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[HanCinema Feature] Framing Korea: Moving Pictures and Foreign Knowledge


What can we know about Korea through its cinema? If you were to have asked me that question some years ago, when I first I broke my Korea seal on Kim Dong-bin's fear flick "Red Eye", my answer would have probably been overly simplistic and unrefined, as yet unaware of the stellar symphony of Han-hardened beliefs about a world that underpinned this first trip; of a world that would still need to take shape before eyes.


"Red Eye" (2004) felt immediately 'other' to me. It appeared as an alien message curiously contained and coded within the familiar language of pictures in motion (as most first outings into foreign flicks goes). The familiarity of film was the link to exploring part of the motion-picture multiverse, to experience another world, culture, I might not have had such intimate access to. I understood its pictorial presence, narrative logic, had a sense of its aesthetic and moral values, and was able to feel the empathy powering the pistons on this horrible ride into Seoul's underground.

I did, like all other aliens invading Korea's cinematic consciousness, have no problem relating to the cinematic apparatus at work, the drama of the figures and faces I saw, and (despite the cultured elephant in the theatre) I felt confident that I had experienced something true about Korean culture (despite having to 'read' into it, and be it but a slither). Such is the uncanny (sometimes uncomfortable) paradox of foreign cinema: We feel at once secure in our understanding of the social event at play (us, the viewer, spectator, audience, etc., watching a play of shadows), with identifying with the characters' drama and conflicts, and so on, but there is also something stupefyingly obvious that we seem also need to suspend in order to fully enjoy and relate to exotic events.

One very fundamental psychological commitment to cinema that is currently degenerating is that of our 'suspension of disbelief'. We must want to feel something when we decide to watch a film, and the collective agency of film production toils to imagine a world you'd could belief in, and so feel in. To watch a film is to entertain a very precious and vivid kind of thought experiment; we accept certain conditions, rules are formally laid out, and we puzzle over a problem posed within. What if we had the science and technology to bring back Barney and Friends? What ethical choices would Strong AI make with regards to human life? How would a priest moonlighting as a vampire make moral choices? How would someone imprisoned for fifteen years contend with revenge, memory, and madness? What would it be like to fall in love at mental hospital? In short, cinema imagines how our ideas of things might manifest.

Films, like thought experiments, require us to surrender in a very real way to the conditions (axioms) of a world imagined. No matured modern mind leaves the theatre without this illusion having been dispelled. Whatever is real about cinema, it is not anything that can stray far from the original experience, and so in cinema's case, believing is seeing. If we simply just 'look', without said belief (or, to be more precise, suspending our disbelief), we are left with this troubling trend of reducing cinema to other specific things, rather than as an imagined ecology of cultured ideas in space-time.

Consider the media's reactions to recent epic space thrillers like "Gravity" and "Interstellar" and you'll find a host of words around dedicated to 'the science behind' what we actually experience (surely it was the sublime effect of "bullet time" in "The Matrix" that affected, and so to pull back and discover the wizard behind the curtain is not conducive to cinema's constitutional condition: "Suspend disbelief or be fooled!"). It's the ghost of postmodernists that compels us to commit to reductionist realities of cinematic art, to hyperactive fictions that sideline any aspect or moment of film reception you can say you 'believed' in.

But this is not limited to science being 'self-critical' of science-centred films, the same reactions happen at the other end of the spectrum, too. "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings" were criticised even more rigorously for their biblical inconsistencies, and were judged by some as erroneous blasphemes to avoid and detest. This is one result of the curse of knowledge in the age of experts and images; and we've wrongly come to believe that technology has caught up to our imagination-'It's 2015, where are the hover-boards we dreamed of/were promised!'-and have already began to retreat openly into false fundamentals and fictions.

Our relationships to actors and idols suffers a similar fate. If you are watching a film and cannot (or don't want to) see 'past' the real person you assume exists in reality, then the reality painted for you becomes inaccessible, hidden by an unwillingness to dance with ideas on display. If you watch "Gravity" and can only see Sandra Bullock (and not mission specialist Ryan Stone), you are not allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the might and mind of cinema.

By submitting (suspending) yourself to artfulness, in this case cinema, we must at some stage leap faithfully into a world we do not yet know, and to claim that we do know (by recognising actors, 'real world' objects, events, etc.) is to undermine artistic expression and creativity itself. This is, of course, an extremely difficult position to maintain while watching (some films even make it a point to blur the cinematic real with reality, but even then we say, for example, that the actors are 'playing' themselves in some serious sense), and for many perhaps nigh impossible. But that doesn't mean that it should not be pursued, especially if we wish to honestly announce that we appreciate (not just buy-in to) critical creativity in all its marvellous manifestations.

It seems that more and more we are wanting something excessive from cinema, a higher truth or fuller fantasy that spells reality in some other rational way. Of course the 'behind-the-scenes' features are interesting in their own right (like, again, knowing whether or not "Gravity" simulates weightlessness accurately, for example), and that characters onscreen are given life by real people we perhaps then feel attached (or attracted) to, but if we accept that we must suspend our disbelief in order to kickstart this empathy machine in the first place, then we must say that these are obviously circumstantial conditions to the creative event on trial. And so when we bring such 'real' baggage to bear on cinema, something fundamental to the desired fantasy is lost, its reality becomes amiss, and the experience dilutes.

To dismiss or praise a film based on its scientific accuracy, religious integrity, or by reaching for 'real world' things is now a normal and expected reaction. This is perhaps because the distinction between film-worlds and the real world is becoming increasingly obscure (it's not hard to imagine now, for example, donning the last VR googles, dipping into a self-deprivation chamber, and, for all sensational purposes, being-in-a-world), and there's a kind of anti-realist response teasing cinema's suspension bridge; between what is real, and the virtual. As this gap narrows, the social nature of filmgoing is falling away in favour of a more personal, futuristic, fantasy space; one designing itself towards being fully immersive, complete, and hermetic-a cine-capsule. A space where actors are objects again and our real rules honestly.

This is the suspension challenge for contemporary filmgoers, and it's a challenge that's complicated not only at the local level (where you're not 'othered'), but is heightened when we confront cinemas from around the world (philosophy's "problem of other minds"). For the foreign viewer it is, at first, easier to suspend disbelief because the cinematic cues (actor's faces, places, etc.) are most likely not immediately known to us (assuming that country has the necessary ingredients for cinematic evolution to begin with; the right political, economic, and social life to form frames). However the problem arises once again in time when this honeymoon concludes and a new reality dawns; interest is soon sparked and the desire to know more becomes natural: we read-up on and note directors, research and follow stars, explore and come to know about the historic events and featured places. And in some cases we may even come to know more than the dreamer.

So are we to ignore to social context in which films arise, bar its actors and technologies to trivial insights not relevant to what we're seeing? Balance is key, as well as an understanding of the impossible gap we are always dead reckoning when trying to explore the borderlands between our own reality, and ones created for them/us. Knowing that a specific film was based on historical records, that another 'version' of a story exists (as with all adaptations), or even that a film is part of series does not validate a reading beyond the moment-to-moment thoughts of any given film. There's a roaming middle ground we need to acknowledge and point to from all sides.

This is why talking and discussing films is so difficult and is such a challenge to language and our vocabulary. How can we collectively talk about the nuances of the specific moments that make us feel or think hard? What was is, exactly, about an actor/actresses performance, a camera move, sound bite, or a cut that moved us? If cinema can think different things in all languages across time and space, do we need to refine our language(s), or our thinking? This middle ground we understand film through is tricksy, and is not so easily bent to the written word's will.

We might poetically elude to the messages (and risk obscurantism) or find common ground in reductions of film form, and we seem to want to simplify things beyond what is useful, and discussions and appreciation of films gets relegated largely to talk on people and events. To borrow Eleanor Roosevelt's words to make a point: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people", and so it is far easier to speak of people and story than it is to address what any given film is thinking at a time. Again, this is the challenge we must take up, and was better captured in 1945 by film critic and poet, Béla Balázs: "We must be better connoisseurs of film if we are not to be as much at the mercy of perhaps the greatest intellectual and spiritual influence of our age as to some blind and irresistible elemental force" .

This is where I find myself with Korean cinema: the outsider within looking out. Through my many hours of watching Korean films I have, like many others, set coordinates for myself about Korean culture itself. This should not be overstated though, meaning that if one wanted to know about a culture in its entirety (which, I would state, is practically impossible to begin with), watching its blockbusters would not produce certainty, only reveal virtual aspects of a culture (what would aliens think of humanity if we showed them "The Admiral: Roaring Currents", "Avatar", or "Frozen"?). This is to act as a kind of cultural archaeologist, perhaps more a dreamscape detective piecing together subtle and diverse threads of a collective consciousness, trying to make sense of that which cannot itself be imagined completely or wholly represented. It's exciting and entertaining work.

We can easily read up on Korea's suicide statistics, research and hear testimony and reports on it, but gather enough pieces of cinematic evidence and you'll start to feel that cruel cultural feature at 24fps. It's a morbid motif that haunts many of the dreams I've seen come out from (under) the South. How does Korea view love, romance, and the chase? How much respect or contempt does Korea hold towards authority figures and state apparatus like the military, police, and politicians? Can we see tensions between North and South manifested in their films? What does Korea fear, hope for, and honour? Why are revenge thrillers, historical dramas, high-school romances, and those gangster flicks so prevalent/popular? I think it's fair to say that both those within a particular culture and those outside can find reasonable answers to such questions, by considering not just the faces, places, and plot, but the ideas structuring the spectacle, as emergent properties of a life lived. Like dreamy hobgoblins we pick and piece together the real world of the dreamer from within, and so it's through specific visions of the country's own desires, fears, and fantasies that we may come to know something sublime about Korean identity, and perhaps, in time, our own.


- C.J. Wheeler (@WoolgatheristKoreaOnTheCouch)

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