Commissioned by South Korea’s National Human Right Commission1, If You Were Me is an omnibus film featuring short contributions from six of Korea’s top up-and-coming directors. The theme that unites them all is prejudice and/or discrimination in society. Though obviously relating specifically to Korea the ideas broached here can find common ground in almost any nation even if the details may, in some instances, vary.
The Weight of Her by Soon-rye Yim
Though many people in the western world aren’t overly familiar with contemporary Korean society, one thing that has occasionally made headlines abroad is the nation’s preoccupation with cosmetic surgery. With an oft-cited reputation for sporting the best looks in all of Asia, the people of South Korea have been found more likely than anyone else to avail of cosmetic procedures to enhance their looks. The most common procedure is a minor surgery that leads to larger, more western-looking eyes. This is precisely what young Sun-kyung Cho would like to fit in with the image-driven girls at her school, and if that can’t be done, then the least her mother could do is buy her some diet pills. Within the school the teachers constantly berate the girls about their appearances, rewarding only those who look good. One girl is too fat, another unladylike, and Sun-kyung boasts a little of both qualities. Told that she’ll never get a job in her current condition, she eventually turns to an alternative method of raising funds.
Though boasting plenty of comedy, the film’s main message, the bombardment women face about how they should look and act, unfortunately finds perfect replication in the western world. The problem western audiences might find however is that it’s difficult to tell just how exaggerated the tale is. It’s not quite clear what sort of a school Sun-kyung is attending and it seems it’s designed to specifically gear students towards employment prospects. The constant harassment by the teachers, the outright sexism and superficiality seems a little strange and the film makes no attempts to situate it or explain it beyond depicting it as omnipresent within the protagonist’s life. If South Korea really does push such extreme superficiality, perhaps we in the west can be glad we’ve got things slightly better. The pressures might be the same, but at least it’s not institutionalised as depicted here. Perhaps it’s not in South Korea either, and director Yim, one of Korea’s most highly regarded female filmmakers, is simply playing with broad strokes for effect. As an outsider it’s hard to tell, but the result is enjoyable nonetheless.
The Man With the Affair by Jae-eun Jeong
Without doubt it is Jae-eun Jeong, best known for her film Goyangileul butaghae (aka. Take Care of My Cat), who delivers the most stylised film of the collection. Set in a white, sterile and totally regimented apartment block, it depicts a dystopian society where there are no conversations or voices to be heard outside but the commands of the recorded voices blasted through the intercoms. The walls’ uniform pallor is broken only by various sentences, writ large and spouting ominous slogans such as, “Be glad everything isn’t exposed,” “Retaliation clouds sound thinking,” and “Who is your neighbour?” In this stifling place lives Mr. A, an outed sex offender, and also a young boy who has problems with bed-wetting and an unsympathetic mother. With one blanket too many soiled, the boy is sent door-to-door to collect salt, some manner of figurative punishment for his ‘crime.’ As the various inhabitants of the apartment block hurl insults at him, he eventually arrives at Mr. A’s abode. The film closes with a huge, illuminated balloon floating skyward from the apartment block’s courtyard as the young boy’s mother smokes a cigarette and seems not to notice.
Though impressively stylised whilst retaining a minimalist tone, Jeong’s film is difficult to buy into for a couple of reasons. Primarily this dystopian world is built without any authentic opposition to enforce it. Although the idea of this entire exercise is to confront prejudice and societal disconnections, this eerie setting highlights only its own artificiality rather than the real world on which it seeks to comment. The second problem is the ambiguity of the ending. As the balloon floats upwards, mirroring the path of a regular balloon the young boy lost earlier, it’s difficult to ascertain just what the conclusion of the film is. Perhaps this is purposeful and the audience’s own chosen levels of cynicism must take an active role. Perhaps the boy met his end at the sex offender’s apartment, driven there by the casual cruelty of all around him. Or perhaps the sex offender, his criminal credentials never really proven, was the only person who would help the boy and the bright balloon represents some sort of break in the sterile monotony. Either way, the film doesn’t really tell us anything about anything, and its visual inventiveness proves its only real benefit.
Crossing by Kyun-dong Yeo
In Kyun-dong Yeo’s Crossing, we follow the exploits of a thirty-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer. In an intelligent move, the actors used throughout this short film all suffer from the disabilities they depict. Told in short segments, each boasting an individual title-card, the problems these people face are highlighted, often with sly comedic tones. One segment is simply entitled ‘Music Appreciation Time’ and consists of a single, static shot of a girl’s achingly slow rise up a flight of stairs on a wheelchair lift. All the while a garish, carnival-esque piece of music accompanies her torturous travel. In another vignette, titled ‘First Outing in 18 Years,’ the protagonist leaves his apartment only to be ushered back in by a neighbour who thinks he’s just returned home. Despite the man’s protests his neighbour dutifully ‘helps’ him inside, placing him back where he started.
Providing grander context to all this is a large demonstration held in the centre of Seoul by groups of disabled Koreans. Their complaint lies with the lack of transportation facilities within the city that limits their ability to stay socially involved. Seeing the protesters shunted around by the police, the protagonist vows to single-handedly cross the busy street. Through various short clips we see the man, needing crutches to move, practice on smaller roads before entering the city centre and tackling the real thing. His efforts are quickly stopped by the police in a conclusion that is saddening but inevitable. In terms of shaping content to fit If You Were Me’s overall themes, this film is surely among the most affecting.
Tongue-Tie by Jin-pyo Park
Park’s feature debut, Jukeodo joha (aka. Too Young to Die) turned many heads in its native Korea as it depicted with great frankness, bleeding fact and fiction, an elderly couple who rediscover sex. Many of the same elements remain here as the director intercuts staged material with genuine footage of a rather unpleasant surgical procedure that some parents subject their children to in order to improve their abilities to speak English. The idea is strange, but it would seem that to aid in the production of distinctive ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds in English, sounds that many raised in Asia struggle with, the tongue can be surgically reshaped.
The film makes no attempt to explain the thinking behind this surgery or indeed if it actually works. Instead we open with hand-held footage of a Christmas performance hosted by a very expensive elementary school with the young children all singing carols in English. The parents, heard chatting over the footage, discuss how wise it was to send their child to this elite school, but they worry about his diction. We cut to a few years later at an oral surgeon’s office where, in a stroke of surreality, a woman dressed in a bunny costume readies the materials needed for the procedure. With his mother by his side, the camera lingers as the boy’s tongue is cut, reformed and stitched, all under local anaesthetic. The footage is undoubtedly an act, but we are treated to glimpses of the actual surgical procedure via a television monitor in the office. The film closes with quotes from young children such as, “When I see my English teacher I want to throw up,” and “If I want to grow up to be a good person, I have to learn to speak English well.”
As it shares the greatest overlap with The Weight of Her, Tongue-Tie also suffers from the same problem for outsiders. Although Park’s film is more straight-forward, almost like a documentary, it offers no perspective on just how common-place this procedure is or how Korea as a whole looks upon it. Certainly the quotes at the end are damning if they are authentic, and the visuals certainly seem horrible, but the film lingers in such a cloistered perspective that it dulls its impact. Still, even if this surgery is practiced by a tiny few, it represents a troubling vision of Koreans wishing to ‘westernise’ their children. It’s clear that the parents see the procedure as an investment in their son’s future and, if The Weight of Her is anything to go by, then perhaps they’re right, however tragic the reality of that might be.
Face Value by Kwang-su Park
On the whole, Face Value is the most unusual of the films here. If previous entries spoke against judging people for being unattractive, this film warns against the opposite. After a hard night of partying, a man wakes up in his car in a multi-story parking lot. Driving to the exit booth, he is greeted by an attractive young woman. She is less than polite and he presumes that it’s because her obvious beauty grants her a sense of arrogance. He chastises her and she responds citing his good looks as his downfall too. In a final, and perhaps unnecessary twist, the man discovers that he has been speaking to a ghost all along.
Blame may lie with the obviously unofficial subtitles that came with my copy of the film, but it’s exceedingly difficult to link theme and event here. Although the general message of double standards regarding attractive people is clear, the various nuances of their conversation seem either redundant or needlessly obfuscated. Perhaps something very important got lost in the translation, but it is clear that Face Value is the least impacting of the films offered here even if, with its short duration and pleasant tone, it is no chore to watch.
Never Ending Peace and Love (N.E.P.A.L.) by Chan-wook Park
Closing the collection, we have the biggest name of the production: Chan-wook Park. Telling us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story, we are thrown into a black-and-white world depicting a bureaucratic nightmare on a par with Kafka’s ‘The Trial.’ Opening in Nepal, an off-screen voice asks a selection of women if they are Chandra Kumari Gurung. They each say no until one hesitantly acknowledges that this is indeed her name. Having seen the real person, we are sent back to Korea as the camera adopts a first-person perspective charting Chandra’s horrific ordeal at the hands of an uncaring and inefficient bureaucracy. Having come to Korea to work, she is separated from her group and, speaking no Korean and scared by her surroundings, she is picked up by the police when she can’t pay for a meal. The police, not knowing what to do or what’s wrong with the woman, hand her over to the medical authorities who decide, since she can’t communicate with them, that she suffers from a mental disorder and consequently ship her off to hospital. In the end, Chandra spends no less than six years and four months in a mental institution before the proper authorities finally locate someone who can speak Nepalese and communicate with her.
Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, the camera, when not emulating Chandra’s fearful experience firsthand, talks to police officers and medical practitioners presumably played by actors. They talk of why they couldn’t act more efficiently and explain various blunders made along the way that confined Chandra to her fate. According to some sources2, Park cites this as a personal favourite from his career. If this is the case, it can’t hide the fact that we are only offered a few interesting glimpses of themes developed in his other films. The fate of Chandra, unknowingly and uncontrollably shaped by others, surely calls to mind the film he’d make next, Oldboy, while its easy to imagine that the research done here regarding mental hospitals would go on to inspire his bizarre love story Saibogujiman kwenchana (aka. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay). Finally, using Park’s favoured trope of switching from black-and-white to colour, we venture back to sunny Nepal where Chandra now lives having survived her ordeal.
Of all the films, Park’s is the most effective, even if it breaks little new ground. It’s certainly stripped-down and low-key as compared to his other features. A troubling picture is painted of an apathetic state that first thinks the woman is a mentally troubled, rural Korean before later assuming, once they recognise that she’s Nepalese, that she could chat to a Pakistani because they’re surely ‘pretty much the same.’ The film is focused and direct, foregoing heavy stylisation for simple storytelling. The director does manage some strong images; the highlight of his film and perhaps the entire collection being Chandra interlocking hands with a fellow Nepalese reassuring her that her cries have finally been understood and that she can finally go home.
In the end, If You Were Me is uneven but mostly effective. Due to the short duration of each entry, awkward dramatic shortcuts are sometimes employed. Still, what’s clear is that the intentions behind the project are sincere and, even if a few elements miss, the overall idea comes through loud and clear. It’s never earth-shattering, but it serves as an effective socially-conscious film which, thanks to the limited duration of each segment, avoids the more tiresome and irritating pitfalls that similarly directed feature films often fall prey to.
1 I mention it being ‘South’ Korea just for clarity. I have my doubts that North Korea boasts an equivalent authority.
2 “The producer of this short has said that Park considers N.E.P.A.L. his personal favorite of all his films.” – paragraph three of this review