The 2012 Busan International Film Festival

We hailed a taxi in Yongin at around 5 in the morning. The buses don’t start running until near 6 in Korea. The taxi deposited us at Suwon station where we boarded the train to Busan. The five hour ride across the quiet and foggy Korean countryside was pleasant and uneventful. Upon arriving in Busan we met our final companion and proceeded to penetrate deep into the world of cinema.

The first film we saw was probably quite fitting for us. It was a South Korean film about a western woman visiting a small Korean town. It was aptly titled In Another Country (2012). The simple story of a French lady going to a small Korean town might have been entertaining on its own, but director Sang-soo Hong knows how to add layers and interest. It is told three times, with actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) becoming a slightly different character (all named Anne, however) each time  the film stops and tells a different story—all with the same locations, supporting characters, and loose tie-ins to the other plots. The story is also vaguely hooded within the context of a girl writing script ideas on a legal pad to cope with her ambiguous home anxiety. And so our elliptical wheel turns. It’s a quiet, modest, nonlinear film whose structural cunning and obscurity compensate for whatever some might deem a low budget. In Another Country reminded me of a sort of cross between Certified Copy (2010) and Run Lola Run (1998)…but I liked it better than those particular films. Among its many charms is Yoo Jun-sang as the mildly awkward but unflappably gregarious lifeguard whom Anne repeatedly has run-ins with. The lifeguard character effortlessly steals every scene he is in. Another shout out goes to the monk dude. I admit my bias when discussing this film as many of the smaller scenarios endured by the central character resemble many of my own since moving to Korea, but I think the average movie goer will probably enjoy this strange little beast all by themselves.

After the film we wandered down to the beach and ate some spicy Korean octopus.

Fly with the Crane (2012) was to be the next film we would view. Directed by Rui Jun Li, this somber and earthy Chinese movie feels more like a dramatization of a National Geographic article than a cinematic fiction. This is not Crouching Tiger, this is a gorgeous, meticulous, and authentic feeling movie about the subtly shifting winds of change. Old Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma)  is a 73 year old retired coffin maker living in rural China with his adult children. His role as a figure to be respected is gone and he is viewed more as a cumbersome relic clinging spitefully to traditional ways. When burials become outlawed in his province in favor of cheaper and faster cremations, the dying wishes of Ma and all the town’s elderly is in crisis. Tradition demands they be buried in the earth so that the white crane can carry them to heaven. Nobody wants to end up as smoke. When the government even begins to dig up Ma’s friends who have had secret burials things become more upsetting. The world around Ma is changing, even if it still seems very under-developed and simple to some, and with the coming of change so perishes the traditions of the old. Fly with the Crane is slow and simple but rich in its humanity. For a movie about a tragic figure trying to plan his own funeral it’s not without some moments of gentle humor and simple humanity. Although it is shot in largely very long takes (Bela Tarr fans will be fine) that let you just steep in the environment, the pace never drags and the music (although its use is sparse) is wonderful and well-placed. I cannot reveal the ending, but let’s just say I don’t know that I was mentally prepared for the final scene.

Following a fitful night’s sleep on a solid wood floor we were up again at 6 to wait in the ticket line. We managed to obtain precisely the tickets we were looking for.

Film three was the only movie I had been aware of back in the states. I had wanted to see it but was afraid I’d be in the wrong country at the time of its release. Ha! Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an American film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play by Lucy Alibar. While the film unfolds as an immensely gritty American fable and allegory for the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it proves to be also a hardy story about resilience, home, stubbornness, and maybe even the desire for one’s existence to be validated and remembered. Beasts combines elements of the real world but punctuated by an exaggerated logic and a poet’s sensibilities. The cast is great but it is the lead role of Hushpuppy played by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis that makes it all work. As the film itself quips, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” A child actor can make or break a film, and little Quvenzhané really makes it. The story follows the tough little girl, Hushpuppy, as she deals with living in uneducated squalor with her erratic and volatile father on the wrong side of the levy in a dilapidated bayou community called the Bathtub. Things go from bad to worse when the Storm comes and floods their world and then the ice caps melt releasing prehistoric bloodthirsty aurochs that rampage their way to the Bathtub. It is an edifying experience for the imagination and a welcome emotional letter for the soul. Much is dealt with and all from a child’s eye view. Between the amazing score that stirs your very core, the almost Herzogian use of animals, the sumptuous photography, and powerful pint-sized performance this proves to be a special movie indeed. The innovative auroch special effects were done by Death to the Tinman and MGMT music video director, Ray Tintori.

And then ate Vietnamese food alfresco.

So three solid movies in a row. We were doomed for a stinker, right? No so.

The last film we were able to catch before our train was The Pirogue (2012), a Senegalese production directed by Moussa Touré. I had no idea what a “pirogue” was before watching this movie. Apparently it’s not at all like those Polish ravioli things [pirogi]. The story concerns 30 Africans who are attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe via Spain. The trouble is they must face long uncertain days on the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a glorified canoe-type boat called a pirogue. This is a very even-handed drama that does not feel manipulative. Every character is a person with individual hopes and dreams and everyone’s will is eventually tested on their doomed sojourn. Storms at sea are bad, but when your craft is as exposed and vulnerable as theirs it becomes devastating. Soon desperation sets in and they begin to wonder how long their journey will go on. I do not wish to give away too much because the less you know going in, the more powerful the drama will be. This film was inspired by the thousands of Africans who have made similar journeys to Europe and the thousands who perished attempting it. This is not Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Much like Fly with the Crane, The Pirogue feels very authentic, which makes each moment that much more believable and heart-breaking. Arizona law-makers should watch this movie. We, in America, think we’re the only ones with an immigration problem, but it is a cross-cultural occurrence that challenges many nations, and all of those nations might benefit from viewing the phenomenon from the other’s point-of-view. The cast is powerful and despite the bulk of the drama unfolding in one space (a rather crowded boat) it holds your attention because you’re never sure what will happen next.

All in all I’d say we were blessed to see the diverse and amazing films we did. My big regret was that we only got to see four movies. There were so many other ones we wanted to see, but it was just too difficult and we only had two days. The International Busan Film Festival was an absolute delight and I highly recommend all the magnificent movies I saw.

The following day I was back at work and watched a film of a much different nature. It was a PSA about sexual harassment at work, but it was all in Korean so I’m not sure what I was meant to learn. Is spanking my coworkers a bad thing?

A Spastic in North Korea

North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.

That's our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

That’s our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

 

Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.

Like a spastic in North Korea we're wheelchair bound.

Like a spastic in North Korea we’re wheelchair bound.

The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?

Mrs. Pak.

Mrs. Pak.

Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.

Cheery.

Cheery.

The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.

Today we will march up and down the square!

Today we will march up and down the square!

On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.

The boys pose with some locals.

The boys pose with some locals.

I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.

Creepy.

Come to me, my children.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011