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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Address Unknown"

2014/08/22 | 484 views | Permalink

The year is 1970, the location a small Korean town on the southern side of the demilitarized zone. A bunch of bleak looking fields abound in the area, and they look equally dreary in all seasons. The main sources of economic activity are the American military base and the dog meat butchery. Adults ruminate about how wonderful it was back when the war was going on, and their lives had some sort of actual purpose. American soldiers constantly practice their army crawls in anticipation of a northern invasion. The last bit comes off as particularly absurd. Why would the North Koreans want to invade a miserable place like this? And why would the Americans care if they did?

"Address Unknown" is about the holding pattern life gets into long after the excitement is gone and there's no more heroism and romance to be had. The old guys going on about where their medals are, that's fine, they're not hurting anybody. But the middle-aged characters come off as particularly pathetic. They want to feel superior to the rest of this lousy town, having long since refused to acknowledge that this is their home, and there won't be any magical rescue from the Americans.

Ironically, the Americans probably could do something useful, it's just that keeping the military running is more important. There's this constant recurring motif of a plane flying overhead, and it's pretty hard to ignore that from the perspective of these impoverished people living in an old backwards country country, this is just plain absurd. They live in a world where giant flying metal abominations exist but there's nothing anybody can do about local thuggery?

What makes all this especially comical is the way the film is loaded with stereotypes, to the point that one might be tempted to call "Address Unknown" racist except that it was made by a Korean. Dog butchery? Frequent verbal abuse toward mixed race children? Rape? A similar charge might be made concerning the film's portrayal of one American soldier- but then again, it's just that one guy who's clearly bent out of shape. All the other ones are telling him to knock it off and get his head in the game.

That's the essential irony behind "Address Unknown". This is a place where people go about their lives just fine so long as they do what they're told and don't bother to question anything. Most of them anyway. The ones who choose to defy that fate and end up turning into the main characters of a Kim Ki-duk film. This is rarely ever a place that anybody wants to be. Fighting the system is hard.

Which is perhaps the most impressive part of the way the film presents its general stereotypes. In the end, all these characters basically end up validated in their firm belief that yes, they are unique and special and deserve to be treated as such. The simple reality is that nobody, Korean or American, actually values self-assured independent thinking. Partially this is because the system itself is messed up. What's worse is realizing that the individualists themselves are messed up- and even for the survivors, that's a pretty bittersweet takeaway.

Review by William Schwartz

"Address Unknown" is directed by Kim Ki-duk and features Yang Dong-geun, Ban Min-jung, Kim Young-min, Cho Jae-hyun and Pang Eun-jin.


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