Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Movie review: One For All, All For One (60만번의 트라이)

I saw this movie Saturday afternoon in a tiny theatre at the Apgujeong CGV along with at most two dozen people. All I knew about it was that it was a Japanese movie about a Korean high school's rugby team in Osaka. Seeing that the name of the school was the Osaka Chosun High School made me assume that the school was tied to the North Korean government, as did the ramshackle state of the schoolyard, but I tried to give the school the benefit of the doubt, guessing that maybe it predated independence. Of course, about a half hour into the movie, the students' trip to visit family North Korea settled that issue, although the film doesn't so much as refer to or acknowledge the students' identity as at least nominally identifying with and supporting North Korea. Instead, it skates around the matter, referring merely to "the North".

On the surface, this movie, really a documentary, examined a topic about which I knew very little. I don't claim to fully understand the remarkably complex status of ethnic Koreans in Japan who have either political or legal ties to North Korea, or both. There are North Korean citizens who are effectively stateless in Japan, which does not recognize North Korea. There are pro-North Koreans who have South Korean citizenship, presumably in addition to North Korean citizenship, and there also seem to be people who have no citizenship, having chosen neither Japanese, South Korean nor North Korean citizenship, though it's hard to say just how many belong to any of these groups, particularly the last one. Those who aren't South Korean citizens travel in and out of Japan on re-entry permits that serve as quasi-passports.

What is clear, as Apichai Shipper at Georgetown writes, is that many of these Koreans "come to possess such a complex ethnic imagination of themselves as Japan-born North Koreans with South Korean passports or special documents for stateless persons". The result is a complex "long-distance nationalism" described by Shipper, not unusual in and of itself, but unusual due to the fairly unique relations between North Korea and its neighbours to the south and east.

Superficially, this was a movie that showed the ordinary side of these people, who chose to attend a poorly-funded pro-North Korean school and had a remarkably powerful rugby team, albeit one that wore Underarmour or Mizuno clothing. The students made a number of references to their ethnicity, such as how good it was to go to North Korea and speak to those who were of the same ethnicity (however you'd like to translate "같은 민족") or their surprise at how different South Koreans were even though they were of the same background. Their pride in their ethnicity seemed mostly superficial. Just about every student featured in the documentary was barely coherent in Korean and spoke mostly in Japanese sprinkled with a few words of Korean that had a heavy Japanese accent.

It's hard to deny that these children were more or less the same as their Japanese counterparts, looking, talking and acting just like them. They bore no resentment towards their Japanese peers, at least not on the film, and portrayed themselves (or were portrayed?) as no different from Catholic school students in Ontario or a linguistic or religious minority elsewhere, perhaps Hispanic or Mormon students in the United States.

I don't see, though, how a documentary about the humanity of such students can ignore the sharp contrast between their life outside the classroom and their lives in it. Public pressure has caused political education to be removed from elementary and middle schools but not high schools, and pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have moved from classrooms to just the staff rooms. Scenes of the students' visit to Pyongyang was telling. They're shown eating at an expensive restaurant and at an amusement park, things that would show the North to be merely another country if not for the alarmingly-thin children shown in the background of their photos, not to mention their visits to the Juche Tower in Pyongyang.

I could have walked away from the movie thinking that although it came across as pro-North Korean at times, the bias apparent was simply the result of caring about North Koreans as people. The discussion that followed after the movie with the directors of the movie and one of the students featured in the movie made clear that the movie has a political objective. In the words of Park Sa-yu, one of the directors, the movie was intended, in part, as a way of raising awareness of the supposed plight of the school and to encourage a government, either Japanese or Korean, to fund the school. The governor of Osaka prefecture explains in the film that the South Korean government certainly wouldn't fund the school if it were located in Korea, so the Japanese government certainly won't be providing funding.

Park, who filmed the entire discussion with a small video camera, went onto urge those in the audience to work towards restoring funding towards the school, suggesting methods such as a a weekly protest held in front of the Japanese embassy. The journalist who moderated the discussion found it "regrettable" ("죄송스럽네요") that the South Korean government was unwilling to fund a North Korean goverment school in a third country that would turn around and teach its students to work for the destruction of the South Korean state.

Listening to an audience member who shared her distaste for life in South Korea, her desire to leave it to go live somewhere else, and her admiration for the panel members, I couldn't help but thinking of the many Westerners who blog and Tweet their fantasy of making a sacred migration to "al-dawlah", the territory controlled by ISIS. Both ISIS and the North Korean sympathizers have decided to deal with living in a complicated, competitive society that may or may not be fulfilling by supposedly opting out of it and declaring their support for a simpler but far more competitive society. Like the students in the documentary who can both sympathize with North Korea and yet enjoy rock music, rugby and MP3 players in Japan, the claim of opting out of society is really the claim of opting in by speaking freely and subversively in front of embassies, in movie theatres and online.

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