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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dr. Q's MKC Rants - North Korean Agents: From Creepy Spooks to Pretty Boys

North Korean Agents: From Creepy Spooks to Pretty Boys

By Kyu Hyun Kim, Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History, University of California, Davis

There were times during my younger days when I wondered whether South Korean filmmakers had to invent North Korean Communists if they did not exist in real life. Of course, the more you actually study the relationship between anti-Communist ideology and the postwar (post-1953, not post-1945) South Korean culture, the more you realize that it was complex, multifarious and full of contradictions. Anti-Communism has never been a monolithic edifice: neither was it a watertight cage from which no fluid leaked. 

Another, related observation is that true appeals of the espionage genre, especially in its globally triumphant form achieved in late '60s, were never in its anti-Communist credo. And when I mean “globally triumphant form” I am not exclusively referring to that Scottish-Swiss chap who likes an improbably bitter-tasting dry martini concoction (and his too-numerous-to-count imitators). I am also referring to the high-end examples of the espionage genre, e.g. the novels of John Le Carré and Len Deighton as well as their respectable film adaptations. Le Carré and other high-minded practitioners of the genre were aware that the Brits and Yanks were just as morally culpable as the dastardly Soviets and Red Chinese in the murky world of spooks. As for (the cinematic) James Bond, he shrewdly built up a fantasy world wherein he could have the cake and eat it too ­– play not only the savior of the “Free World” but also a super-diplomat who could accomplish in one stroke what unctuous and harried bureaucrats in business suits could not – bring a (temporary) cease-fire to the Cold War (meanwhile exploiting Soviet bureaucrats as comic relief buffoons and Russian women as hot babes to be ogled and bedded). Exemplary Cold War mythologies and their demigods – the James Bonds and Harry Palmers – already looked ahead into the post-Cold War world in which consumer capitalism, in the form of Hollywood cinema, has triumphed.

By the way, if you think I am downplaying the significance of anti-Communism as an oppressive ideology, I assure you I am not. I spent my childhood and young adult years in one of the most anti-Communist nations in the world. Koreans in '70s used to refer to the “maggeoli anti-Communist law.” Know what this is? Suppose, someone in a pub, perhaps drunk with maggeoli (cheap rice wine), starts a long diatribe against the way things are, that culminates into something like “Even North Korea under Kim Il Sung would be better than this!” Ka-chung! Next thing he knows, he gets busted and sentenced to several years of jail time for having committed the crime of “praising and/or promoting the puppet regime of North Korea.” No, this is not a joke. It actually happened to a number of people, although (thankfully) not to anybody I know personally. 

But this stultifying application of anti-Communist ideology ultimately backfired. The democratic opposition of the ‘80s and early ‘90s almost by default came to associate liberalization of South Korean society with an open and non-hostile attitude toward North Korea. By the late 1990s, it has become commonplace for the left-leaning intelligentsia in South Korea (either invoking nationalism – the fact that some borderline racists/chauvinists couch their repellent ideas under the “left-wing” banner is one of the troublesome aspects of the Korean intellectual scene – or critique of world capitalism) to routinely knock the U.S. imperialist world-view, supposedly inculcated via Hollywood movies, and indicate sympathy for North Koreans, if not their government. 

The positive attitude toward North Korea reached its peak in the early 2000s, as President Kim Dae-jung implemented the “Sunshine Policy” and attended a personal one-on-one meeting in 2000 with North Korean Premier Kim Jong-il. Not surprisingly, the Korean film industry commercially exploited this conciliatory mood, coming up with mostly forgettable comedies such as Whistling Princess (2002), Love of South and North (2003) and Spy Girl (2004). The two landmark films of New Korean Cinema, Kang Je-kyu's Shiri (1999) and Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area (2000), also acknowledged this thawing of the Cold War glacier, although the latter in particular was not so naïve as to conclude that the constantly-at-war state of the North-South borders could be swept away by a simple gesture of (ethnocentric) “brotherly embrace.”

In fact, despite what South Koreans might tell you (especially if you are a “foreigner” asking a question in English), the romantic yearning for national unification (presumably turning the Unified Korea into a world-class bad-ass nation, complete with nuclear arsenals, a fantasy represented in such would-be blockbusters as Heavenly Soldiers [2005] and The Divine Weapon [2008]) has steadily dwindled over the last decade. One factor that contributed to this depletion of romantic yearning has been, ironically, the closing of physical and figurative distance between the residents of North and South that sometimes progressed independently from the official instances of economic collaboration such as the development of the Kaesung Industrial Region. For one, there are more than 24,000 North Korean refugees today in South Korea, and their status as a “minority” has become a social problem of its own. Quite a few of them are having trouble adjusting to the ruthless South Korean capitalist economy, raising the question of integration of Northerners into the existing social system after the so-called reunification, if it ever takes place. 

Let us now come back to the espionage genre.  Given the long history of Cold War antagonism, one feature of the spy game Korean filmmakers could easily exploit was the idea of “embedded” agents, that is, North Korean spies pretending to be Southern citizens and mingling with the latter in everyday life. A source of many plot points in TV dramas and cheap programmers, this provided a convenient setup to generate suspense or thrill by stimulating the viewer's Cold War-bred paranoia about his or her “suspicious next door neighbor.” As North Korean agents became naturalized in the minds of the Southerners from faceless enemies to “normal human beings,” undernourished, desperate for material comfort, and sometimes burdened with idealized (and anachronistic) notions of patriotic commitment and nationalistic fervor, the South Korean films began to render the Northern spies into sympathetic figures as well. However, it should not be forgotten that this “positive” view of the embedded Northern agents was undergirded by a general consensus among Southerners that their own political and social system, whatever their faults may be, was unequivocally superior to its North Korean equivalent. 

By late 1990s it became clear for Southerners, except for a handful of (frankly unhinged) ultra-nationalists holding fast to the fiction of North Korea as an unadulterated racial utopia for Koreans, their country outdistanced the North not just in terms of economic wealth, but also most indexes of social and political well-being. As South Korea became a fully-fledged democratic society in 1990s, its distance from the grotesque “dynastic” dictatorship across the DMZ became too pronounced for anyone with a functioning brain to ignore.  The clincher was the news of devastating famine in the North between 1994 and 1998, by which the (conservatively) estimated 2.4 million North Koreans were said to have died from starvation and malnutrition. Consequently, North Korean agents in Southern films were more or less defanged as a source of revolutionary threat, and came to be portrayed as tragically tormented figures, caught between the two systems: the increasingly quaint or primal values they are still attached to, such as loyalty to the Communist party and “fatherland,” as well as love of their immediate family, on the one hand, and freedom and material satisfaction accessed in everyday lives spent in the South, on the other. 

Notable early examples partaking of these tendencies include The Spy Lee Chul-jin (1999), Jang Jin's superior comedy that successfully uses to comic ends the incongruity of Northern agents having completely assimilated into the Southern society, and Double Agent (2003), a somewhat formulaic espionage thriller in which Han Suk-kyu portrays a North Korean double agent caught between two back-stabbing and morally bankrupt regimes, the Communist dictatorship in the North and the military dictatorship in the South. Thus, one can claim that critique of the Cold War Manichaeism from inside out, with its instrumental view of ideologies and emphasis on the dehumanizing machinations of espionage, finally reached South Korean cinema in late '90s, although one can also point out that the Cold War was, and still remains, far more of a “reality” for Koreans than for almost any other citizenry in the world (with the exception of the old West Germany), so such a delay was only natural.

Secret Reunion, the second biggest domestic hit of 2010 (with ticket sales of approximately 5.4 million) is an efficient thriller with an excellent pair of star performances in Song Kang-ho and Gang Dong-won. Yet, the latter's casting and characterization of his role in the movie represents a strategy by Korean producers and filmmakers addressing the shifting viewer demographic. This strategy was most glaringly evident in the revision of Lee Jung-beom's screenplay for The Man from Nowhere (2010), in which the pot-bellied, middle-aged and decidedly physically unattractive protagonist Tae-shik was transformed into a sleek, doe-eyed super-agent played by Won Bin. I was probably not the only critic/reporter in whose brain flashed the bold letters “BOX OFFICE GOLD” when spontaneous sighs and moans filled the press screening theater at the sight of bare-chested Won Bin checking himself out in a mirror. Make the North Korean agents young, emotionally withdrawn and vulnerable yet preternaturally skilled in physical fights, and most importantly, beautiful, and we have a death-grip on the attentions of the young female demographic: not an irrational assumption on the part of Korean filmmakers, given the box office figures. Hence, the casting of Kim Soo-hyun and Lee Hyun-woo in Secretly Greatly and Choe Seung-hyun, a.k.a T.O.P. in Commitment.

Secret Reunion and subsequent films featuring pretty-boy spies exploit the liminal status of North Koreans in South Korea, neither belonging nor totally alien, remaining unstable in their identities and social relationships, to construct a fantasy, in which a highly skilled, potentially violent but beautiful young man nonetheless shows fidelity to certain old-fashioned values – family love, loyalty to the state, etc. – that often stand in for romantic attachment. This schema also draws on the well-established cinematic tradition of male melodrama in which the hero suffering from a psychic trauma and/or physical wounds struggles against the often hostile larger society or power structure. Finally, these groups of films partake of the fragmentary narrative, sensualist stylistics and strategic jettisoning of any ideological agenda in favor of a personal quest for a stable identity in Jason Bourne films, themselves closer to a variant of superhero comics with science fiction overtones than to classic Cold War thrillers or even James Bond films. 

Which finally brings us to Ryoo Seung-wan's The Berlin File, which, in the context of our discussion so far, is a unique case that does not fit well with the current industry trends in depicting Northern agents. Despite its superficial resemblance to the Bourne series, The Berlin File is, in an overall scheme, a throwback to the classic espionage films of the '60s and '70s like Three Days of the Condor (1975), except that it is devoid of the kind of nostalgic self-awareness that unavoidably would have colored it, had it been made by Euro-American filmmakers. Ryoo Seung-wan directly addresses the fact the Cold War setting is still a reality for the film's Korean characters, and heightens “authenticity” of the Cold War dynamics by keeping the narrative and action confined in Berlin, gorgeously captured through extensive location shooting. South Korea as a space (especially a site characterized by consumer capitalism) is not present in this film, not even as the place where Pyo Jong-sung, the North Korean protagonist (Ha Jung-woo), could defect to as a part of his bargaining strategy. 

Similarly, functionally speaking, South Korean agents are not important players either. Although Han Suk-kyu's presence as an N.I.S. veteran in the film no doubt contributed to the film's box office success, drawing in older fans who remember him from Shiri and other iconic '90s films, his role is secondary to the main plot intrigue involving power struggles and corruption in the North Korean government. Far more convincing and suspenseful are the paranoid and strained relationships among Pyo, his long-suffering wife Jung-hee (the radiant Gianna Jun) and their erstwhile Northern colleagues. Ironically, one character free from paranoia and the suffering resulting from inability to trust anyone is the film's main villain Dong Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum). Dong is like the negative image of the vulnerable pretty-boy Northern agents of the films we discussed above. A consummate sadist who enjoys torturing and killing people and working to increase the liquid assets and intra-party political power of his clan, he is a good approximation of what an elite North Korean brat, educated in a European boarding school, entitled to a high position in the party without having to move a pinky finger, and growing up to pursue an easy life of international crime and immediate material gratification, would end up like in his twenties.  Reminds you of another twenty-something real-life figure named Kim, doesn't he?

Ryoo Seung-wan, whose sensibility is as far removed from that of a curmudgeonly Commie-hater as one can possibly imagine, has nonetheless achieved in his latest film a truly blistering critique of the Cold War ideology as well as the Northern regime that can only sustain itself through plugging into it. Aside from its star wattage, the film's great financial success (at 7.1 million tickets sold, fourth biggest domestic moneymaker of 2013) is perhaps an indication of Korean viewer's tacit recognition of this critical view lurking behind the film's genre thrills.

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