Make Films, Not War By Martin Andersson
The Koreans are, understandably, tired of war. Their country’s bloody history has left them with deep scars, notable not least in the films that address the horrors of war. Young Koreans of today are opposed to the collective thinking which has been impressed upon their people over many years, and which seems to contain a subdued acceptance of injustice. The individual and their ability to control their own lives is a recurring theme in new South Korean films, flourishing in a relatively recently awakened freedom, not least artistically.
The emotionally strong and wholly independent The Unforgiven is a spirited and forceful “kick in the groin” to Korean militarism and its traditions. It tells the story of a group of young military men who are exposed to the worst kind of humiliation by their superiors, and more than that, are forced to humiliate others to save their own skin. The punishment is so severe it leads to suicide. Most young men in South Korea are obliged to do military service for 26 months. Newcomers are drilled, bullied and kicked in a system of bodily punishment and group machismo where the motto is “eat or be eaten”. The Unforgiven is built on the personal experiences of the director Yoon Jong-bin. His point is that all Korean men are affected by this bully system, and that many of the survivors have suppressed the hellish experience in shame.
A dramatically increased number of suicides and suicide attempts among the youth led director Hong Sang-soo to react with the movie A Tale of Cinema. In the story, which hovers on the border between fiction and reality, a young couple tries to commit suicide, seemingly for no other reason than a diffuse feeling of alienation and an alleged lack of love. Whether or not suicidal tendencies are a recurring theme in South Korean films is hard to say, but the fact is that two other films this year address the subject. In Unforgiven, two young soldiers die by their own hands, and in The Peter Pan Formula, a young man is left to fend for himself after his mother has swallowed some poison.
It could be said that the steps toward democracy in South Korea of late (not until 1992 did the country see its first non-military leader, chosen by the people), and the swift economical, material, and social changes of society, have given rise to an increasing alienation. Freedom may be a human right, but can also be limited to the choice between American shopping malls and brands of mobile phones (in South Korea, everyone over the age of 15 owns a phone, and carries it around at all times).
Or as my colleague on the jury, Mr Sergei Lavrentiev, put it: “Just send all suicide candidates to North Korea for a couple of weeks. That will do the trick!”