History Guides the Future in South Korea’s Latest Blockbuster

Opinion

Poster of Ode to My Father (Source: CGV)
Poster of Ode to My Father (Source: CGV)

Three uniformed South Korean high school students mercilessly heckle a South Asian migrant laborer in contemporary Busan. Seeing this, an elderly Korean man flies into a rage against them.

The privileged youngsters are oblivious to the fact that the old man, Deok-soo, had himself been a migrant laborer. In fact, tens of thousands of South Koreans went to West Germany in the 1960s as Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers”, working as coal miners and nurses. Deok-soo nearly died in a mine collapse in West Germany, where he met his wife — a nurse who cleaned up feces and washed cadavers. Unlike the ignorant students and their amnesiac countrymen, Deok-soo has lived through these historical episodes. He is acutely aware of the pain and the price South Koreans like him have paid – and, in some cases, still pay – to create the privileged South Korea of today.

Such is the ephemerality of national memory, the subject of recent South Korean blockbuster Ode to My Father. Since its opening in mid-December, the film has topped domestic box office rankings, selling more than 10 million tickets within the first month of screening, in a country of 50 million people.

Popularly described in Western media as a “Korean Forrest Gump,” the film uses flashbacks from the life of an archetypal Korean man to paint a canvas of the ubiquitous and excruciating Korean experience between 1950 and the present.

But this grand narrative of South Korea’s recent history has come under intense scrutiny for its alleged message.

From the Korean-language Chosun ilbo to the English edition of the Korea Times, newspaper editorials interpret the film and its popularity as a decidedly conservative affirmation of the development state, even a nostalgic evocation of Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship. For the right, then, the movie’s popularity represents validation for the corporatist economic policies that have led to today’s South Korea and its current government, headed by Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former dictator.

“One may wonder after watching the movie whether the government commissioned the director to make such retro, feel-good film in order to boost President Park Geun-hye’s administration”, the Korea Times’ reviewer speculates. “After all, she is the daughter of late former President Park Chung-hee, who made the decision to send the miners [to West Germany] and soldiers [to Vietnam]”.

Leftists have taken particular exception to the literal meaning of the Korean title (Gukje sijang, “International Market”), interpreting it not just as an actual marketplace in Pusan but as an evocation of the South Korean corporatism that callously “sold” Korean lives abroad as soldiers and laborers in exchange for foreign capital to fuel national development.

It is, however, both unfortunate and antithetical to the film’s intent and merit that South Korean pundits appear only to be capable of viewing it through ideological lenses and politicizing it for their own purposes. In an interview with Korea Joongang Daily, Director Yoon Je-gyun laments the tendency of influential Koreans to politically polarise everything for personal gain at the expense of the larger society. “It is because there is a group that believes that the energy created through conflict is more beneficial than the energy created through a harmony of understanding and sympathy. They believe conflict is more advantageous to them than healing. That is why they are continuing to spark arguments and are making it an issue”.

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Despite Gukje sijang’s explicit juxtapositions of contemporary social and economic issues with the unforgiving recent past of suffering and sacrifice, the film comes across as consciously apolitical. Even in its opening scenes, full of the chaos of the Korean War (1950-1953), for example — particularly the Hungnam Evacuation (1950) — and its later portrayal of Vietnam in the anxious days between the withdrawal of US forces in 1974 and the “Fall of Saigon” to the North Vietnamese the next year, the filmmaker takes extraordinary pains not to politicise the wars, neither demonizing the communists nor glorifying their opponents. Over 316,000 South Korean troops fought in the Vietnam War, but the protagonist is never portrayed as a soldier or the agent of a government, either of North Korea, South Korea or the United States.

Yoon reveals, “All I wanted to do was make a family movie that could be watched together by three generations. That is why I purposely took out political events that could be sensitive and create an uncomfortable atmosphere”. Yoon deliberately focuses on the personal experiences of the protagonist as a means of eliciting sympathy for the disadvantaged. Deok-soo identifies with the South Asian migrant worker abused by the students because he himself had once occupied the same position in a different time and place. Poor Koreans competed to win “3D” — dirty, dangerous, and difficult — jobs in West Germany in the 1960s. Early in the film, Deok-soo is portrayed as a filthy Korean child chasing American jeeps for Hershey’s bars in the streets of 1950s Busan; later, as a military contractor he hands his own Hershey’s bar to a Vietnamese boy in 1970s Saigon.

The author's father, Yong Sik Kwak, volunteered for two twelve month tours in Vietnam (1969-1971) for the same reasons as the fictional protagonist in Gukje sijang and hundreds of thousands of his generation - to serve his family and build a better life for those around him. (Credit: Tae Yang Kwak)
The author’s father, Yong Sik Kwak, volunteered for two twelve month tours in Vietnam (1969-1971) for the same reasons as the fictional protagonist in Gukje sijang and hundreds of thousands of his generation – to serve his family and build a better life for those around him. (Credit: Tae Yang Kwak)

Yet even as the protagonist undergoes experiences of political significance to modern Korea, the film manages to highlight sentimental humanity in the midst of inhuman circumstances. Though the national anthem is featured twice in the film, it is played ironically to distract and to defuse awkward and personal moments rather than to promote nationalism. Significantly, Deok-soo never sacrifices himself for the corporatist nation; only for personal motives and familial obligations. He is an embodiment of han, that distinctively Korean emotional confluence of selfless sacrifice, internalised suffering, and unresolvable regret that leads not to futile despair but drives a lonely, almost superhuman determination to endure. He is a fully fledged individual, made up of both successes and dashed dreams.

His personal dissatisfaction, in spite of a life that appears complete from the outside, mirrors the current problems and challenges faced by South Korea as it maintains its dizzying pace of change. Rapid modernisation has produced an affluent but dislocated and unanchored society.

Is Gukje sijang really an exercise in nostalgia to be praised by the right and derided by the left? It does, indeed, call on viewers to remember, but without fetishizing the past or the development-based state that has ostensibly been built on sacrifice. If anything, the film emphasises the need to explore the reality of forgetting and promote the need to remember, in a country that lacks consciousness of its former self, so that it can pay greater attention to what it has become and to where it might be headed.

In South Korea, contemporary history is omitted from the national school curriculum. The modern era (“geundae”) begins in 1876 with the “opening” of Joseon Korea to international trade and international market forces, and the contemporary era (“hyeondae”) begins in 1945 with liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Arguably the most diligent students in the world study everything except the entire history of their own republic, founded in 1948, and the entire history of the division, which was applied in 1945. Not one but every generation of South Koreans lacks the formal education to understand the historical context of the republic or the division beyond personal experiences and emotional expressions. Ignoring the past and reveling in economic success has been the national agenda set by dictators resistant to critical reflection.

As a post-colonial, war-torn, and divided nation increasingly dependent on migration and increasingly integrated into the global economy, Koreans can and should remember the collective suffering of the past as an anchor in a dislocating modernity. With indelicately direct juxtapositions of the past, the film delicately promotes the “truth and reconciliation” model of moving ahead into the future. At the end of Apartheid in South Africa (1948-1994), international observers expected a bloodbath as black South Africans might have expressed generations of frustration against the ruling white minority. However, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission successfully applied restorative justice by exposing the injustices of the past without judgment or punishment in order for South Africans to move forward, together.

Yang Woo-seok, director of The Attorney (2013) which also sold more than 10 million domestic tickets, hopes that Koreans take away from both films, “sympathy. The subject [of the two films] may differ, whether it’s a specific person or a specific generation, but the emotion felt by the audience will be similar”. Gukje sijang is not about the past. It’s about moving forward with a broader perspective, and remembering the past with empathy. But, we should remember the past, but not to blame others, to apologise for our leaders, or to feel arrogant satisfaction with the present. Like the protagonist of Gukje sijang, we should remember the past in order to be able to embrace South Korea as it continues to change, for better or for worse.

Tae Yang Kwak received his PhD from the East Asian Languages and Civilizations department at Harvard University, specializing in modern and contemporary Korean history. He is currently a professor and chair of the history department at Ramapo College, New Jersey’s public liberal arts college.