Musings

A Taxi Driver and the Gwangju Uprising

A few days ago I watched the new Korean movie Taxi Driver (택시 운전사), directed by Jang Hoon (who was an assistant to Kim Kiduk for many years). I was compelled to see this movie since I became aware that it was a true story about the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. Even though the movie is in Korean with no subtitles, I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see this movie on it’s opening night. So I gathered some friends from work and we went.

The opening of the movie is quite light hearted, as we follow the taxi driver, Kim Man-seob (played by Song Kang-ho, a regularly appearing actor in many great movies by Park Chan-wook e.g. Thirst), around the streets of Seoul. The juxtaposition of the opening with the latter parts of the movie may be deliberate on the part of the writer/director. It draws you in and lowers you emotional guard to what is a deeply harrowing story.

Short on money, Kim Man-seob decides to take a job driving a reporter, Peter (based on the life of the late Jürgen Hinzpeter) to Gwangju, a distance of roughly 300km. Unbeknownst to the driver, the city of Gwangju is on military lock-down and they have to sneak and bluff their way through. This is indeed true, the city was cut off from the rest of the country and no-one knew what was going on there.

On the 18th May 1980, students at the Chonnam National University began protesting its closure. This was met by force from 30 paratroopers. Within a few days and many escalations, the conflict reach a deadly turning point when ROK soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing and injuring hundreds of protesters. The government then blockaded the city and cut off telephone lines and other forms of communication. While inside the city the people declared Gwangju a ‘liberated’ city and had set up the Citizens’ and Student’s Settlement Committees and begun work negotiated with the army demanding the release of arrested citizens, compensation for victims as well as organising funerals, public campaigns, traffic control, withdrawal of weapons, and medical aid.

Peter was the only foreign journalist in Gwangju at the time and was welcomed warmly by everyone. It quickly became clear to him that his pictures and films of the violence and oppression by the ROK soldiers against the protesters must be spread world wide to shine a light on the situation. Within Korea the reporting of the Gwangju protest was highly biased towards the government side, and in fact the most informed Koreans were those living in Germany (there was and still is a large Korean community living in Germany), where the news of the Gwangju massacre first broke.

The movie and the real life story of Gwangju is about the coming together of people against a tyrannical rule; taxi drivers acted at ambulances, house-wifes made and donated food, students and professors organized daily town hall style meetings to give everyone a voice. The movie is also a reminder to be cautious of our own government and the ‘official’ stories that they tell us. Unfortunately, as has been borne out of history, those who are in power will lie, cheat and even kill when that power or their legitimacy is questioned. Nonetheless, it must always be questioned.

[Interesting aside, while the reporter and the taxi driver are both based on real people, the taxi driver was never found by the reporter in real life after they separated. The real Jurgen speaks at the end of the movie, expressing his wish to meet him again. I wonder if, now that the movie and their story has spread, someone manages to find the illusive Kim Man-seob.]

Moebius – An Oedipal dark comedy

Some time ago I watched Kim Ki-duk’s new film, Möbius. Let me start by saying, I had been well warned about Kim’s movies, but undeterred I decided to give it a go, especially after sampling some of his earlier works, namely 3-iron (empty house) and Samaritan Girl. However this sampling was not nearly enough to prepare me for the grotesque movie that unfolded in front of my eyes. Möbius is a deplorable, filthy, indictment to all that is good and pure in the world. It is visually and psychologically disturbing to the core.

If for instance you never want to visualize a scene whereby a father helps his penisless son masturbate violently with a rock, then you might want to avoid this movie. All that being said, I think there are some interesting messages in this movie that are worth some reflection. But if you don’t want spoilers stop reading now. Check this trailer…

The shear repulsion of the visual and at the same time psychological display, forces you to disconnect with the literal story. It is raw imagery with no dialogue giving a sense of presence but at the same time the mind cannot seem to accept it.

At the start of the movie, the cheating father (played by Cho Jae-hyun, e.g bad guy from Master God of Noodles) is avenged by the mother (Lee Eun-woo), not directly but by attacking and severing the penis of the son (Seo Young-joo). The father, devastated by what has happened, searches for other ways for his son to have sexual pleasure. He discovers several techniques, some involve scratching the skin until it is almost worn away and the other is cutting the self with a knife. Both of which are successful in their aim of sexual pleasure but they leave behind painful wounds, reminding us in the most violent way that “there is no pleasure without pain”. The odd thing to notice is that at no time in the movie did the son indicate that he wanted or needed this form of pleasure. His father forced this solution onto him.

The mother reappears later in the movie and can also manage give the son sexual pleasure. But again this is followed by pain and discomfort at a more emotional level. What I understand from this is that the father and the mother both had their ideas of pleasure or happiness, which they forced upon the child. Is this not what is faced by children all the time, particularly Korean children?! For Kim Kiduk, he is just retelling the usual story of a typical Korean boy, caught between the expectation of his parents and their idea of happiness. But he does not become truly happy until the end of the film when his parents die. Because in some sense we all must metaphorically or symbolically kill our parents, and thus kill their expectations, for it is only then that we can find our own way to pleasure and happiness in whatever form that takes.

[ I will add to this, that while Kim got so much right with this movie particularly the balance of dark comedy and serious issues, I feel there was one misjudgment. The young woman who was having the affair with the father, is at one point raped by the sons friends. Ki-duk’s use of this character seemed to imply a punishment for the extra-marital affair, however the woman goes on to later have consensual sex with one of the perpetrators. This did not sit well with me, for if you want to portray a female character as weak in that way, then she must be given more of an individual, nuanced, story and not just an aside. ]

Mr Nobody – an investigation into choice

I recently watch Mr Nobody, a film written and directed by the relatively unknown (at least to me) Jaco Van Dormael. The movie stimulated some thoughts, so I thought I’d share it.

Immediately I am intrigued; the film starts with an introduction to a famous psychology experiment devised by B. F. Skinner. The experiment, known as the “Skinner Box”, involves a pigeon in a box with a button that controls a hatch releasing food. The pigeon pecking randomly eventually presses the button and is rewarded with food. After a few more fortuitous pecks, the bird begins to realise the causal relationship between button pecks and food ‘reward’, so its behavior becomes less random and more focused – i.e. button pecks. However, rather than stop here at this interesting insight into psychology and conditioned behavior the film highlights another important finding from Skinner’s experiment. If instead the button is removed and the hatch is opened at timed 20 second intervals, the pigeon will associate whatever it is doing at that time of the hatch opening with a reward. If it happened to have been flapping its wings, it will now continuously flap expecting to get food, this is known as ‘pigeon superstition‘.

With this prologue, the viewer is now set up for the theatrical event, we have been primed so to speak. The pigeon wanted something (food) and it got it through various means, but the means to getting what it wanted are vastly different – In the first scenario the pigeon had full control over its reward (with the button) while in the other, it had only the illusion of control (with the 20s timer). We have to wonder sometimes if we, like the pigeon, are only flapping our wings throughout life or do we have control.

check this video about pigeon superstition.

Now with this philosophical preamble out of the way let’s get down to the literal story. The movie is about Nimo Nobody (Jared Leto) a 118 year old man living in the year 2029. And he is the last mortal alive, as technological advancement has cured all disease. There is no death from old age.

In his last remaining time, he has become a spectacle for the world and is asked to describe his life in an interview. This chronicle is the general framing for the movie.

Whether it is a bad memory, an overactive imagination or entropic arguments about the nature and direction of time; his life story is not straight forward. He describes many possible lives that he has lived without any clues to which is the truth.

!!! As I have already said too much I should warn you now of SPOILERS BELOW!!!!

As a child he is obsessed with the unidirectional nature of time, as he concludes “That’s why it’s hard to choose, because you have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible”. This idea was cemented in his youth, when faced with choosing between his divorcing parents. This was the first of several difficult decisions he has made throughout his life.

In various scenarios, he stays with his father and in others with his mother, in some he ends up marrying Anna and others with Elise or Jeanne. He is either happy or sad, and usually relates these emotional states to the choices that he made.

check the movie trailer

He meets Elise because he slips on a wet leaf and they bump into each other. But the story of the leaf is maybe just as interesting. It is sent there through a complex process of air pressure influencing the weather, and the actual cause was due to a butterfly in Japan flapping its wing. This is known as the ‘butterfly effect‘ (in chaos theory) whereby a small perturbation can grow to become a significant event with enough time. He ends up being very happy with Elise – but did he make a choice or was he simply subject to chaotic external influences that cannot be predicted.

In another scenario he is not happy with his choices in life, and finds himself depressed.

This film reminds me of this quote that I like, “The illusion of choice, is an indication of our lack of freedom.” It seems to suggest that we should relinquish our usual idea of choice, for it is only an illusion. Our happiness or sadness should not be linked to the choices we have made, it should be an ongoing process of living in the present moment.
We should not have emotional attachment to the choices we have made, the difficult decisions and the regrets, because at the end of the day – we ultimately had much less control over them than we may like to believe.

I will leave with a quote from the movie and the moral of the story, “Every path is the right path”.

 

Korean funding

I recently applied to the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF). They have many grants per year for various levels of applicants, from new postdocs to senior faculty looking to start new research centers. I just finished my application for new research grant (or 신진연구 in Korean).

Most grants are available to non-koreans, and proposals can be written in English. However the online application is sufficiently complicated that a good command of korean is needed, alternatively ask a friend  and reward them well because it is a bit of a headache to navigate.

I was successful on my 3rd attempt, so if you do not get it 1st time don’t give up hope!
I am now funded for 3 years until July 2020, thanks NRF!

If you are a young researcher in Korea don’t expect this to be an easy process, the old guys don’t like people going out and doing things themselves. I was hindered by some people along the way, but fuck them 😉 I’ve not listened to much advice along the way, I’ve mostly done my own thing and so far no regrets.