe that “accurate recreation of the past” is the reason why we make and watch historical dramas.  It might be a bit strange coming from a historian [Laughter] but I do not believe “history” has to at all times take priority over “literature” or other forms of creative endeavor.  Having said that, I do find the obvious tampering of well-known historical facts to score some plot points, or to emphasize a particular character’s villainous qualities, rather less effective or problematic. 

Q:  I wholeheartedly agree. I previously wrote about Lee Jun-ik’s Blades of Blood (2010) messing with the chronology of Joseon dynasty history, just to grind the director’s axe aimed at King Seonjo (r. d. 1567-1608) as a failed monarch. I have been complaining for some time about “presentism” in many Korean sageuk, using historical figures as shorthand projections of contemporary political figures, which at worst could be a form of disrespect for the historical personages.  In addition, the producers and writers of these movies and TV dramas seldom draw upon what I actually think are really “dramatic,” interesting and intriguing stories, utterances and events in the existing historical sources, even from the often-relied-upon Joseon wangjo sillok (Real Records of the Joseon Dynasty).
K:  I remember one of my junior colleagues who had spent considerable time digging up the more historically authentic cultural representations, such as dress designs, for a TV drama (which shall remain nameless here: let’s just stay it was set in Three Kingdoms Period) for which he was a consultant. In the end, he had to ask for his credit removed because his painstaking work was virtually ignored.  He was in essence told that his more authentic findings were “not attractive or magnificent enough.”      

Q: Can we talk about negative and positive recent examples among the sageuk, for now confining ourselves to feature films? 
K: Oh boy. [Laughter] You mentioned that you thought rather positively of Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows (2011).  Let’s say I cannot say the same thing about his far more commercially successful next effort, The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014).  However, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (2015) I can cite as one of the more positive recent examples.  I think the latter film successfully evaded the popular conception of Prince Sado as a tragic victim of the court intrigue and attempted to capture complexities of his character based on actual historical records, illuminating in the process some of the less-than-generous qualities of Yeongjo’ behavior as his father and other aspects of its supposedly well-known characters and events. 

 Roaring Currents, on the other hand, fails to present any fresh insight or interpretation regarding its central protagonist, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), not to say Choi Min-shik playing the general did not do a great job.  Presenting Admiral Yi as some kind of “democratic” or “populist” hero was possibly one of the reasons the film appealed so much to the contemporary Korean moviegoers.  However, aside from this almost pandering attitude toward the ticket buyers, the film was in my view not much different from the kind of nationalist biopic produced during the military dictatorships. 
Q: Having been a practicing historian of Japan for nearly thirty years, I was bothered by its shallow and stereotypical characterization of Japanese enemies, although this is more or less par for the course in Korean popular culture.
K: Right, there is a long Korean tradition of popular cultural representation of Admiral Yi, in which he is always exalted for being a great general, strategist, et cetera, by his Japanese enemies.  However, having said all this, I do acknowledge that there are few recent Korean sageuk movies set in the ancient, medieval or early modern periods that are as flagrantly bad as, say, some of the more obstreperously political “historical” films set in the modern period, such as Operation Chromite (2016).  Most of them seem to reach a certain level of competency these days, at least in terms of their production qualities. 

Q: Is there a particular subject, topic or figure in the entirety of Korean history you feel has been neglected or inadequately treated by Korean cinema? 
K: Hmm.  Nothing specific comes to my mind at this moment… however, I will say that Goryeo period has relatively been neglected, in comparison to the ancient (Three Kingdoms, Unified Silla) and early modern (Joseon) periods.  For Joseon period, of course, there are bountiful historical sources. Plus, it is easier for the producers to materially reconstruct the period details. The ancient periods could be rendered with the narratives centered on the wars and national conflicts.  During the Goryeo period, the Military Rule (1170-1270) era has so far received a lion’s share of attention, but among professional historians, the late Goryeo period under the Mongol [Yuan] Empire’s domination (approximately 1259-1356) is being cast in a new light. In these studies, the Goryeo regime “intervened” by the Yuan empire is reinterpreted not as a weak state completely under the thumb of the powerful Mongol suzerain but as a dynamic subject both influencing and influenced by the greater changes in Asia.  Having said this, I do not know if Korean moviegoing public is ready to accept a movie that truthfully explores the complex hybrid reality of late Goryeo dynasty.

 A portrait of King Gongmin, one of the later Goryeo kings and his
Mongol wife, Queen Noguk, a.k.a. Borjigin Budasiri.

Q:What do you think about my question that too many Korean sageuk films and TV dramas focus on kings, good or bad?
K: I think the interest in royal family might not easily abate, but the more recent producers and viewers appear to be more interested in princes than kings. 
Q: Aha. 
K: The princes are figures of possibility rather than establishment and serve as better identification figures especially for the younger generations of viewers.  I also think that it is to a certain extent inevitable that the public prefers to watch films and TV dramas featuring pageantry and pomp of the royal personages, an opulent and luxury-filled world far removed from their everyday lives, than those set in more mundane settings. Just like the way a good deal of modern-day-set Korean TV dramas take place among the chaebol super-rich!   

Q: My wish is that one day we could see a Korean film set in, say, Goryeo period and a viewer reaction would be “What the heck? How could this be Goryeo? This looks like a foreign country, not Korea!” And the filmmaker would respond, “You are absolutely right. The movie is set in a foreign country called Goryeo, not in Korea.”[Laughter] 
K: I am actually rather optimistic about the prospect of eventually witnessing a genuinely challenging cinematic sageuk, that, as you put it, renders the (mistakenly) familiar into the (truthfully) unfamiliar again.  Even regarding the ever-problematic superficial obsession on material details, as the example of the so-called “Korean hat” becoming widely popular among the non-Korean viewers due to the Netflix zombie sageuk series Kingdom (2019-2020) demonstrates, getting these details “right” could pay off with unexpected dividends.    
Q: I agree!  I only wish the producers and filmmakers understand that you don’t really need to invent a zombie epidemic (not that such an effort is not worthwhile) to tell interesting and compelling stories or portray amazingly fascinating characters set in the distant Korean past, that “real” history has an ample supply of these and more. 

Q: Well, regrettably we have come to the finishing line. Any final thoughts? 
K: I hope that more open and friendly channels of communication between academic historians and the creative people come into being, instead of the latter only consulting the former to maintain their baseline of “factual correctness,” which are often ignored anyway in the end, or the former viewing the creative products only to nitpick about how the latter got everything wrong.  We can probably help each other a lot more than we currently do, to the ultimate benefit of the Korean film industry. 
Q: Thank you so much for a hugely educational and wonderful discussion! 
K: You are so very welcome.

2021년 4월 28일 수요일

Il Cento notti di orrore PART 5- Recent Korean Horror Films: THE WITCH PART 1: SUBVERSION (2018), PENINSULA (2020) & BEAUTY WATER (2020)

No one is asking me to continue Il Cento notti di orroreOne Hundred Nights of Horror and I am just not giving up on it. I will gladly use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for not putting together the fifth installment within the year of 2020, although we dang well know that the delay, postponement or foot-dragging, anyway you want to call it, had absolutely nothing to do with the virus, as, if anything, indie and low-budget horror films have saturated the streaming and VOD services with vengeance, and I have happily been glutting myself with them. If I had to find the real culprit for the absence of another installment the stresses of online teaching would be closer to the mark.   Now that the Orange Maggot is ensconced in Florida instead of being the real-life Twitter-Dictator and the office of American presidency has been taken over by a real human being, who has presumably learned the lessons about how to cope with Republican anti-democratic obstructionism, things are finally looking up.   Everyone around me at UC Davis as well as Berkeley has received at least one dose of vaccine as of April 20, 2021, and I believe, barring another outbreak of something as virulent as COVID-19 in the coming months (I am less worried about the possibility of various mutant variants of the virus neutralizing the effects of the vaccine than some folks, and my prognosis is based on scientific findings as much as I can lay my hands on), I shall finally be able to go back to watching a motion picture in a theater (no doubt it would be a very different experience, post-COVID, but I will worry about it then). For this session, to make up for lack of new reviews for the official Koreanfilm.org page for the past two months, I have decided to use this slot for the short takes on three new Korean horror films.  

So picking up where I have left the list last time at No. 16, and now forging ahead.  The rating system is based on the Japanese critic Futaba Juzaburo’s invention: a white star ( ) counting for twenty points, and a black star () for five points, with somewhere between 55 and 60 points pinned down as the “average” score, given that few movies actually score higher than 90 or lower than 30.      

17. The Witch Part 1: The Subversion 마녀 (South Korea, 2018). A Geumwol Pictures-Peppermint & Co. Production, Distributed by Warner Brothers Korea.  Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1, 2 hour 5 minutes. Director & screenplay: Park Hoon-jung. Cinematography: Kim Young-ho, Lee Tae-o.  Music: Mowg. Production Design: Cho Hwa-sung. Editor: Kim Bang-joo. Costume Design: Jo Sang-gyoung.  Special Effects Makeup: Hwang Ho-gyun, Kwak Tae-yong.  Watched through subscription: June 2020, Netflix.  The entrepreneurial-screenwriter-turned-commercially-successful-director Park Hoon-jung (The Showdown, New World and the famed scribe for Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil) came up with V. I. P. in 2017, a critical and commercial flop. Perhaps because he was accused of rampant exploitation of female characters in that film, Park insisted on turning the central protagonist and head villain of his next film into females. Although the resulting The Witch Part 1: The Subversion has gained some notable support among the fans of gory action thriller subgenre, i. e. the so-called “Extreme Asian” cinema, and gives an interesting role to a talented young actress, Kim Da-mi (Marionette), the film is ultimately lugubrious, self-satisfied and pointlessly vicious. Kim plays Ja-yoon, a bright-eyed teenager adopted by a retiree couple (Choi Jeong-woo & Oh Mi-hee), but the viewers already know from the messy and unpleasant prologue that she is a product of some awful scientific experiment on children conducted by the South Korean government in a secret project spearheaded by Dr. Baek (Jo Min-soo, Pieta).  The foul-tempered and -mouthed scientist unleashes her other creations, including a constantly masticating, scarred thug Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon) and an English-speaking twerp (Choi Woo-shik), to locate and retrieve Ja-yoon, in a plot rather similar to Brian De Palma’s psychokinetic thriller The Fury (1978).

The movie is certainly slickly put together, with some competent lensing by Kim Young-ho (The Pirates) and Lee Tae-o and suitably grungy but substantial production design supervised by Cho Hwa-sung (Illang: The Wolf Brigade) as well as Park’s sharp eye for composition and legible action sequences. However, I found the whole story and especially characterizations mostly irritating and enervating, sometimes borderline repellent.  You might say, aren’t the movie villains supposed to be like that?  Sure, but great villain characters have compelling charisma, convictions about the righteousness of their agenda, or at the very least entertaining or intimidating personality traits. All of the villains in The Witch are either low-brain-capacity, two-bit thugs (Mr. Choi) or hateful stereotypes of what some Korean men consider to be “deviant” males (The “handsome guy” played by Choi Woo-shik, for instance. At least I am grateful that he does not insert “fuck” into every other English sentence he tosses out). Topping them all is the female mad scientist Dr. Baek, who speaks and acts like a Korean middle-ager particularly well versed in assholery, only with her physical gender switched to “female.”  I did say the film is slickly made, but this does not mean that The Witch is a model of efficient and economical storytelling.  For one, it is interminably long, taking more than one hour to get the villains to properly reveal their hands to the viewers. There is altogether too much blood and sticky gore, some of them distastefully involving children.  I am not even going to go into the “science” of this alleged SF thriller, strictly voodoo stuff.  Unlike two decades ago, South Korean literary scene is today overflowing with sophisticated works of SF: a basic consultation with any of their authors would have yielded a far superior, more logically sensible basis for explaining Ja-yoon and her cohort’s superpowers. 

One possibly innovative element about the film is Ja-yoon’s characterization, or the way the film sets the viewers up to root for her only to pull a Lucy-with-a-football on them.  The “twist” is quite as nasty as the rest of the film (perhaps this was what the sub-title “subversion” was referring to?), but I do acknowledge that it does distinguish The Witch from, say, average American films of its ilk. The problem is that Kim Da-mi obviously is given no direction how to handle this about-face about her character and comes off as simply bug-eyed psychotic, losing much of the viewer sympathy accumulated for her throughout the film.  Nihilistic, show-offy, macho-bullshitty but competently made, The Witch is an old Tartan DVD-marketed Extreme Asia film to a tee. Those craving for the allegedly politically incorrect pleasures of seeing beautiful Asian kids doing ugly, cruel things to one another while spitting the kind of dialogues ranging between comic book one-liners and gangsta pig grunts might have a reasonably good time with The Witch.   ☆☆★★★ 

18. Beauty Water 기기괴괴 성형수 (South Korea, 2020). A Studio Animal/SS Animent/Triple Pictures Co-Production. Aspect Ratio, 1.85:1, 1 hour 25 minutes. Director: Cho Kyung-hun.  Screenplay: Lee Han-bin. Animation Director: Lee Sang-hoon. Cinematography: Moon Seong-cheol. Music: Hong Dae-sung. Based on a webtoon series Gigigwegwe by Oh Sung-dae.  Production Designer: Cho Hye-seung. Voice Cast: Moon Nam Sook (Ye-ji), Jang Min-hyuk (Ji-hoon), Choi Seung-hoon (Manager), Jo Hyeon-jeong (The Beautician), Kim Bo-yeong (Miri).  Purchased through Naver Series-On, October 2020. Ye-ji is an unhappy make-up artist working for a talent agency, perennially condescended to by the latter’s pea-brained, bitchy star Miri. Once an aspiring ballerina, Ye-ji is today heavyset and depressed, snapping at her indulgent parents and surfing the internet to unload her gripes as a vicious troll.  One day, she runs into a creepy commercial about a certain magic cosmetic liquid capable of transforming a person into an unimaginable beauty, by literally dissolving her unwanted flesh. Initially skeptical, she is astounded to learn that, not only the liquid exists and can be purchased by a large bundle of cash, but it also actually works.  Of course, she must not forget to strictly follow the instructions.

Yet another South Korean feature based on a webtoon series and a selection at the 2020 Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival, Beauty Water is a grungy, computer-animated entry in the body horror subgenre, effective in its own way but not really innovative or envelope-pushing. The overall approach is grounded in TV-drama-style narrative conventions. The animated figures are on the “realistic” side of the spectrum, except for a few instances wherein anime-like exaggeration and stylization are deliberately invoked (as in the first incarnation of Ye-ji’s “new face,” with its completely out-of-proportion huge eyes and non-existent nose). 

As is usually the case with low-budget horror films with high-concept premises (Larry Cohen’s horror opuses provide a good template), social criticism is more or less built into the film, resulting in some amusingly on-target satirical zingers. On the other hand, Ye-ji’s characterization makes it difficult for the viewers to fully invest in her: she thoughtlessly exploits her poor parents for both money and supplementary flesh (although how this “transfer of flesh” from one body to another is accomplished is not clearly explained) and typically regards other women as competitors for the affection of her handsome male paramour Ji-hoon. Ye-ji in the end receives a harsh punishment from the filmmakers for her presumably “shallow” and “selfish” desires, but it remains unclear whether the viewers should feel sad, chastened, or sadistically enjoy her awful fate. I also have an issue with the transgendered-as-a-monster stereotype that informs one of the film’s climactic “twists,” although, to be fair, this stereotype and its variants are alive and well in North American genre films too. Apparently the original webtoon’s Ye-ji was a far more pro-active and independent, although equally single-minded, woman who self-sculpts her face and body into that of an ideal beauty, instead of relying on a beautician for the latter’s surgical skills and her parents for financing her transformation: perhaps that part of her character could have been retained in the film.  Not a bad slice of gruesome body horror, Beauty Water still does not quite fully exploit the transgressive or satirical potentials of its premise. ☆☆☆   

19.  Peninsula 반도 (South Korea, 2020).  A Next Entertainment World/RedPeter Films/New Movie Co-Production.  Aspect Ration 2.39:1. 1 hour 56 minutes.  Director: Yeon Sang-ho. Screenplay: Yeon Sang-ho, Ryoo Yong-jae. Cinematography: Lee Hyung-deok, Jung Kee-won.  Music: Mowg. Editor: Yang Jin-mo. Special Effects: Jung Do Ahn, Yoon Hyung Tae. CAST: Gang Dong-won (Han Jeong-seok), Lee Jung-hyun (Min-jung), Lee Re (Joon), Kwon Hae-hyo (Mr. Kim), Jang So-yeon (Jeong-seok’s sister), Kim Min-jae (Private Hwang), Gu Gyo-hwan (Lieutenant Seo), Kim Han-sol (Young Zombie), Pierce Conran (American TV Commentator). Purchased through Naver Series-On, January 2021. As you can infer from the US-based streaming service’s import title Train to Busan Presents Peninsula, this is Yeon Sang-ho’s official sequel to his breakthrough zombie attack epic Train to Busan (2016).  There is no overlap of characters, except that both films take place in the fictional world in which a zombie epidemic had decimated the Korean peninsula. The screenplay wastes little time in setting up a McGuffin, a truck full of lucrative merchandise lost near Omokgyo, a bridge that crosses the Han River near its terminating point.  Han, a former naval special forces agent traumatized by his failure to protect his sister and nephew from the infection, agrees to the retrieval mission.  Once having arrived in the ruined Korean peninsula, however, he runs afoul of not only a horde of fast-running zombies but also a squad of renegade soldiers lording over civilian survivors, putting up gladiator death matches with the captured for their amusement.  He is also befriended by a seemingly crackpot Mr. Kim (the indie veteran Kwon previously voice-acted for Yeon’s The Fake) and his ersatz family, Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun, A Petal) and her daughters Joon (Lee Re, all grown up from the days of How to Steal a Dog) and Yoo-jin (Lee Ye-won), who insists that a UN rescue mission is about to arrive and pick them up.

One of the most anticipated Korean films of 2020, Peninsula, while playing in the midst of the pandemic, did a fine business, racking up more than 3 million tickets and doing very well with the international pre-sales, and received mild praise-to-enthusiastic support from the critical community. Like many South Korean genre films made in recent years, Peninsula is highly competently put together. The strength and agility of the infected population is, again like in Train to Busan, terrifically illustrated, although their Energizer-bunny stamina after four years of lockdown and starvation is so unlikely it becomes funny rather than scary (The film notably downplays blood and gore effects, too, receiving the US equivalent of PG-13 rating for its domestic release).  The dynamic set pieces involving harrowing escapes from these super-fast zombies, even more video-game-like here, are surely the best parts of this sequel.  Yeon dutifully presses a few satirical buttons— Koreans are now referred to as “peninsula folks” as was historically so during the colonial period, for instance— but it seems clear that his heart was just not in it.  Neither is he particularly interested in realistically exploring the uncomfortable new status of Koreans as refuges of a global pandemic (for your information, North Korea has also been presumably overrun by the zombie virus in this world, although the country is never directly mentioned). Bong Joon-ho’s The Host in the end did a much wittier job of addressing the American and South Korean hypocrisies regarding the prospect of a global pandemic.  Yeon also for no discernible reason indulges in melodramatic touches (although as anchored in Gang Dong-won and Lee Jung-hyun’s competent performances, they are not as unpalatable as they could have been).  Finally, his human villains are typical macho-stupid Korean movie thugs: instead of providing dramatic tensions, you irritatingly wait for them to fast become zombie chows.

Peninsula is not a badly made film at all and is probably superior to the majority of Hollywood movies with a similar setup in terms of execution of its admittedly cliché-ridden premise. Yet, I found it ultimately disappointing, not only failing to measure up to the genuinely suspenseful direction and sympathetic characterizations of its predecessor, but also curiously forgettable and lackadaisical.  I hope I am not being unduly critical of this film due to the inevitable high expectation I had for the newest film from Yeon, a guy responsible for not just TTB but also Seoul Station. It is difficult to avoid the impression that he is slumming here to meet the unrealistically high commercial expectations to the best of his ability, rather than grappling with his personal demons and unleashing them unto the viewers. Those who have not experienced Yeon’s other jaw-droppers might enjoy Peninsula perfectly well as a smart, above-average piece of entertainment. ☆☆☆

2021년 2월 28일 일요일

THE THRONE (2015)- A Family Tragedy in the Early Modern Korean Court

THE THRONE. (SADO 사도 思悼)  South Korea, 2015.  2 hours 5 minutes.  A Showbox-Mediaplex Production.  Director: Lee Jun-ik. Screenplay: Cho Chul-hyun, Oh Seung-hyun, Lee Song-won.  Cinematography: Kim Tae-gyeong.  Music: Bang Jun-seok.

CAST: Song Kang-ho (Yeongjo), Yu Ah-in (Crown Prince Sado), Moon Geun-young (Lady Hong Hyegyoung), Kim Hae-sook (Dowager Queen Inwon), Pak Won-sang (Hong Bong-han, Sado's fathe-in-law), Jin Ji-hee (Princess Hwahwan), Park So-dam (Lady Moon).

When Lee Jun-ik, an acknowledged hitmaker with the innovative historical comedy Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield (2003) and its sequel Battlefield Heroes (2010) as well as historical dramas The King and the Clown (2005) and Blades of Blood (2010) under his belt, had announced that he will make a dramatization of one of the most disturbing and tragic episodes of the Joseon dynasty history, King Yeongjo’s (reign date 1724-1776) execution/murder of his own son, Crown Prince Sado, in a utterly confounding and cruel method of shutting him in a rice chest until the latter died from dehydration and exhaustion, my honest reaction was apprehension.  While few could doubt Lee’s ability to put together superbly entertaining set-pieces— both spectacular and dramatic— and to extract vibrant performances from the newcomers as well as the industry veterans, the attitude he has shown in terms of approaching Korean history had been disappointingly “presentist,” all the more frustrating because his artistic visions anchored in the defense of the performing artists against the movers and shakers of the “big wheel” history had shown great potentials for challenging and destabilizing the monarch- and national-hero-centered historical narratives fed to the Korean public.  

Blades of Blood, for instance, makes a wholly unnecessary revision on the timeline of Hideyoshi’s invasion and Lee Mong-hak’s rebellion (1596), in order to seemingly maximize the incompetence and poor governance of King Seonjo (r.d. 1567-1608), missing a chance to delve into the massive socio-economic contradictions brewing under the surface of the Joseon political system exposed by the Japanese invasions. The King and the Clown does a better job of humanizing the “depraved king” Yeonsangun than many previous media treatments of him, yet it also misses a chance to bring to the foreground more than a few dramatically and even cinematically fascinating aspects of the deposed monarch’s life and the supporting characters surrounding him (to be sure, such a film would have looked a lot more like a Pier Paolo Pasolini film than a Ridley Scott one— possibly too bizarre and grotesque for public consumption, even though such bizarreness and grotesquery are unavoidable features of the existing historical documents regarding his life).

Moreover, the popular opinion in Korea toward Prince Sado had been greatly influenced by those pseudo-historians indulging in conspiracy theories disguised as innovative interpretations of Korean history and proffering them as sound alternatives to the ideas disseminated from within the “academia proper” (whom they often denounce as spiritual descendants of the “pro-Japanese collaborators”). One of the most popular among them, Lee Deok-il, argued in numerous occasions that Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong (Hanjungnok, 閑中錄 ) possess little value as a historical source, since it merely reflects the political position of Lady Hyegyeong’s own Hong family and the Soron faction among the yangban literati. This did not sit well with both historians and Korean literature scholars who had spent many years scrupulously examining the Memoirs as a credible source of historical information as well as a valuable work of early modern literature. Scholars such as Jeong Byeong-seol have critiqued in detail Lee’s lopsided interpretation (by some accounts, baseless denunciation) of the Memoirs and its author, yet Lee’s arguments have remained extremely popular among the South Korean reading public (Writers such as the now disgraced Yi In-hwa presented a similar anti-Lady Hyegyeong reading of Sado’s death in his novel Yeongwon-han jeguk [The Eternal Empire, 1993]).     

Given these circumstances, I was concerned that Lee Jun-ik would wholeheartedly embrace the proliferating conspiracy theories and portray Prince Sado as a very much sane, reformist hero destroyed by the scheming yangban hyenas, who had managed to delude the aging king Yeongjo into mistrusting his allegedly brilliant son. Thankfully, despite casting of Yoo Ah-in (The Burning), a young star (although he is not exactly a liberal icon, especially among certain feminists) in the role of Prince Sado, Lee does not go so far as to embrace this “radical” interpretation. He accepts at face value several key information derived from the Memoirs: that Prince Sado indeed beheaded his servants and committed other outrageous and violent acts: that the primary motivation of Yeongjo (played by Song Kang-ho, The Parasite) for executing his son was not political capitulation to the factional hegemony of certain yangban officials, but his own complex feelings toward the prince, no doubt including more than some measure of disappointment, righteous anger and hatred: and that the psychological trauma resulting from Yeongjo’s perhaps unfair treatment of Sado was at least one factor in ultimately turning the latter into a “madman.”    

The Throne employs a complex flashback structure to go back and forth between the gruesome death throes of Crown Prince Sado over six days and the happier days of his childhood, marriage, and the narrative of his gradual alienation from his father Yeongjo.  Many episodes of the film are indeed directly culled from the Memoirs, especially Yeongjo's interaction with his son and other family members.  In the climax of the film, the movie also quotes from Yeongjo's epitaph written for Prince Sado, uncovered by historians and publicized only in 1990s (although Sado's final response to Yeongjo's statements in the film is entirely fictional... and rather trite in my opinion).

The Throne is admirably well-made, anchored by a grizzled yet amazingly nuanced performance by Song Kang-ho as Yeongjo and an energetic but (for me) not quite an authentic one by Yoo Ah-in as Sado.  Crown Prince Sado, Princess Hwahwan and a couple of other characters are too “contemporized,” not just their dialogue but also their characterization, which is a chronic problem with Lee’s historical films (but certainly not a problem limited to his works).  One can question whether Sado would have expressed his anger and sadness toward his father in quite such dramatic ways, or through caustic statements Yoo rather stylistically spits out in the manner of a contemporary youth rebel. It is also clear that Lee’s directorial decision is to make Sado as played by Yoo a sympathetic figure without denying the historical reality of his horrendous acts. The director downplays Sado's disturbing qualities and tries underhandedly to make his anger and resentment understandable to the viewers. There are areas in which the narrative or character interactions are obviously meant to draw parallels to the social or political situations in contemporary Korea, but they mostly fall flat, as evidenced by, for instance, Lee’s portrayal of Prince Sado’s obsession with the military affairs. Sado indeed enjoyed military games as a youngster, but I doubt that this would have led to his concern with the equitable distribution of military duties as was shown in the film (the resentment resulting from the inequities involving who gets to go to the military and who does not, of course, has very much been an issue in contemporary South Korea). The Throne (or any other Korean sageuk, for that matter) does not really need this kind of the insertions of “contemporary relevance.” I also did not find Yeongjo’s “I did this to avoid you making a traitor” rationalization tacked on to the movie's ending particularly convincing, although Song Kang-ho's great performance makes the sequence emotionally work.

As Korean historical melodramas go, The Throne charts a prudent middle ground, rejecting the shallow presentism of Blades of Blood (or comic ironies of the Battlefield series) but also the potentially alienating historicism of such films as Jacques Rivette’s Jean la purcelle (1994). It is an emotionally powerful mainstream motion picture, and while its heightened melodrama does weaken its professed respect for its historical sources (and most notably consigns all female characters, including Lady Hyegyeong herself, to the hoary role of the tearfully emoting “stand-by maidens”), I would rank it above average in terms of its concern for historical truths (and certainly above Lee’s much-praised Anarchist from Colony [2017], most of the power of which is ironically derived from Choi Hee-seo’s performance as Kaneko Fumiko, unjustly put into a supportive position to the Korean anarchist Pak Yeol), if not a truly great historical film. 

Some brief comments on the English subtitles: The subs translate “Hojo panseo 判書" as “Defense Minister” but as those who have learned about six ministries in the history class should know, it is “Census Minister.” “Dangpa” is also translated as “segregation” at one point but it should be “factions” or “parties.” “Yo 堯 and Sun  ”which Yeongjo mentions while testing his grandson’s academic ability (later King Jeongjo) are mythical Chinese emperors Yao and Shun from the Chinese classics, mistranslated as “Yaw and Sun.”

Can It Be Used in Class?:

The Throne is an excellent example to be shown alongside Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong as a form of the digest version of the story of Prince Sado, but of course, it loses much of the intriguing details regarding interpersonal complexities of the court life and even the latter’s rich characterizations of the personages populating her narratives.  I think the film could claim an advantage in urging the students to counter-imagine the alternatives to the “familiar (familiarly melodramatic),” contemporaneous aspects of the film, including the characterizations of major figures such as Yeongjo, Crown Prince Sado, Lady Hyegyeong and others, and thereby compel them to reach into the “strange and unfamiliar” territories of the actual Joseon dynasty history. We can ask the students: where do you believe the film becomes excessively melodramatic in relation to the accounts presented in the Memoirs? What aspects do you believe were “accurately” rendered or visualized, from the historical accounts given in the Memoirs?

From there, we could also explore the presentation of the Memoirs as a series of overlapping narratives, and as a form of confessional literary genre. If you were to launch into a radically different adaptation of the Memoirs for a motion picture, how would you, or how would you not, modify the characterizations of Yeongjo, Crown Prince Sado, Lady Hyegyeong and other personages? How would you change the subdued presence of female characters in the movie version? Would you have made it a lot darker, almost a horror film, about the madness of Prince Sado, in which Yeongjo’s action would have been morally understandable, if not entirely justified? Or into a political thriller about the inter-palace conflicts in which Crown Prince Sado and Yeongjo were actually schemers attempting to outmaneuver the other? There could be many other variations. Ultimately, if the students could learn a good lesson about the mysteries of human intentions and emotions from this tragic episode, including the impossibility of illuminating them to our complete satisfaction, that might be more worthwhile than them learning some factoids about the court politics of Joseon dynasty or about the powerful kings Yeongjo and (Prince Sado’s son) Jeongjo.


Jahyun Kim Haboush, ed., and trans. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Prince of Eighteenth-Century Korea . Second Edition, with a new Foreword by Dorothy Ko (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Jeong Byeong-seol [Chŏng Pyŏ ng-sŏl], “Kil ireun yeoksa daejunghwa [The Popularization of History Which Lost Its Way],” Yeoksa Bipyeong, no. 94, Spring 2011.