(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movies mentioned. You've been warned)
South Korea produces superior films when compared to the rest of the world. It feels like South Korean filmmakers somehow managed to capture the elusive art of producing great and original content within a commercial confinement. I’m not saying that all South Korean movies are great (there are always exceptions), but the industry manages to produce at least four or five remarkable films a year. There are several aspects (technically and otherwise) that make those films remarkable. Today, I am going to talk about a less discussed aspect that I’ve noticed in several South Korean films that elevate those films to another level: They make a strong political statement in a very subtle manner.
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle once said:
“Man, by nature is a political animal.”
He said this because we are a social creature with the power of speech and reasoning. This very nature runs at the heart of all our societies. The freedom to express ourselves through art must be then political. The ones that are aware of this and choose to intentionally shape society or simply point out its shortcomings are to be celebrated.
Political Commentary In Cinema
Memories of Murder is one of my favorite South Korean films. It was written and directed by Bong Joon-ho in 2003. It talks about a serial killing spree in a small town in the province of Gyunggi and the struggle faced by the local detectives and a detective from Seoul to crack the case.
It is often compared to David Fincher’s Zodiac in its treatment and especially for the ending. In Memories of Murder, the detectives never manage to find the killer or the purpose. The crime is unresolved, much like Zodiac. The movie ends with one of the detectives after many years, visiting the crime scene. He is now a salesman. He learns from a local girl that someone else just visited the same spot, indicating that the killer might have visited his own crime scene. It was a very chilling and twisted end to the story and it blew me away when I first watched the movie. After many re-watches I discovered that there was another narrative along with the main narrative. The main narrative is about the serial killer and the detectives, while the secondary narrative is about the changing political scene in South Korea.
In traditional South Korean culture — much like most of the Asian cultures — family and societal bonds and duties are valued much more than anything else. Isolation, loneliness and resulting damages are purely designated to western society, where family values are diminishing and the individuals are isolated. A sense of purposelessness creeps up in those societies. Yet, in South Korea, in a small town no less, a serial killer shows up, first of his kind. Serial killing in its very nature points to a sense of purposelessness, an act driven by isolation, mostly.
The movie is inspired by real-life serial killings that took place between 1986 and 1991. It was the first known case of serial murders and it took place in a changing political scene. It was around 1987 that South Korea’s military regime held its free elections and Seoul Olympics took place in 1988 and other major changes took place in the country that paved way for the modernization of the South Korean society.
The movie never addresses or acknowledges these political changes, but the implications were prevalent throughout the film. Even at the end, when the detective is talking to his kid over the phone, he asks him whether he studied or stayed up all night playing video games, an indication of a changed and modernized society.
A similar statement is made in the recent South Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan, written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon. It is an outright entertaining commercial zombie film. It is a violent and thrilling ride. Zombies invade a moving train, which can’t be stopped anywhere. A paper-thin Hollywood plot, right?
Commercial As Well As Political
This doesn’t stop the filmmaker from etching out three-dimensional characters, nail-biting screenplay, stunning visuals and an underlying political statement about class divide, the invisible line that separates the wealthy and the normal and a point about media manipulation by corporate owners. The very conflict of the film stems from a corporate carelessness and its effort to bury the secret by manipulating the media.
It is very similar to an incident in South Korean in 2014, when 300 people (mostly teenagers) died in a ferry accident because a major corporation decided to overload the ferry to save more money. It is a national tragedy. The primary narrative in Train to Busan is a zombie thriller, but the underlying political statement is about corporate carelessness and its consequences. All of this was buried under a fun summer flick.
Even when Bong Joon-ho made his way to Hollywood by Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic thriller set in a moving train, much like Train to Busan, he talked about class divide, with much less subtlety and much more complexity.
Class Divide In A Post-Apocalyptic World
There are several films, like Mother, The Yellow Sea, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, where an underlying political tone runs throughout the film's run time. Even the fun ones like 2015’s Veteran and 2016’s Violent Prosecutor spoke politics and critiqued society in some way or the other.
This, I think makes South Korean cinema stand miles apart from its counterparts. This intentional political statement and a critique about its own society in the midst of a great story and performance provide a life to the film and the great part is that it is not exclusive to the South Korean society.
It also speaks to the rest of the world with the same intensity, as most of our problems are the same, regardless of our race and culture. South Korean films are proving that cinema is not just for mindless fun or escapism; it can also be a tool to shape, change or just point out the limitations of an ever-changing society. It can even be all at once and great art can be entertaining.
You can watch this whole essay in a new video, right here!
Which South Korean film do you think carries the most political weight?