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Thursday, September 20, 2012

U.F.O. (2011)

One of the recurring motifs in Korean cinema is the representation of repressed trauma. Whether as a lazy deus ex machina in a rote romcom or the underlying social agenda of an auteurist prestige pic, it never seems to be far from the surface. It’s prevalence in the country’s film industry is in itself an indication of just how important it is. Having been subjected to numerous colonizations and following decades of inequity at the hands of local autocratic governments, Korea is no stranger to psychological wounds and dark memories. However, as the country finally moved into the light, slowly but surely, following the end of Chung Doo-hwan’s administration in 1988, this trauma has been relegated to the basement. But then, why shouldn’t this be the case?

We all have memories we would rather forget but rather than a few isolated instances, Koreans have had whole generations that still haunt them. The need to forget is potent and has almost become a collective requirement of Korean society. Of course none of it can truly be forgotten and the past is constantly alluded to, if rarely overtly. Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), as a heavily cited example, was a breathtakingly complex work that encompassed the collective repression of a nation’s trauma, but it did so in the guise a serial killer genre piece. The fact that five million people saw it is also a testament to the need for these subtle acts of mnemonic cleansing.

In this context, U.F.O., a new low-budget effort from Korea, is something of an anomaly. It treads similar ground as Bong’s film, among others, but is far more pointed in its examination of the nation’s willful amnesia. In fact, I would almost say that it is accusatory in its tone. Perhaps, as we near the quarter century mark of Korea’s transition to democracy, a film like this is signaling the need for a change in the country’s engagement with it traumatic history.

A group of high school students take a trip to a small country town in the hopes of seeing some UFOs. The film begins with them being interrogated by police, as a girl has gone missing following their stay in the town. Three of the group claim to have made contact with extraterrestrials while Soon-kyu was out cold from excessive drinking. Now he wants to piece together what happened during the night and returns to the hill with his skeptical brother in tow.

More than anything, the film focusses on one theme: hypocrisy. The four young protagonists each seem to suffer from this trait, from the overly zealous Christian to the blowhard yarn-spinner who claims to have already seen aliens. It’s one thing to tell tall tales as a student, but a point that the film makes clear is that these four youths are going down a path where things could only get worse as their need to lie becomes greater. Thus becomes a commentary about Korean society on a larger scale.

The film is a debut feature and sometimes the inexperience of those involved is evident but the ideas explored throughout are enough to keep the proceedings interesting. Director Kong Quee-hyeon based some of the film on his own high school experience when he witnessed a UFO with a friend. I’m not sure that this element, essentially the central conceit of the film, was thoroughly explored. Instead, it acted as a gateway to the story’s larger themes without remaining a strong part of the narrative.

Central to the film’s strength is its young cast: they bring a fresh vigor to their characters, all the while playing a difficult balancing act as they must highlight the nuanced contradictions of their characters. As thespians they are not flawless, far from it in instances, but together they form the film’s core. Perhaps U.F.O. may not be able to offer very much to viewers who are not overly familiar with Korea and its history but for those that are there is plenty to chew on in this surprising debut. 


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