I hope I’m not alone among westerners when George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh is the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Bangladesh—the second is, naturally, a nearly unbearably nice family of Bangladeshi-Americans who hosted me (a perfect stranger) and my friend Omid (son of some old friends) when we went to go see Obama’s inauguration. These people embodied the supposedly long-dead American dream by living in an enormous mansion in Bethesda (I think) where they had come from a single small room in Bangladesh, proof as ever that the only thing that makes America great is the drive of its immigrants to make their lives better.
I’m talking about all of this because I watched a movie last night about a less-fortunate Bangladeshi immigrant working in a factory in Korea. You can watch the entire movie on youtube for free; and while this post isn’t really a review I will say that despite its imperfections I really enjoyed it.
The movie is about race-relations, and the interesting thing about it is the hierarchy that it depicts. Regardless of all the talk about Korean racial superiority and pure-bloodedness, which is dying a slow death in the south but still alive and well up north, the reality in South Korea today is that there are essentially three groups of people living on its soil: Koreans, who form the overwhelming majority, and generally consider themselves to be one race, even if they are related to Han Chinese, Japanese, Mongolians, and ultimately everyone else—even if the very idea of Korean racial purity, which seems to have its roots in this man, is just as absurd as the idea of any race being pure, or any race even existing. As for everyone else, there are two groups of migrant workers: English teachers, and unskilled laborers, both of whom form a near-insignificant population in the country, as compared to the fifty million Koreans they rub shoulders with. The English teachers always come from more successful western countries and the unskilled laborers always come from nations that are have not yet managed to pull themselves up out of the darkness of western exploitation, colonialism, and tyranny.
In the movie, the hierarchy works like this: English teachers are on top, Koreans are in the middle, and unskilled laborers are on the bottom. Koreans are depicted sucking up to an “American” English teacher, who not only has a strangely persistent South African accent and an even more strangely persistent inability to act, but also a number of odd lines that have obviously been written by Koreans—for example, he says something like, “Now I eat more kimchi than hamburgers”; Koreans have this idea that Americans eat nothing except hamburgers and pizza, and that these two staples form the entirety of America’s cuisine, when in fact the greatness of American cuisine comes from its inclusion of practically every form of ethnic food you could possibly think of—! But, no matter. Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent. There will come a time when there is no ignorance.
The Koreans don’t just suck up to this South African American, they apparently, seemingly, possibly, allow him to sexually exploit them—another Korean stereotype depicts middle-class American college graduates (i.e, most of the English teachers here) as voracious sexual tyrannosaurs ruthlessly devouring hordes of innocently pale defenseless pure-blooded Korean women—and the only way for the main Korean character in this film to triumph over this adversity, to triumph over her own country’s peculiar obsession with learning the English language from native speakers, is to grab her American teacher by the balls (I do not exaggerate) and force him to the ground, when, so far as I could tell, he did not say a single inappropriate word or lay a single salacious finger on anyone in the film. So this was weird. But South Korea is a weird country. Possibly the weirdest. Except for North Korea, and, like, Liberia.
The film does a much better job depicting the plight of its main character, a Bangladeshi migrant worker. Here is an invisible man whom salespeople refuse to touch or speak to (a woman ostentatiously puts his change on his bag, rather than in his hand), here is a fellow whom two brawling Koreans shamelessly scapegoat in front of a police officer, and here’s a guy who can’t even take a girl to the police after she steals his wallet—all because she threatens to turn him in for sexual harassment (and of course he’s innocent). A piece of advice given to every English teacher here is to avoid any sort of conflict with Koreans, because the police will always, always, always, take the side of the Koreans; and things are even worse for the migrant laborers. Like the notoriously corrupt owners of Hagwons, or cram schools, Korean bosses will attempt to withhold pay from their workers, and in the film the Bangladeshi guy—Karim—hasn’t been paid in a year, and spends the whole movie trying to get his ex-boss to pony up, until finally, in a moment of divine retribution, god strikes him down with a heart attack (or something), only to seemingly resurrect him a bit later for a dramatic confrontation with Karim’s young girlfriend, Minsuh. It’s unfortunate that the only place a man with wrinkles and a business suit can be criticized in this society is in an independent movie that no one in Korea is even going to watch. With these two important accouterments a Korean man is effectively above the law and can do anything, short of going on a murderous rampage, without running into trouble from anyone.
Karim has to worry about getting deported constantly, he has to live with racism constantly, and even though I myself am in a much better position, I still have to put up with a similar species of this bullshit every day—unusual for a white American, isn’t it?—and let me tell you, it never gets old, it never ceases to be infuriating, when people everywhere view you as being a barbarian rather than a human being, especially when you know so well with every fiber of your being who the real barbarians are.
Minsuh is a remarkably unique Korean character in about a thousand ways, and it should be said that the film would have been ten times better if they had made the American guy just as iconoclastic as everyone else—she is sexually aggressive, where sex in Korea is strictly a guy thing (but not in a gay way), and all women who have sex without having children are whores; and she drops out of high school and has a happy life, where, as in America, children are taught that one cannot succeed without sacrificing their lives to the passage of useless and arbitrary tests, in preparation for the long haul as miserable adults working as cogs in society’s machine (to acquiesce to an effective if cliche metaphor). If you have a suit, a cubicle, a wife, and a child, you have succeeded—if you lack any of these things, you should just get it over with and kill yourself. Minsuh defies these rampant, rioting idiocies, and succeeds on her own terms.
The horrible lesson here is that Korea is re-enacting, in miniature, the absurdities staged as truths in the West. Natives are pure, good, and trustworthy while immigrants and those who look different are reviled, ostracized, insulted, and exploited. People have been putting up with this shit for as long as there have been people; you would think that we would’ve outgrown such childishness by now, but unchecked ignorance still reigns supreme over the world, and even in our enlightened modern age people everywhere are vicious and cruel to one another with a really spectacular passion when there is no reason at all to act like this. It is not enough to call human beings insects, parasites, or even a plague on the surface of the Earth; this entire species should have been exterminated a long time ago.
After he gets screwed, Karim makes an impassioned speech toward the end of the film where he cries out to the sea that he just wanted to be happy, and don’t Koreans see that everyone’s still enslaved to the Man? They can live in their nice western homes, they can wear western clothes, struggle to ape western languages, and suck the West’s dick for all they’re worth—but this little country will always be the lapdog (at best) to an America and a Europe that together rule the world militarily and also culturally, declaring, without reservation, that if you do not act like us you are not human. To join that enemy, to take up the whip of their slavemasters, is exactly what every Korean does the moment he or she looks down on a migrant laborer—to say the least.
I say all of these horrible things, but there is a ray of light: the fact that this good but not great movie was even made. There are people in this society who actually know what’s going on, smart and talented people who have put together a halfway-decent picture that’s meant to undermine their society’s weaknesses and, in so doing, ultimately strengthen it. Korea has come a long way, and there will come a day, someday in the future, when the world no longer believes in races, nations, rich, or poor—and this film is a step on the long path to that civilization, one which is not just mature, but fundamentally good.