Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Borderline Life - DEAR DICTATOR Re-Frames the Gaze South

By David Bell

Renowned for his unflinching examinations of the socially, economically and culturally marginalised within South Korean society, Lee Sang-woo’s surefooted seventh feature Dear Dictator (2014) presents a wry meditation on the lives of several disadvantaged South Korean youths exposed to the propagandist gaze of a mysterious North Korean onlooker.

Mimicking numerous documentaries which claim to “show” the miserable truth of everyday life in North Korea, this watcher from the North narrates his interpretations of the squalor he films Book-sung, Young-rim, Woo-sok, Hee-soo and Yeo-won suffering through as emblematic of life throughout South Korea. Indeed, by re-framing this gaze to observe the South, Lee appears to challenge the mediated remove through which South and North Koreans experience each other while also questioning whether South Korea offers much refuge to the 26,000 North Korean defectors currently reported as living there. At a moment when official South Korean figures fail to account for the startling number of alleged re-defections back North, Dear Dictator comes as a timely account of the destitution commonplace to many who exist on the edges of South Korean society.

Following a dreamlike opening around Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square, the outstretched arm of his gigantic Mansudae Monument is contrasted against the cold flapping of a Taegeukgi flag being filmed by an unknown watcher in a dilapidated neighbourhood of Cheolwon city, just south of the DMZ border. Reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s surveillance-thriller Hidden (2005), from the outset Lee aligns our vision with that of the watcher’s camera. 

Where Haneke deviously provoked a concurrent anxiety between the bourgeois couple (who cannot tell when and why they are being filmed or who is watching) and the viewer (who cannot know when they are viewing the film or viewing the couple being recorded within the film), Lee signals when events are shown through the lens of the watcher with a flashing “REC” icon. This allows for intimate scenes to unfold – Young-rim’s mother feeding Woo-sok or washing Book-sung’s clothes – in the noted absence of the watcher who typically films only their moments of distress. Tellingly, unlike the affluent couple in Hidden who gradually become unhinged under the weight of their constant surveillance, the characters of Dear Dictator appear so absorbed in daily struggles that their onlooker is paid little heed. With not much to show for their lives, it seems they also have little to hide.

Apart from the compassion with which Young-rim’s mother treats all the neighbourhood’s youth, Dear Dictator’s protagonists emerge individually adrift from, if not wholly at war with, their respective elders and home environments. From domestic abuse, alcoholism, violence, theft, suicide, religious fanaticism and rape there seems no respite. In one potent shot, after escaping their home-life for a night to admire the warmly florescent glow of Seoul from Namsan Tower, Book-sung, Young-rim, Woo-sok and Hee-soo wake under a slick Samsung advertisement. Where a less astute director might have their watcher interject with an unfavourable critique linking such hardship to South Korea’s behemoth Chaebol, Lee holds back enabling the shot speak for itself and, in turn, presses the audience to assess for themselves what place these youths could ever have within today’s consumer capitalist South Korea.

As the circumstances of each character proceed from bad to worse their watcher becomes increasingly active in manipulating the events he films. That this footage will at some stage be used within an anti-South Korean propaganda film is clear from the beginning; the intended audience for this feature, however, is less obvious and makes for an intriguing narrative development.

Fluidly shot by DOP Kim Min-soo, sparsely scored by Kang Min-kuk and boasting fantastic performances from male leads Kim Young-geon, Shin Won-ho and Seo Hyun-seok, Dear Dictator’s only hang-up is the myriad of unrelentingly bleak situations through which Lee presents his characters. Was it necessary, for example, to have both Hee-soo and Yeo-won raped by male figures of authority? Perhaps with less characters and topical issues (the suicide of Woo-sok’s closet homosexual soldier brother appears tacked-on) Lee could have tempered the film’s misery which risks becoming overwrought and, instead, permitted the already engaging relationship between Book-sung, Young-rim and Woo-sok more room to breathe.

Produced by Modern Korean Cinema’s own founder and editor Pierce Conran through 2Mr Films with Lee Sang-woo, Dear Dictator premiered to acclaim at this year’s 15th Jeonju International Film Festival. A visionary director clearly growing in confidence, Lee deftly subjects the everyday poverty of those living on the fringes of modern South Korean society to a predisposed gaze usually reserved for imagery of North Korea. Aggressive and compelling, Dear Dictator proves an expertly provocative work.


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