TCS Daily

Deadly Politics on Film

By James Pinkerton - June 12, 2006 12:00 AM

A new movie from South Korea is not going to crack the top ten list at Box Office Mojo, maybe not even the top 100. South Korea has produced its share of art-house hits, such as "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...And Spring", but "Typhoon", which opened Friday, is something different: It's a thriller, albeit with distinctly South Korean characteristics and politics.

Reportedly the biggest-budget film in that country's history, "Typhoon," directed by Kyung-Taek Kwak, is too conventional to appeal to cineastes, but too exotic, and subtitled, to make it with multiplex kids. Yet even so, "Typhoon" merits American attention, because it opens a window into the sentiments of a nation that ranks as our seventh-largest trading partner and as the 11th largest economy in the world.

Indeed, South Korea possesses a disproportionate cultural wallop. As The International Herald Tribune describes it, "The Korean Wave" has swept beyond the country's borders: "From well-packaged television dramas to slick movies, from pop music to online games, South Korean companies and stars are increasingly defining what the disparate people in East Asia watch, listen to and play."

Yet at the same time, as "Typhoon" makes clear, from a politico-military point of view, South Korea is still a dwarf in a land of giants. The theme of let's-be-careful-lest-we-get-stomped is what makes "Typhoon" so interesting; maybe even the mighty Uncle Sam, looking ahead, might take a lesson from the intricate yet deadly politics described in the film.

The protagonist, called Sin (Jang Don Gun) -- an apt name, making one wonder if the South Koreans think in English -- is a modern-day pirate, prowling the waters of the Eastern Pacific. Yet as the film makes clear, Sin is more sinned against than sinning -- at least at the outset. Indeed, while the film's backstory, told in flashbacks, is fictional, the history of Korea reminds us that Koreans, as a people, have suffered a hard fate. Back in 1983, a dozen members of the Choi family, including the boy who would grow up to be called Sin, managed to defect from North Korea into China, hoping to make their way to South Korea. But the South Korean government, anxious to avoid an incident that might annoy the Chinese, duplicitously arranged for the Chois to be shipped back to North Korea, where they destined for execution. The desperate family staged a revolt aboard a North Korean transport bus, and all but two of them were killed on the spot. Sin and his sister Choi Myeong-ju (Mi-yeon Lee) managed to escape into China's hinterlands. Separated by yet more cruel fate, Sin ended up as a buccaneer, while, unbeknownst to him, Myeong-ju was carried away to Russia, where she was forced into prostitution. And then she developed a brain tumor.

That might sound like a lot of melodrama, but it parallels the painful history of the strife-torn region. By Koreans' count, their peninsula has been invaded 900 times in the past 2000 years; the Korean War, raging from 1950 to 1953, killed perhaps three million Koreans. Extreme suffering and privation have made the Koreans soulful, as well as cunning -- hence their enormous artistic output.

But that's just the set-up for "Typhoon." In the present day, the film unfolds with Sin the pirate hijacking a shipment of nuclear material, sent by the sneaky Americans to Taiwan, presumably for that island-nation's atomic weapons program. The Americans, in fact, are portrayed in a relentlessly negative light; in the past, maybe the US saved the southern half of the country from communist tyranny, but more recently, in the film's telling, the Americans have become murderous macht-politikers, oblivious to Korea's safety and well-being.

But Sin's great grievance is against the Korean governments, north and south, that cooperated to kill almost all of his family. And so, using his newfound nuclear cache, he plots his terroristic revenge: In the middle of two raging typhoons blowing against the two Koreas, he seeks to unleash an armada of radioactive balloons, each one carrying cancerous megadeath toward his fellow citizens. It's a plot worthy of James Bond -- or maybe Austin Powers.

Actually, the film owes the most to Tom Clancy, since it is played straight, without the campy over-acting and sexy double-entendre-ing that distinguishes the best of the Bond films, let alone the outright satiric comedy of the Mike Myers movies. The hero of "Typhoon" is a South Korean naval officer, Gang Se-jong (Jung-Jae Lee), recruited by his government into secret-agenting and Korea-saving. He is deadly serious, with no time for romance; but he is not without nuance as he learns more about his spymaster masters. And he's definitely Asian: He steels his resolve to go forward on his climactic mission by visiting the grave of his naval-officer father, who died in the line of duty.

So Gang chases Sin across Asia. Those sequences are kinetic and scenic -- note to self: visit Vladivostok, which combines the hilly topography of San Francisco with the crummy urbanology of Omsk or Tomsk -- even though the action elements amount to nothing more than familiar thriller-stuff. But then the film adds some Korean touches: Gang's team tracks down Myeong-ju in the colorfully corrupt Russian city-by-the-sea; they hold her captive there, hoping to trap Sin when he comes to rescue his long-lost sibling. It is, indeed, an emotional moment when brother and sister are reunited after two decades; the power of the scene is amped up by the audience's realization that the two players on screen do, in fact, embody the tortured fate of millions. Yet after Sin arrives for the rescue, the South Korean government is revealed to be cynical and evil; once again, Seoul's officialdom is willing to kill innocent life for reasons of state. Yet Gang rebels, proving himself a better man than we expect; yes, he is military, but he is no automaton -- and so the rest of "Typhoon" is set in motion.

In the film's climax, Sin and Gang square off aboard a typhoon-tossed ship in the Pacific; the fate of Korea depends on the outcome of their last-man-standing knife-fight. And the film concludes: even if the governments of the two countries are demonstrably wicked, the people of Korea are worth defending.

Thus the complicated politics of the movie: the South Korean government is rotten, the North Korean regime is infinitely worse; yet somewhere in Korea's future, reunification will become a reality. So in the meantime, the bisected country must survive; all Koreans must avoid seeing their once and future country trampled by the US, Russia, China, and Japan -- the Four Horsemen, any one of which could spell Korea's apocalypse.

Those few Americans who see "Typhoon" might come away with three political lessons, in addition to the Clancyesque storyline:

First, we should consider ourselves lucky, or blessed, that we dominate this continent, indeed, this hemisphere. The day that another great power emerges in the Americas will be the day that Yankees find themselves with much less freedom of action -- and we'll have to devote a lot more energy to learning Portuguese.

Second, if the spread of WMD continues -- and South Korea is one of those countries on anyone's nuclear-proliferation watchlist -- then the US will have to learn new ways of operating in a world in which multiple actors can deliver apocalyptic damage on a chosen target. There's no reason now to think that South Korea and the US will ever be enemies, but it's clear enough, from this movie alone, that the South Koreans regard us with ambivalence today; one can only wonder what Korean-American relations will be like tomorrow. Skip ahead a half-century, and it's certain that a united and nuclearized Korea will enjoy a new kind of relationship with the United States. The choices we make in between, in our dealings with Seoul, as well as with the other capitals of present and future great powers, will shape our fate in this nuke-bristling mid-century world.

Third, in that WMD-heavy world of the future, Americans will likely have learned to step carefully amidst an evermore dangerous planetary environment. That is, just as the Koreans today are conscious of maneuvering between the aforementioned quartet of China, Russia, Japan and the US -- all the while watching such peer-states as Taiwan -- so Americans tomorrow will have to negotiate their way through thickets of menacing countries. Oh, and by the way, we might not always be sure that our own government is entirely composed of white hats.

So the growth of foreign economies, militaries, and technologies could make the world a scarier place, even before we get to the most dangerous trend of all -- the perpetual human tendency toward arrogance, violence, and dominance. In which case, we will know then what it's like to be a South Korean now.

By this reckoning, paying ten bucks to see South Korea's latest cine-export seems like a small price to pay for a view into their world, and perhaps into our future.

James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.



Time to Leave Korea
Military friends of mine who have done duty in South Korea hated serving there. They tell me that increasingly, Americans are targeted by extreme anti-Americanism. One major American military post, for example, has a "permanent" cadre of anti-American "protesters" stationed at the gate with their signs and cat-calls who routinely stop traffic with their demonstrations. In the recent past,several American troops who killed a South Korean in a traffic accident were the target of death threats, and, or a kangeroo court, as the anti-American sentiment in that country (financed and aided by the North) continues to grow and matasticize. It is my opinion that we ought to sponsor a plebesite in the South -- Koreans should be given the opportunity to vote on whether they want Americans to stay or leave. If the vote is for us to go, then we should vacate the country quickly, making it clear that we won't be back for any reason. If the North or the Chinese or anyone else threatens, the Southerners will be on their own and we won't be there to pull their chesnuts out of fire a second time.

Kinda like...

Or any of the Living Dead movies?

and yet...
They don't want us to leave fully.


Living dead? Terminator?
Maybe I'm just dense this a.m., but I don't understand your comment Mazztek. Please elaborate.

"A new South Korean export examine how the growth of foreign militaries and technologies could make the world a scarier place... even before we get to the most dangerous trend of all."

Terminator: A computer called Skynet is developed by the military to run all defensive... and offensive... capabilities of the USA. It then becomes sentient and nukes everyone and tries to terminate all humans.

(Mostly the "Return of the) Living Dead movies: A pathogen developed by the military causes the dead and living who are exposed to it to reanimate.

Taken for what it is, it's a version of "Die Another Day".

Even sillier, they're reading too much into a film. We have to quit this Davinci Code trend. Especially here on TCS.

Does Hollywood accurately portray American sentiment?
I agree with mazztek that the author may be reading too much into this film. I do not know anything about the South Korean entertainment industry, but if Hollywood is any clue, I'd say the majority of South Koreans--while perhaps finding the film to be entertaining--will not find their political voice through it.

Aside from what the Koreans want - is it in our interests to have troops there?
Back in the day we fought in Korea to contain the communists who were then on a roll. Korea may, or may not have been the logical place to make a stand, and the war may or may not have been fought wisely.

But that is water over the dam - 50+ years over the dam.

Why do we now have troops in South Korea? Clearly the South has the economic and population muscle to prepare to defend itself against any conceivable North Korean attack. At most we should have a mutual assistance treaty with them that obligates us to provide them with backup in the event China tries to muscle them.

It's only natural that the South Koreans have come to hate us. We have been acting as though they belong in diapers eating strained food for fifty years rather than recognizing that they can stand on their own two feet and defend themselves.

Well, it's complicated
Do Korean films accurately convey how the majority of South Koreans view the United States? Well, it's hard to say, really. Certainly, the Korean film industry has its own issues with the United States at the moment pertaining to the screen quota issue, and like artists everywhere, their politics can be, well, perplexing. That being said, "Typhoon" wasn't the only recent Korean film to depict the country's earstwhile American allies in a less-than-positive light. Take for instance the Korean War fantasy "Welcome to Dongmakgol," which unlike "Typhoon" did very well at the Box Office (set a new record in Korea, actually). In that film, the Americans are depicted in a very negative light, and its grand finale features North and South Korean troops uniting to shoot down American fighter aircraft. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a recent Korean film that depicts the United States in a positive light. Perhaps the only one I can think of is "Taegugki," Korea's version of "Saving Private Ryan," which at least chose to avoid bashing the United States by instead choosing to avoid any depiction of the American role in the Korean War at all. Taken in conjuction with the kind of stuff you see on Korean online forums, Internet portals and news websites, formal polling data and simply anactdotal evidence from having lived here (i.e., Korea) for almost 10 years, I'd say "ambivalent" is pretty much a spot-on description of how many Koreans, especially the younger generation, feel about the United States.

Coincidentally, another interesting trend is the increasingly positive portrayal of North Koreans (and North Korean soldiers) in South Korean films (the decidedly negative treatment they got in "Typhoon" not withstanding). But that's a whole other story...

Now, having said that, much of the ambivalence is due to Korea's recent past, namely, South Korea is going through something akin to what the United States went through during the 1970s, i.e., a period of intensive naval gazing owing as it tries to come to grips with its recent past. Obviously, a lot of Koreans resent past American support for South Korean military dictators, South Korean college campuses are awash in left-wing bullcrap, and some people are simply reacting to the over-the-top propaganda that passed for civics classes in South Korean classrooms throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I'd imagine that once the introspection is over---and at this point, it looks very likely that South Korea's conservative opposition will retake power in 2007---a lot of the pervasive anti-Americanism you see will dissipate.

Even now, the anti-Americanism is nowhere near as bad as it was in 2002 and the period immediately following the election of President Roh. And the Bush administration, for its part, has made it exceedingly clear to the Koreans that all they need to do is ask and the Americans are gone. Which has forced the South Koreans to confront the reality that even though they can defend themselves, it's simply cheaper to let the Americans do it. And even if they dislike the Americans, they absolutely loath their neighbors. Even President Roh, who got elected at least in part by pandering to the anti-American left, recently sent a small army of riot police to Pyeongtaek to crack the skulls of farmers protesting the expansion/relocation of U.S. bases, indicating that even he, ultimately, doesn't want Yankee to go home, regardless of whether or not he personally likes them.

Or course, whether or not the United States should keep troops in Korea just because the Koreans want them there is an entirely different matter...

Thank you for the detailed answer, it jives with what my completely uninformed impression has been. The reason I suspect the anti-American sentiment portrayed in Korean films wouldn't necessarily be representative of the general population, is that it is my understanding that South Korea per capita has the most evangelical Christians of any country, and according to my observation, these generally don't mind being entertained by the usually-more-liberal-than-average people in the entertainment industry, but hardly buy their politics.

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