Friday, January 11, 2008

Irony and uber-nationalism.

There's a movie called D-War or Dragon War that you might have heard about, but haven't seen (unless you're one of my readers who lives in Korea). I'll link to the preview here, but I won't put the clip up. The movie just hasn't earned it. Sorry. It's pretty terrible, and by sitting through it (I'd rather get a filling without anaesthesia), I've earned the right to criticize it if I wish. However, its maker made a play on Korea's nationalistic pride to try and sell it here in Korea, as he also tried to market it in America (it was even set in L.A.). Nationalistic pride or none, the movie's acting, direction, and most of all, writing, were just not good enough to attract an audience in the States: as Patroclus and Michelle Wie both learned, if you want to play with the big kids, you gotta have the chops! The grab for publicity, and the play on national pride, were perfectly encapsulated by the movie's closing credits in Korea, where he played Korea's greatest, favourite traditional folk song, while running a long description of the director's career and accomplishments (basically begging for approval), including pictures of himself in a director's chair and other film credits, and ending with his guarantee that his film will be successful around the world . . . "for Korea".

You can hear the sad, haunting melody of the Arirang if you skip to about the three minute mark of the video clip above. It's a wonderful song (when it's not being abused by film directors in cheap grabs for movie-approval-through-association-with-national-pride). Everybody joins in, and it gives me chills, and the melody is one of the best I know. I also love the performance leading up to the ending refrain, but if you need to skip to the end, go for it.

Anyway, it was crass but clever of Mr. Shin to tack National Pride onto what (from where I stand) looked more like a lurid act of blatant self-promotion, because just that easily, he placed his poorly-written, badly-directed, and horribly-acted movie/ego-trip above critical reproach. An attack on his movie was an attack on Korea, and Korea's entire culture, rather than just an honest review of a bad movie.

The silliness all came to a head when a single Korean film critic was brave enough to step out of line and tell the truth: "hey, everybody, did anyone else notice this was actually a terrible movie?"

Rather than a rush of other critics flying to his side and saying "THANK YOU! I thought so too, let's end this nationalistic silliness and call a spade a spade," that lone critic was attacked by many angry Korean netizens, it's not in the article, but one of my students told me the critic's life was even threatened.

It's sad and ironic to begin with that many Koreans bought into this guy's cheap play on national pride, and stood behind a movie that will more likely damage the Korean film industry's reputation abroad than promote it, but to shout down a critic trying to be honest is just too much. Not that netizens from ANY country are well known for being rational, sober-minded thinkers, but still. . .

And it's unfortunate that this train-wreck was the movie trying to break into the American market. There are a few great Korean movies out there. (Oldboy won second prize at the Cannes film festival a few years ago, and The Host was better than any Hollywood monster movie . . . probably since Jaws, hitting every note perfectly, and switching from satire to thriller to family drama on a dime,) so why offer this mess up as representative?

Here are some links that discuss D-Wars' awfulness,

and also netizens' blind nationalism causing them to defend the indefensible (the quote from the director at the end of this article is a hoot.)

At, you can browse user reviews. . . notice the frequency of complete A+ reviews with broken English in the write-ups.

on Koreans have been logging on and giving D-Wars 10/10 ratings to balance out the 1/10s given by non-Koreans. (Note the high concentration of highest possible and lowest possible scores on the "who rated this movie" chart.)

but they couldn't save its abysmal score on

In light of all that, to go with this incident, I had a funny moment in one of my classes last week. I brought up the knee-jerk nationalist netizen flaming of the movie critic, and asked a question about the way nationalism often goes so far in Korea that sometimes reason goes out the window, and when something starts sounding even a little critical, one runs into a lot of defensiveness, even in areas where it's generally acknowledged that Korea needs reform (for example, education, gender equality, or lookism). One of my students took umbrage, and told me, "You should be more positive. Why do you have to criticize Korea so much? Why can't you just accept it?" . . . if I wasn't taken aback at having my sincere and (I thought) neutrally-phrased questions answered with defensiveness, I might have been quick enough to snap back, "I rest my case."

I felt a bit stymied: I've lived in Korea for the greater part of my adult life now. I've read books about Korea, asked a lot of questions, studied the language and discussed Korean issues with a lot of different people. I try to have a generous, open-minded, non-judgmental, but well-informed view of what I see here, and being well-informed requires an honest look at both the positives and the negatives. If I criticize something, it is in hope of improvement, not for spite or mean-spiritedness, and certainly not because I think Korea should become exactly like Canada; I try not to talk about things I don't know about, or add qualifiers that "I might be wrong" and "please correct me if I'm wrong" or "this is just what I've observed personally". Basically, I've been here a long time, I've read the tourist brochures, and I wish I could dig a bit deeper without being accused of being a hater. . . but maybe conversation class isn't the time and place to do that (sigh). I like to think that if somebody came to me and, in the course of the conversation, we discussed Canada's social problems, with well-informed and thoughtful views, that I'd listen carefully, but maybe I'm just flattering myself.

Anyway, here's something I love about Korea:

Arirang is the unofficial national anthem, and holds a special place in Koreans' hearts, kind of like "Waltzing Matilda" to Australians, and the "Hockey Night In Canada" theme to Canadians.

(da da da dum dum deeeeeee, da da da dum dum de deeeeee, (everyone together now) da da da dah dah deee ba ba dum bee dah dah dum dee. . . )

(for the Aussies)

Here is a rough translation of the words to the first verse (the one sung most often) of the Arirang, adapted from a translation by Young-hae Chang:

Arirang, all alone
I am crossing arirang pass
if you leave me, my love,
your feet will fail you
before you even walk ten leagues.

It's a sweet, melancholy song, full of "han" (Korean word for a deep, sad longing for a better, but lost, time and/or place -- akin to the world-weary traveler's emotion when he thinks of a home he can never return to.) And it even turns up in soccer chants.

Man I love this culture.


Dad said...

The tune ARIRANG is found in our Christian Reformed Psalter Hymnal in #229. It is not a translation of the Korean, but a versification based on Colossians 1:15-18, 3:1-4, 15-17. Words are by Bert Polman (1986), and tune harmonization by Dale Grotenhuis.
Here are some of the words:
Christ, you are the fullness of God, first-born of everything. For by you all things were made; you hold them up. You are head of the Church, which is your body. First-born from the dead, you in all things are supreme.

That lovely, as you say, haunting, tune has always been one of my favourites.

Roboseyo said...

that's right. mom used to like playing that tune on the piano, so when I came to Korea, and watched the fireworks at Lotte World near my old house (first year), that song played at the climax of the fireworks show, and I didn't realize it was an old Korean folksong, so my thought was "wow. only in Korea do they play church-hymns at amusement parks". Later I found out the Korean folk-song came first, not the hymn.

Anonymous said...

Oh god, the D-War incident. They actually went after a kid on youtube who told the truth/trashed the movie on a quirky movie review. Now, the kid's 12 and they started calling him in the Korean newspapers the "Horrible boy". Remember that?

I just hope the rain Ninja movie does better or a McDonalds is getting burned.

HL said...


Uber-nationalism needs to die honestly.

From a foreign perspective, it's such a turnoff.

Roboseyo said...

i remember this trainwreck of a movie very well.  A bigger train wreck is how the korean people set aside logic to extol this movie that is so bad that it destroys entire galaxies every second it is played.  I love the koreans, but sometimes their idiotic heard mentality is embarrassing..