Review: International Market – Well, it’s been a while since my last entry. A lot of that time was taken up by our trip to Japan, of course, but things have been busy since we got back. We did get to go out and see a film this past Saturday, though. I was planning on writing about it earlier, but I’ve needed time to digest it (and, like I said, I’ve been busy). Anyway, the film was International Market, and my disjointed review follows.
I have to say that I am very conflicted about this film. On the one hand, the acting and cinematography were good, and the story is pretty solid overall. It also touches on a lot of important events in South Korean history, and it does a good job of portraying them. On the other hand... well, let me get back to that. (Also, let me apologize in advance for the uneven Romanization—in cases where the characters or historical figures had existing, if non-standard, spellings, I used those; otherwise I used the Revised Romanization system.)
The film starts off in the present day, in the eponymous International Market in Busan. (Incidentally, the film is apparently called “Ode to My Father” in English, which is a little too on the nose for my tastes. I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt that the original title wouldn’t work in English.) We are introduced to the protagonist, an old man named Yoon Duk-soo (played by Hwang Jeong-min), who is the proprietor of a small shop selling imported goods and food. We see him being pressured by developers to sell the shop, and he responds violently, smacking the representative with a folder until he leaves. Anyone who has spent any time in Korea will recognize the archetype of the bitter old man. I’ve certainly seen my share of them, and I was not immediately inclined to be sympathetic to the protagonist.
Before long, though, we get a flashback—a pattern that the film will follow for the remainder of its running time, jumping back and forth between past and present as various events in the present trigger memories from the past in Duk-soo’s mind. The first flashback is to the Korean War. Duk-soo is a young boy in Heungnam (now North Korea), fleeing with his father, mother, and younger sister from advancing Chinese troops. The US army is withdrawing from the city, loading troops and materiel onto ships in the harbor. Aboard one ship, the Meredith Victory, an American general watches stone-faced as military vehicles roll aboard past a hundred thousand panicked Korean refugees. A Korean liaison standing next to him delivers an impassioned speech, begging him to have mercy on the refugees.
I fully expected the general to ignore the officer’s pleas, telling him that they just didn’t have room for any refugees. To my surprise, the general ordered the captain to unload vehicles and weapons and take on as many refugees as they could fit. A title card informed the audience that the Meredith Victory sailed away with over 14,000 refugees, and I learned from later research that this is actually what happened. Events may have been telescoped a bit, but the Korean liaison was a Korean doctor, named Hyeon Bong-hak, who was serving as a civilian adviser to General Edward Almond, and captain Leonard LaRue did give the order to empty the ship of nearly all of its cargo to allow them to take on refugees. So I learned something about Korean War history from that scene.
Duk-soo and his family make it to the ship, and Duk-soo begins to climb aboard with his sister Maksoon on his back. In the scramble to reach the rail, though, Maksoon is torn from him and lost. Duk-soo’s father climbs back down to find her, promising to come back—but he never does. Upon arriving in Busan, Duk-soo and his mother go the International Market and find the small shop run by his aunt on his father’s side.
Subsequent flashbacks show us Duk-soo at various stages in his life. We see him as a child in Busan, when he first meets a boy that we know will be a lifelong friend. We see him later as a young man in the 60s, when he decides to go to Germany as a miner with this friend, Dal-gu. There he meets Youngja (played by Yunjin Kim, whom readers in the US may remember as Sun from Lost), who was working as a nurse there. In the 1970s the two friends go to Vietnam as civilian contractors, and in the 1980s they travel to Seoul to take part in a nation-wide (and nationally televised) effort to reunite family members who were separated by the war and subsequent division of the nation. These were all things that I knew were part of South Korean history, but seeing them come to life on the screen is quite different from reading about them in books.
Since the film does jump back and forth between the two timelines, not to mention the fact that there are naturally gaps between the flashbacks, a play-by-play recounting of the film is not really going to be all that helpful. I only went into detail on the first flashback because of how important it is to the story, and because of how much it stuck in my mind. Rather than continue in this vein, though, I want to talk about some interesting aspects of the film that I’ve been pondering over the last few days, and then I’ll talk about why the film doesn’t quite work for me—and why, the more I ruminate on it, the more I think I like it. If that sounds contradictory, well, remember that I wrote above that I’m very conflicted about this film.
The first thing I want to talk about is something that is very hard to miss: International Market essentially aspires to be the Korean version of Forrest Gump. Not in that it is a story about a boy overcoming hardship to become a success—although it is that, too, more or less—but in that the protagonist and his friend are constantly running into famous people. When Duk-soo and Dal-gu work as shoeshines in Busan, they meet a young man who tells them of his dreams to build ships; when he drives away, we see the characters for “Hyundai Construction” on the back of the truck, and we realize that the young man is Chung Ju-yong, the founder of Hyundai. Later, Dal-gu brings to the shop a rather odd man looking for some “fabulous fabric.” I knew right away from the affected speaking style and over-generous sprinkling of English words that this was the famous designer Andre Kim. At another point in the film, Dal-gu is eating in a restaurant when he sees some young boys in ssireum (Korean wrestling) outfits and wearing team jackets—as they leave, we see that the youngest is Lee Man-gi, one of the most famous ssireum wrestlers ever. Finally, when Duk-soo and Dal-gu go to Vietnam, they run into the singer Namjin, who is a soldier in the Korean army—he actually saves Duk-soo’s life as they flee a Vietnamese village in a situation that bears an uncanny (and no doubt deliberate) resemblance to the Heungnam Evacuation. There may have been more historical figures that popped up, but those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
As I am about the rest of the film, I feel a little conflicted about these Gump-like cameos. On the one hand, they offer us a low-level catharsis when we realize who these people are—in other words, it’s just fun to imagine that we’re recognizing these famous people before they became famous. On the other hand, I think Forrest Gump did this a lot better. Now, it’s been ages since I’ve seen the Gump, so I can’t really offer a detailed comparative analysis here, but I can say that the Gump-like cameos in International Market, while entertaining, didn’t work for me the way they worked in Forrest Gump. I’ve thought about this for a while, wondering why this is so. I wondered if it might be because I was more familiar with the cameos in Forrest Gump, but I don’t think that’s it—I was familiar enough with the figures above to get the references.
What it boils down to, I think, is the level of reality of each film. Forrest Gump, while being a nominally realistic film, also feels absurdist at the same time. That is, we don’t really read the story as one that could have realistically happened, but as an amalgam of many different themes. International Market, on the other hand, is a story that could actually have happened. In fact, I would not be the least bit surprised to find that there was an old Korean man out there who was rescued in the Heungnam Evacuation, took refuge in Busan, worked as a miner in Germany, met his wife there (this was apparently not an uncommon thing, Korean miners and nurses hooking up), went to Vietnam as a civilian contractor, and later traveled to Seoul to try to find long-lost relatives. It is no stretch of the imagination to think that all of these things could happen to one person. But then you add the Gump-like cameos, and the whole thing tips over the edge into unbelievability. At least it did for me, and that’s why these cameos, though entertaining, detracted from the experience as a whole. Then again, perhaps I misinterpreted the film and it really was trying to emulate the fantastic (as in “fantasy-based”) comedy of Forrest Gump. But I don’t think that was the intention.
The second thing I wanted to mention is completely unrelated to the first, so I’ll just spit it out: children are evil. At least, this is what the film wants us to think. Let me clarify that: Any child who is not 1) a protagonist, 2) related to a protagonist, 3) simply an extra, or 4) emotional scenery (more on this later) is depicted as being disrespectful at best and violently racist at worst. I am going off of only one viewing of the film, so my memory might not be flawless, but I recall three instances where we see children who do not fall into the four categories I mention above: the children that Duk-soo and Dal-gu encounter in the streets of Busan in the 1950s, the four ssireum wrestlers (including Lee Man-gi), and three high school students from the present-day. In each of these instances, the children are presented in a less-than-favorable light, to say the least.
In the first scene, a US army jeep rolls up to Duk-soo and Dal-gu, and Dal-gu plays the monkey (he waves his arms up and down and chants “chocolate give me, chocolate give me”) to amuse the American soldiers and get a Hershey bar. As soon as he has his loot, though, three larger kids spot him. Duk-soo and Dal-gu flee into the market, but they are eventually caught and beaten by the young thugs. The next time we see them their faces are swollen, bruised, and cut.
I already briefly mentioned the second scene above, but for a bit more detail: Dal-gu spots the four young ssireum wrestlers and begins expounding on the finer points of the art (“Ssireum is all about technique!”). He’s one of those annoying older guys you see as a child—I think everyone can relate to this, Korean or not. He’s fairly harmless, though, and the reaction of the children surprised me—the oldest frowned bitterly, looked to his juniors, and then said, “Let’s get out of here,” making his displeasure obvious in his voice. As they walked by Dal-gu, they each shot him a glance of withering scorn. I don’t know, maybe I’m just becoming an old man, but if I had looked at an adult like that when I was young, I would have had the scorn smacked right off my face and into next Sunday. Oh, and I doubt this was intentional, but I should also note that the wrestlers filed out of the restaurant without paying for their meal. I say I doubt that this was intentional because it probably would have ruined the drama of the moment to have them stop to pay, but still. Not only were they disrespectful, they were also little criminals.
The last scene, though, takes the cake. This is set in the present day, and Duk-soo is sitting on a bench when he sees three high school kids start making fun of a Sri Lankan couple. I have to say that I’ve never had insults like that directed at me by non-crazy people, but then again I am the “right” type of foreigner (that is, white). Those who are the “wrong” type of foreigner (brown) have it a lot worse, so for as shocking as the high school kids’ behavior was, it didn’t strike me as being outside the realm of possibility. The situation escalates when it turns out that the Sri Lankan guy can speak Korean, and he calls them out on their insults. A fight breaks out, and Duk-soo rushes in to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered Sri Lankan fellow.
I don’t know if I connected the dots between these separate portrayals of children while I was watching the film; I think that it actually only occurred to me afterward. But when I did realize it, I wondered why the filmmakers had chosen this path. It couldn’t have been an accident. Using children as emotional scenery—that is, as mere cardboard cutouts designed to evoke the audience’s sympathy, like a starving child by the side of the road—is a tried-and-true narrative technique, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen a film attempt to consistently generate wholehearted disdain for children like this. After giving it some more thought, though, it hit me: Our protagonist is an old man now, and disdain for children makes us more sympathetic to older characters like him. “But he was a child when the children beat him up in Busan,” you say in protest. True, but Duk-soo is introduced to us as an old man, and even when we see him as a child we register the character—even if only subconsciously—as background information to explain the character we see in the present day. That’s my theory, at least, and it’s the best one I’ve been able to come up with to explain the unsympathetic children we see.
The last thing I wanted to talk about is related to the second item, in that it deals with a scene featuring evil children—specifically the absolutely horrible high school students. Like I said above, I’ve never had seemingly sane/sober individuals insult me like that, but I know that things like this happen. What was striking about the scene for me was how completely we as the audience are on the side of the Sri Lankan couple. There is absolutely no doubt who is in the wrong and who is in the right. So we identify, as Duk-soo does, with the foreign characters, not the Korean characters. But what really blew me away was the bit of dialogue that happens before the argument erupts into a physical altercation. When the Sri Lankan guy replies in in the Busan dialect, one of the students—in a tone such as one might use upon seeing a dog performing an amusing trick—says, “Look at him, he’s even speaking the Busan dialect!” The Sri Lankan guy testily replies, “I’m a Busanite, so of course I’m going to speak the Busan dialect!” I’m using “Busanite” here in the same way as “Seoulite” (or “New Yorker,” “Londer,” etc.). It’s stronger than just “Busan resident,” and it carries a strong sense of belonging, nativity, and identity. When the snot-nosed kid hears this, he appears quite offended and shoots back, “You, a Busanite? You’re no Busanite!” This is when the fight breaks out and Duk-soo rushes in to break it up.
It didn’t really hit me at first, but when I was thinking about it days later I realized that the director was making a statement about multiculturalism that is quite progressive: that “foreigners” can adopt Korean identities. By casting the—let’s face it, blatantly racist—high school students as evil, we automatically identify with the Sri Lankan guy and therefore with what he says. Books could be written about the issue of multiculturalism and identity in Korea, so I won’t delve into that in any detail here. I just wonder what Korean audiences thought about this scene, and if they were blown away like I was.
There are other things I could say, but at this point it feels like this review is becoming a list of random thoughts, so I want to try to wrap things up. I said above that the film doesn’t quite work for me, and I can sum up why it doesn’t quite work in a single word: melodrama, the bane (as far as I’m concerned) of so much Korean film and television. Melodrama is to drama what sentimentalism is to writing—basically, you wring emotions out of your audience that you haven’t “earned” through characterization, etc. While I won’t accuse International Market of weak characterization, I do think that it relies too much on emotionally charged tropes and cliches to wring tears from the audience. Mind you, I don’t think that the emotions are completely undeserved, I just think the film tries to walk a fine line between genuine (“earned”) emotion and melodrama, and too often it strays off that line into melodrama territory.
The most obvious examples of this are scenes that draw on the national memory, like the scenes dealing with family reunifications. As long as this topic is portrayed well (and it was here), Korean audiences are going to respond to it emotionally. And I won’t say that I remained unmoved—but I did get the sense that I was being manipulated, and that pulled me out of the moment somewhat. I saw what was happening on the screen not as the story of real individuals, but as artifice, and it grew maudlin for me.
There is another problem that is a little more subtle, though, and this has to do with the structure of the story. Because important swathes of the story are told in flashback, and we’ve seen that the two main characters are alive in the present day, we know that they are going to survive no matter how dire the situation might seem to be. As miners in Germany and civilian contractors in Vietnam, both Duk-soo and Dal-gu are placed in severe, mortal danger. In Germany, there is a cave-in at the mine, and both Duk-soo and Dal-gu are trapped. When the dust settles, Duk-soo is unconscious and not breathing, and Dal-gu naturally panics. We, however, know that Duk-soo survives the incident with no ill effects, so Dal-gu’s emotion rings quite hollow. The same thing happens in Vietnam, when the unarmed contractors are discovered by a Viet Cong patrol. It’s obvious that there is no way they can survive the situation on their own, but rather than feeling any sort of suspense, I found myself wondering what sort of deus ex machina the filmmakers were going to drop out of the sky. Given how integral the flashback structure is to the story, I’m not sure if there is a fix to this problem, other than maybe not putting the characters in mortal danger when we know that they can’t die.
I don’t know, maybe I’m too cynical and critical, but I just found myself being pulled out of the story at moments like these. Rather than being wowed by the spectacle or drawn into the characters’ lives, I found myself watching the man behind the curtain. This is why the film didn’t quite work for me. Notice, though, my continued use of the word “quite.” On some levels it did work for me, and for large sections of the film I was indeed drawn in. I can say that I did enjoy, and despite the maudlin and melodramatic moments, I still felt genuine emotions for much of the film—the end in particular, though predictable in retrospect, hit me like a punch in the chest, and it was in no may unearned. It just would have been a much better film, I think, if it hadn’t yanked me out of the fictional dream when it did.
So that’s my rather sloppy review of International Market. I would recommend it, but I would also say that it is definitely designed to tug at Korean heartstrings. Stumbles aside, though, it is well made, and it offers vivid depictions of parts of South Korean history that don’t get a lot of screen time. That is worth something in and of itself.
By way of closing, I wanted to mention that the shop featured in the film actually exists in Busan’s International Market. The place is now so overrun with photo-snapping tourists that business has dropped through the floor, it has become the target of the ire of surrounding shops (just like in the film!), and the landlord has demanded more money because the popularity of the shop has shot through the roof. The owner is now considering closing up the shop. (If you can read Korean, here’s one article describing the situation.) How’s that for irony?