Kim Jong-il’s death made me sentimental. This is what I actually said to someone when recently asked about my feelings on his passing. Yes, sometimes, I’m rather inarticulate. In such moments, my temporal lobe probably grasps at lingering plumes of an alien language learned first and long since forgotten. Also, my friends don’t associate with many Koreans, it would seem. So I get asked things like this from time to time.
To be fair to my friends, I don’t hang out with many Korean people either. Yeah, I’m that guy. But what I meant to say to the person who asked, was that Kim Jong-il’s death stirred up both a hope and the many anxieties of Korean reconciliation. That makes me a little sentimental. I’m not convinced that his death makes reconciliation of the two Koreas any more likely. Nor do I think that his death weakens the northern hermit country’s leadership structure to cause a collapse.
People fear that there might be a power struggle between Jang Sung-taek and the newly throned Kim Jong-un. Coups are tiring affairs. I’ll believe that it happens in North Korea when we read about it. Still, there’s no mourning Kim Jong-il’s death. Addition by subtraction. I didn’t need George W to include North Korea on the blacklist of evil nations to know that Kim was a shitty leader. I should probably break to mention that I was, incidentally, raised by a Korean woman whose family migrated south during the split. They were among many South Koreans of their day who believed that “빨갱이” — or to call someone a red (or communist) — was a slur.
Several sentimental things have been hurled at this stone heart in recent weeks (the holidays, probably), but Kim’s death got me to thinking that I really need to get my ass to Korea. Technically, I have been there before: once, for about six months when I was too young to remember. I’m well overdue for another pilgrimage…or two. I want to go to Korea before the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018. Of course, I’d also like to go for the Olympics.
I’m not quite sure why news of Kim’s death ups my desire to go to Korea. It’s not like I didn’t want to when he was still breathing. And it’s not that I envision cinematic epiphanies with sweeping helicopter establishing shots. I dunno. But there I was, feeling oddly sentimental with no ice cream or tickets to Korea in hand (or in gift wrapping for that matter. Hey, it’s still more reasonable than a car with a big, red bow on it).
So after a quick run to Ms. Spicy’s to re-up on Caribbean ice cream, I sifted through the available Korean-related media at my disposal to distract myself. First, I turned to the Kimchi Chronicles, a Korean food focused PBS cooking show featuring Marja and Jean-George Vongerichten. She’s half-Korean and he’s a French chef. The show follows the couple as they sample various food items in Korea, and later as they recreate their favorite K-inspired dishes. The format is reminiscent of José Andrés’ Made in Spain, but with Korean food.
While there are moments where I wished Chronicles had better production leanings (i.e. particularly in their kitchen/studio), I love the show. Yes, it’s entry level. Chronicles views like it’s tailored for those who are interested in, but not well versed in Korean cuisine. For the “foodies”, Jean-George steps in within every episode to add an innovative, if not highbrow, interpretation to a Korean dish. I loved seeing Marja in Seoul and various other locales, sampling food from street vendors, markets and restaurants. Husband and wife also have great screen chemistry and are joined in a few episodes by Hugh Jackman and Heather Graham. The show originally aired in Summer 2011. Yes, this is a late reference to the series. Several people told me to check out this thing before I actually did. These nameless supporters deserve the credit for my late find. I wouldn’t know about the kimchi goodness of Chronicles until months later, when I stumbled across the title on the racks of a going-out-off-business bookstore.
Since then, I’d made a few dishes from the book and watched the series. Three episodes in, I asked my mother to send me some homemade kimchi. Food is a part of one’s identity. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate (if not popular) comfort to reach out for when feelings about one’s identity are stirred. I guess that’s what Kim’s death did. Stirred stuff. Still, food doesn’t seem significant enough alone. I mean, loving food is a valid enough reason to travel anywhere, but it’s not like I can’t get the food in the DMV. Turning to Kimchi Chronicles seemed more like a convenient port. Perhaps it’s not unlike eating Caribbean ice cream for dinner.
A few days later, I found myself searching for something more substantive. I browsed the K films in my proverbial library. I was looking for something more language-intensive. Part of me treats it like homework, though it hasn’t taken effect quite yet. To call my Korean speaking skills that would be a gross misrepresentation. When I was younger, those words left my mouth gracefully, but over years of neglect, the beats became muddled and then forgotten. I’ve reengaged the Korean language for a variety of reasons, but I can’t deny that I feel that if/when I go to Korea, I should be able to speak the language better than I do now. The other part of me just hopes that it comes rushing back when I’m there. So, I pass-by movies like 악마를 보았다 and 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (I Saw The Devil and The Good, Bad, and the Weird, respectively), both recent watches that include unapologetic violence (and both available on Netflix for instant viewing). I almost settled on The Good, The Bad and the Weird because it costars one of my favorite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho in a period piece set in Manchuria. But alas, it was an English dub. Instead, I searched for JSA, or “Joint Security Area.” Good/Bad/Weird probably led me to this 2001 thriller because it reunites stars Lee Byung-hun and Kang-ho Song.
JSA is part of a particular subgenre of Korean film that I’d call reconciliation-fantasy — at least that’s what Chuck Lilley might call it. This isn’t a particular genre of South Korean cinema, per se, but reconciliation is a popular theme explored in many South Korean films. While I’m hardly Mr. Current Affairs when it comes to Korea, I did take a handful of Korean history and language courses in college.
I figured I should know something about the place my people were from. The most memorable ones focused on modern Korean history, taught by Dr. Charles Lilley. JSA, like other films that Lilley would call reconciliation narratives, confronts South Korean sentiment on the divided issue of reunification. In some films, such as 태극기 (or Taegukgi), the focus lays more in the trauma of Korea’s division and evils of war. A period piece about the Korean War, Taegukgi resembles an older war film where bad guys posess no redeeming or human qualities. North Korean people are clearly marked as the enemy (or the other) in the film. Check it out sometime and see Jang Dong-gun’s transformation. He becomes animal.
Compare Taegukgi to how North Koreans are treated in Welcome to Dongmakgol (웰컴 투 동막골). Dongmakgol is an offbeat fantasy/comedy also set against the Korean War. This film seems to posit that the path to Korean reconciliation lies within a return to the values of an olden and idyllic Korea. Dongmakgol places a downed American fighter pilot, two South Korean army deserters, and three stranded North Korean comrades within a fictional and isolated mountain village. The village is so far removed from modernity that its villagers are unaware of the country’s civil war — or even what guns look like. The villagers look as though they belong in a much older period piece, but they exist in the film as a benign Korean people who live without directional prefixes.
Within this fantastic space, the villagers don’t understand the reasons for the Korean war — something that the soldiers are also unable to articulate. Slowly, the soldiers’ distrust of each other and their national allegiances give way to a negotiated but harmonious existence. The solders work the land together, rebuild a village building and share a meal of wild boar. The film seems to want to remind its South Korean viewers that the divided peoples have more in common than either would want to admit. North Koreans are not distanced from the viewer as in films like Taegukgi.
The two Korean peoples are not alien at all, but they are brothers (as the South Korean medic says to a North Korean soldier). As an aside: reconciliation films are also an interesting space to observe South Korean feelings about the U.S. and its involvement in Korea’s division, as well as its continued presence in the country. But I’ll save that for another post.
Unlike Dongmakgol and Tagukgi, JSA is not a period piece about the Korean War. Still, the film’s sentiment leans more towards Dongmakgol than Taegukgi as it navigates the implications of reconciliation. JSA is set in present day Korea at the DMZ (2000) and focuses on an investigation into a border shooting. Swiss Army Major Sophie Jang (played by South Korean actress Lee Young Ae) is called in to lead the investigation. Recounted largely through flashback, the film focuses on the unlikely friendship that develops between soldiers from the North and South.
Like the soldiers in Dolmakgol, JSA’s soldiers grapple with the instinct to protect one’s state and a realization that North and South Koreans are the same people. Beyond listening to music and breaking-bread (Choco Pies) together, the soldiers achieve some measure of intimacy, sharing personal stories and exchanging gifts. In one scene shortly before the climactic reveal, they are shown playing children’s games together (i.e. chicken-fighting). The characterizations of North Koreans in this film are admirable, but perhaps none more than that of North Korean Seargent Oh Hyeung-Pil (Kang). Director Chan Wook Park (more famous for Old Boy) makes Sergeant Oh a quirky and likeable character.
The North Korean Oh is a K-pop-listening, junk-food loving man, shown to have mastery of his corporeal abilities and to possess great self-discipline. I won’t spoil the film. Just know that Oh spits fortune-cookie gems like, “what’s important in battle isn’t speed. It’s carrying yourself with composure and bravery.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that I turned to Korean reconciliation cinema (and food, for that matter) as a reaction to Kim’s death. The fears and anxieties of a reunified or reconciled Korea are played out in these narratives in fantastical and varied ways. Also, there was only so much coverage about Kim’s death that I could watch. It repeated over and over again on the various news channels and on Arirang TV.
It’s clear that many Koreans await the day that they may reunite with loved ones across the boarder. I just don’t see it happening in the immediate future. I don’t see it happening as a result of Kim Jong-il’s death. Of course, I hope I’m wrong. That’s hope for you. In the meanwhile, I’m slowly working through that kimchi and planning a trip to the motherland.
“Hope, it is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”
–The Architect, The Matrix Reloaded