So I watch way too many movies when I should be working, probably because I am pretty lazy. But a side benefit is noticing the various tropes and themes of movie genres. And one thing I’ve picked up watching movies in my field (international relations) in South Korea, is the regular use of stock American villains. Maybe I notice it just because I am an American, but it seems pretty pronounced to me.
It is well-known that westerners in Korean soaps are frequently used to introduce duplicity, sleaze, STDs, and so on. But in the film industry, the Americans are more nefarious, usually plotting to manipulate Korea to serve neo-imperial goals or something preposterous like that. Amusingly, the plots are usually ludicrous to the point of laughable (Americans mass-bombing plague victims in downtown Seoul in broad daylight?! – hah!); the dialogue is risibly ridiculous as well (“Korea is independent and sovereign, and you Yankees can’t tell us what to do!” Yeah!!); and the ‘American’ characters almost always sound like Russians or non-American English teachers the movie producers just pulled off the street and stuck in a bad rip-off of a US Army uniform.
It is also noticeable that all this American manipulation of Korea is self-congratulation: if the Americans are going to great lengths to use Korea for their dastardly plots, then Korea must be pretty important to the world’s lone superpower. Better fanciful American flattery of Korea, in trying to manipulate it, than the reality of American ignorance of it.
So here is some nice holiday relaxation. Revel in the sheer laughable paranoia of left-wing Korean cinema. It’s a hoot:
One of the good things about blogging is how it opens up social science to topics we would otherwise never explore. One area is representations of international relations (IR) in film, games, and other media. (Duck of Minerva, where I used to write, is good on this.) This is a tricky area to write in formally. How many of us would want to accredit a dissertation about hyper-patriotic US military tropes in the Call of Duty game series or the Transformers film series? These are actually interesting questions, but the field just does not reward it professionally. Still we notice this stuff all the time.
American geopolitical entertainment is notorious for its rah-rah patriotism, ‘patriotic’ violence, and often brutality. John Wayne made the Green Berets to shore up popular support for the Vietnam War. Rambo and Red Dawn so capture popular American cold war thinking that I have seen them listed in IR syllabi. Since 9/11, it is even more obvious. The TV show 24 was so influential that it impacted the torture debate in the US. Call of Duty channeled the Bush-era hysteria of high-tech terrorists lurking everywhere, which therefore required a massive military response like the Iraq War. The franchise even got right-wing hero (and convicted felon) Oliver North to plumb for the games as possible ‘real-life’ (!) scenarios. 2012’s Battleship was basically a metaphor for the US and Japan working together to repel Chinese domination of the Pacific.
So here is a little social science fun on the Korean movie industry. I live in Korea, so inevitably I watch the films; the geopolitical ones are the most interesting for IR types. And if there is one trope I notice again and again (perhaps because I am an American), it is the preposterous American villain scenarios the Korean film industry just adores. There’s always a rogue American soldier or defense official ready to sacrifice Korea in the name of US global domination. Hah! Here are the most preposterous of the last decade:
1. Welcome to Donmaekgol (2005) – North and South Korean soldiers in the middle of the Korean War stumble across each other in a remote village untouched by the war. There they learn that the war was just a big misunderstanding – there’s no mention of Kim Il Sung or the communist invasion – and that the real enemy is the Americans who will imminently bomb the peaceful villagers. To the south, Korean officials arguing against the raid are over-ruled by the arrogant American air staff. But thankfully those Northern and Southern soldiers, who have since found their shared Korean-ness, work together to resist the air raid and save the idyllic village from American aggression.
2. Typhoon (2005) – A terrorist threatens to nuke Korea, but the Americans are more concerned that their secret plot to contain China and Russia be leaked. Korea, and basing nuclear missiles there, is central to this scheme, so Washington invokes ‘OPCON’ to prevent Korean defensive action against the terrorist nuclear threat. Thankfully patriotic Korean SEALS launch a suicide mission without American permission, and save Korea. This film captures favorite themes of the South Korean left from last decade – OPCON, US manipulation of Korea, America containing China and Russia. Today, Seoul is desperate for the US to retain control of the wartime South Korean military (because it ties the US so tightly to Korean defense), but back in the day, OPCON reversion was marketed to the Korean public as restoring Korean sovereignty from the haughty Americans. Typhoon taps into that with standard-issue scenes of nasty, condescending American bureaucrats bossing around Korean officials.
3. The Host (2006) – This film was actually so successful in Korea that it was briefly released in the West. The most famous sequence is at the very beginning when a US military doctor forces his reluctant Korean assistant to dump formaldehyde in the Han river (the main river bisecting Seoul). The agent produces a river monster that terrorizes the city. The evil US authority figure is standard-issue Korean anti-Americanism. But the best part is actually when the creature attacks. It eats an American English teacher with really bad hair while his Korean girlfriend watches. Hah! Korean high-schoolers everywhere, forced to learn English from an early age and attending to cram-schools for hours each week, were likely cheering to see their worst enemy eaten. And take that Korean girls who go out with foreigners!
4. A Little Pond (2009) – The film covers the alleged massacre of Korean refugees during the war at No Gun Ri. The film is based on this book, which in turn is based heavily on Associated Press accounts. Those accounts have been seriously questioned however in this well-researched response. None of this is covered in the film, including the war-time penetration of South Korea by communist infiltrators that likely contributed to these events. Instead, the most egregious interpretation of the event was adopted. The Americans massacre hundreds, and the US soldiers (portrayed wholly unconvincingly by non-Americans with vaguely Russian accents) are mindlessly gleeful and bloodthirsty. For a sustained response to the AP articles, go here.
5. Return to Base (2012) – A coup in North Korea brings to power a mad general determined to reunite Korea and punish America. To stop a missile launch against the US homeland, shady-looking American officers and bureaucrats in Korea (who sound an awful lot like Russians or European English teachers) yell at peace-seeking Korean government officials and plot to nuke North Korea. The Koreans heroically stand-up to the domineering Americans infringing on Korean sovereignty and bossing around Korean officials. Much yelling and conniving about arrogant American control of Korean foreign policy ensues. A last-ditch air raid is launched to avert an American-led nuclear war in Korea sure to obliterate the peninsula. Thankfully, the Korean version of Tom Cruise saves the day from American nuclear war-mongers.
6. The Flu (2013) – Just in time to stoke your Ebola paranoia, this film will teach you that the American response to pandemics is to massacre the hapless ill with a massive airstrike in the middle of a major city. Seoul is wracked by your standard-issue Hollywood plague, and the ill are congregating in the streets. To stop it from spreading, top American officials in Korea – once again in bad suits and with accents that sound an awful lot like the director just grabbed some Russians from a bar in Seoul – plan an airstrike on the infected people massed in public. This is to take place in downtown Seoul in broad daylight presumably with global media coverage. To boot, the dastardly American commander overrules Korean officials by ordering Korean soldiers on the street to shoot at the ill. Naturally the first victim is a mother helping her child. Hah! Enraged South Korean officials threaten to shoot down the American fighters with surface-to-air missiles. A great deal of yelling about Korea as independent and not subject to American dictates follows. The Americans give in, disgraced before the heroism and patriotic might of the Korean president, and Seoul is saved.
BONUS ROUND: ANTI-JAPANESE PARANOIA – Hanbando (2006) and Roaring Currents (2014). Did you know that the Japanese haven’t changed in their rapacious desire to invade and conquer Korea since the Hideyoshi wars of the 1590s? The never-subtle Korean film industry is here to remind you of Japan’s 425-year history of anti-Korean fascist expansionism.
In my 6+ years in Korea, the Korean film industry is the most reliably anti-American segment of society I can think of. Compared to the government, military, or even academia or farmers, no Korean group is so consistently willing to envision wild conspiracies about the US manipulating Korea, condescending to its officials, and exploiting OPCON for its own nefarious purposes. What I keep waiting to see is a Korean film that shows how the Combined Forces Command actually works, in response to something like the Cheonan sinking in 2010. But that would be a lot less fun to watch…