A Review of “North Korean Movie”

I read somewhere that Stanley Kubrick had a major issue with Spartacus, which was that the main character, the eponymous hero, had no flaws. Spartacus is the man with a cleft chin you could cut diamonds on, a slave greater than a god, in fact, because he is so perfectly selfless he even finds himself transformed into Christ by the film’s end—always a sign of lowbrow creativity, that, making our characters out like this annoying Jewish magician—but the scriptwriters of Spartacus (and not Stanley Kubrick) went much further, and actually literally wholeheartedly totally completely made their main character Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ himself, threw him up on a giant crucifix, and even gave him a glimpse of the Madonna with Child—an oddly incestuous and existential moment that leaves Spartacus kind of speechless. But maybe it was just being nailed up on a crucifix to blame.

So while the film is great, and filled with incredible images (my favorite being the slave army marching down a mountain in the blue backdrop gloom while preparations for battle are made inside a luminous foreground tent) perhaps it lacks the same oomph as Kubrick’s wonderful bestiary of insane, murderous automatons, and other insane, murderous writers or psychopaths or primates or 18th century rogues. You won’t find many perfect characters elsewhere in his work.

I’m still in the process of watching Crossing (which you can see in its entirety on youtube), a South Korean film about a North Korean refugee who flees his homeland to China to get medicine for his sick wife. The story suffers from the same issue as Spartacus, but it’s taken to such an annoying extreme that I actually stopped the film to write this review—the sentimentality is outrageous. I mean there’s nothing wrong with crying in films, but this movie is, like, running around bawling its fucking eyes out. We have so many aching, heartbreaking scenes, with plenty of slow pianos and greased-up guitar and violin strings to let us know that we should be reaching for the toilet paper to wipe our tears away (toilet paper being the napkin or tissue of choice here in the Daehan Mingook). The main characters are flawlessly perfect human beings trapped in awful circumstances who are never once tempted to break the habit of being like self-sacrificing, suffering Christs. Because of that I can hardly recommend this film.

Actually it amused me to see that this slop had been submitted for the consideration of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and that the film was rejected, but forgive my schadenfreude! I’m just jealous because I would sacrifice every pitifully glass-eyed starving child on Earth to live my life even making willfully bad movies…

But no work of art is completely devoid of true beauty, and there are some impressive scenes here that show us what this film could have been—namely, when the hero’s son and the boy’s scraggly little girlfriend get thrown into a concentration camp because they were trying to escape the greater concentration camp that is North Korea itself, where they are forced to spend much of their time in dark rooms screaming out their love for Kim Jong-Il while other children are literally collapsing and dying and being dragged away by the demonic guards who always surround them, compelled to break open rocks for no conceivable purpose, to sift sand (perhaps for more sand), and to kill mice who are eating human corpses so that they can use mice skins to cover up the blisters they’ve gotten from severe malnutrition. One of the kids is even being eaten alive by maggots. This is cinema. When the movie doesn’t veer off into hysterics it’s definitely more watchable.

And this should have been the whole film: kid’s father goes out into China to make some money and forgets his family while he enjoys the riches of that faraway land, kid gets thrown in concentration camp, father hears about it somehow, father breaks back into North Korea and then into the camp itself to free his kid (maybe with a band of tough rogue mercenaries whom he himself recruits from the bowels of the Chinese underworld), inadvertently triggering an uprising that brings down the whole regime. It could even start with Kim Jong-Il sitting in a prison cell, beginning to explain to some big-nosed blond-haired waygookin reporter how his private kingdom collapsed: “Well, it all started when my guards imprisoned some meddling kids…” Either that, or a movie masquerading as North Korean propaganda, an Eisensteinian grotesque about the mortal perils of abandoning your fatherland, and how awful it is away from the embrace of the dear leader.

Another far more famous blogger has written about how the South (like the rest of the world) doesn’t give a damn about the North so long as Mr. Kim isn’t attacking random islands or blowing up enemy warships, and how people here don’t even like to think about the North, and I have to say I can’t really blame them, what with the North effectively holding the South hostage by aiming all of its guns at Seoul. There really is nothing they can do but wait for everyone up North to starve to death, or for China to become a democracy, or for hell to freeze over, and that’s what they’re doing. In his review, or summary, of this film, his website helpfully equates bathos with mawkishness, for minds that are not so subtle as ours.

There’s also some nonsense there about the Korean concept of jeong, supposedly unique to the Korean people, which my wife once translated for me as “caring”, or in my own words, giving a damn about others (it’s contained inside a literary word, gamjeong iip, or, roughly, empathy), and how hypocritical this idea is so long as the South does nothing to help the people of the North.

But in my own experience I’ve found this place to be pretty lacking in empathy. Here come the anecdotes! Just two dinners ago my Korean family burst out laughing after a crazy homeless woman crept up to us out of the darkness on Haeundae Beach, maybe the richest area of the city, and asked us for about twenty cents, and then vanished back into the night before we could even deny her the gift—and since the cast of homeless characters in the city is pretty constant and familiar (I’ve gotten to know more than a few faces, most of whom hang around the subways; I had seen that crazy woman going to sleep in another part of the city at least once before), I usually pony up a bit when I run into them as a way of alleviating my guilt and acknowledging the awareness that little beyond the color of my skin and my own damn good luck have placed me in a nice apartment and this poor woman out in the cold darkness, and that things easily could have been the other way around—a sentiment, I’ve read, which was actually much more common in the Middle Ages, before capitalism convinced us that only lazy people are poor (when anyone who knows anything knows that the hardest workers are often the poorest, while the laziest rich are just begging, pleading, for a second wave of communist revolutions to sweep them up to the gallows, thanks to their shamelessly conspicuous flaunting of the law; the cycle of history whirling on and on like Ixion’s burning wheel).

Whew. So where was I? Turning into a communist where the Cold War is still being fought, and when I’m on the wrong side of the equation, both sides actually being totally fucked up? Attacking a successful blogger with pedantic insults to gain attention? Fantasizing about ripping off Inglorious Basterds? I don’t even remember.

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