Friday, August 7, 2015

국제 시장 - "Ode to My Father"

In Korean class, we watched a film called "국제 시장". The Korean title translates to "International Market", a reference to the famous traditional marketplace in Busan, but its English title is "Ode to My Father".
"The greatest story of the most ordinary father"
I didn't know too much about the film beforehand, only that it is currently South Korea's second-highest grossing film ever (despite only being released last December). Also, people tend to describe it as South Korea's version of "Forrest Gump". I could certainly see many thematic parallels: both movies follow the life of one man across a backdrop of important national events and tell tales of loss and reconciliation, change versus tradition, and hope amidst terror.

The story is about a man named Deok-soo who, as a child, loses his father and a younger sister during the Hungnam Evacuation (during the Korean War). Along with his other younger siblings and his mother, the family relocates to Busan and struggles to get by even after the armistice, with Deok-soo begging for change and chocolate bars from American GIs after school. Always needing more money to support his family, Deok-soo spends his entire adolescence and early adulthood working odd jobs and even moves to Germany to work in dangerous coal mines. The dramatic and colorful stories from the past are interspersed with scenes in present-day Busan, when Deok-soo is an old man (who speaks with some excellent Busan satoori) reliving his memories one by one.

Everyone says that "Ode to My Father" is a sad movie. While that is certainly true -- I cried more than once -- I think it's more accurate to call it a movie that exemplifies the Korean sentiment known as 한 ("han"). Now, han is hard to explain. According to this article in the Korea Times, it is a "deep-seated sense of grief and grievance [against] very powerful agents of injustice." It is a mixture of sorrow and resentment in response to wrongdoing and manifests itself emotionally in a variety of ways, not just sadness. More peculiarly, however, han can accumulate, both within a person and among a community, or even, as it is most often cited, throughout a nation. Han can become the emotional vehicle for a national lament, and it is this kind of han that "Ode to My Father" so masterfully epitomizes.

Deok-soo as a young beggar boy in 1950's Busan
You see, South Korea possesses a history that bursts at the seams with woe. It may be a developed country today, but for the past seventy years, it has struggled with brutal colonization, abject poverty, a civil war that divided its people, utter dependence on Western nations, and throughout all of this, a sense of shame that it could not provide for its people until it finally pulled itself by its bootstraps into the twenty-first century. Thus, Korea as a nation feels han: because families like Deok-soo's were separated by a war they did not start, because it could not afford to educate all of its children, because young men had to labor and die in far-flung foreign countries in order to make enough money to send home. Every remarkable event in this one character's life was connected in some way to the constant struggle against an invisible -- or perhaps many-headed -- oppressor.

It's no wonder that this film's most ardent fans comprise the generation that lived through all of these atrocities. Korean 할머니 and 할아버지 (grandmothers and grandfathers) now in their seventies and eighties, as well people who grew up in the tumultuous decades following the Korean war, really drove the tickets sales that boosted its ranking. It's said that the older generations watched and rewatched the movie not just to experience the catharsis that came with two hours of nonstop han, but also because of 그리움 ("keulium"), or nostalgia. Despite the bleakness of the characters' lives in the movie, there are small moments of joy and a dogged determination to hold on to the past.

Deok-soo dancing with his first love in 1960s Germany
For example, although Deok-soo's life in Germany is almost literally a hellhole (for twelve hours a day, at least), he still gets to meet the love of his life, a Korean nursing student at the local hospital named Young-ja. There's a sense in their scenes together that the wonders of youth and infatuation can make months of eating stale bread while covered head to toe in coal dust worthwhile. And as the present-day Deok-soo continuously refuses to sell the humble imported goods shop he inherited from his aunt, we see a familiar narrative: the small business owner in conflict with with impertinent developers who only want high-rises and care nothing for tradition.

It is in this area, however, that one might be able to pick at a weakness in the film, namely the way it has whitewashed or wholly ignored certain parts of Korean history, under the guise of patriotism. This is a tricky issue to handle, because the director, Yoon Je-kyoon, has already stated that the film has no political aims or undertones. However, it isn't possible to create a movie meant to inspire a love of country without at least passively taking a stand on certain very unlovable things about Korea's recent past. Even I noticed the lack of any mention of the huge political unrest during the early 80s. And while Forrest Gump got to meet US Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, Deok-soo doesn't even brush the collar (옷깃만을 스쳐도 인연이다!) of any of his country's leaders, whose regimes were often dictatorial, and the absence is more than a bit conspicuous.

This excerpt from an LA Times review brings up another point I wanted to make: Lee Taek-kwang, a professor at Kyunghee University in Seoul, [says] that "Ode" reflects the conservative ideology that for many years exhorted South Koreans to forego individual rights in the name of national development. Referring to one scene in "Ode" where Duk-soo shuns a discussion with his wife to stand at attention for the national anthem, Lee told the Kyunghyang that "Ode" "effectively endorses the idea that the state can exploit its people."

At first I found the aforementioned scene to be funny, but after a moment's thought, I realized that it was actually convicting. The film's protagonist is endearing and the sacrifices he makes for his family are awfully inspiring, yet a close scrutiny of his life and ideology from another angle reveals that he is no more than the model citizen that an autocratic, brutally capitalist government wants. Although Deok-soo ostensibly joined the Korean forces in Vietnam because he needed money to help his family, the narrative is structured such that it is his patriotism that brings him back to the battlefield. He is not a powerless refugee, but a savior to the people fleeing war, as he did when he was a child; and there is a hefty message in that.

Yoon created "Ode to My Father" as a dedication to his actual father, who died when the director was in film school. He claims that he wanted to help Korea's younger generation understand the tribulations that their parents and grandparents had to endure to help bring the country to where it stands proudly today. In this sense, he has certainly created a masterpiece tear-jerker that drives the point home. A simple scene in which Deok-soo pens a letter from Vietnam to his wife really struck my heart: in it, he wrote, "It’s such a relief that it was us, and not our children, who were born during such a difficult time," and Young-ja sobbed on the floor of her home while I cried silently in my seat. The singular thought that filled my mind as I walked home that day was, "How little I know about what life was like for my father and grandfather and their generations! How scarcely I've asked them about their past sufferings!"

I wonder, often, how much today's young Koreans, including those in this country and in the global Korean diaspora, understand the concept of han. It's supposed to be a national sentiment, so can someone outside the country's borders carry it? Or is it solely the ethnic connection, which even a child adopted from Korean is meant to be able to feel because of the blood that runs through their veins? Or both? (I am certain the director intended both.) So then what about a random non-Korean American like me, who has learned about Korean history and spent a good chunk of his adult life living here? When my soul hurts with compassion and sorrow from watching a movie like "Ode to My Father", I don't know if I can call that emotion han. I have built jeong () with many Korean people, some of whom feel like family, but does that make me a part of the in-group? Can han be learned or appropriated? Tough, abstract questions, these...

But I can say at least that watching this film has not only given me a better perspective on the historical context that grounds both Korean ipseity and collective identity, but also enlightened for me parts of the unique debate over how this identity ought to be preserved and represented now and in the future. Besides all of this, "Ode to My Father" is a beautiful and satisfying film, so I highly recommend it.

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P.S. There is a very cool story about the casting of one of the actors in the film. I vaguely recognized her when she first appeared on-screen, but I never would have guessed exactly where I'd first seen her. But after I read an article about how she was cast, I was extremely surprised! You can read the article here, but I warn you that there are major plot spoilers in it. So if you plan to watch "Ode to My Father" but haven't yet, save this article until afterward. Seriously.

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