Wednesday, July 25, 2018

'The Accusation' by Bandi

The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch recently moved its Reading Club meetings from the Jongno District Office's library in Susong-dong to gentrified Waryong-dong, and the quiet basement of North Terrace Building, a fancy book cafe with a stimulating editorial line, consistent with the club's focus on Korean literature in translation*.

On the menu yesterday: Bandi's 'The Accusation'...


'The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea' by Bandi
... as translated by Deborah Smith, so footnote-free, and easy to read for Westerners who don't know much about Korea, let alone North Korea

Don't get me wrong: this easy-read is a must-read! Furthermore, I applaud the choice to spread Bandi's words as far as possible to help more people understand what living under the most oppressive and corrupt regime on Earth means.

I simply wish (and I'm not alone) the opportunity had been seized to make a few key concepts more widely known. For instance, why keep 'Bowibu' (State Security), but not use 'songbun' (DPRK's 'cast' system), which plays a much more important role all across the book? If it helps, picture the cover of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 'Forced Labor Camp Archipelago'... anyway, it doesn't matter much, and certainly doesn't change the realities described in this brilliant fiction.

Written between 1989 and 1995, the manuscript could only be smuggled out of North Korea in 2013. And Bandi may never escape the land where you're not allowed to think out loud. The author's daily job, as an official writer, is to hammer the regime's doctrine and myths home through edifying fiction, but as an anonymous 'firefly' (the 'Bandi' pseudonym), she/he finds the courage to set her/himself free, and to expose its impostures by pulling the same tricks against it, delivering powerful insights far beyond the usual 'rare glimpses' into Pyongyang.

Actually, oppression can be felt even more acutely in small town Kimilsungistan, even on that remote field, high up in the mountain. The heroes? Simple people struggling to survive as decent family members and citizens in a dystopian system. The villains? The very ones supposed to lead as role models. Each one of Bandi's seven short stories respects the official moral fable topics and structures, but instead of teaching why the system is the answer, the climactic moment of revelation exposes why it is the mother of all problems.

While reading, I thought a lot about Song Byeok, that propaganda painter turned satirist artist after defecting to the South:

Song Byeok's 'Marilyn Monroe' has the face of movie fanatic Kim Jong-il
Except, of course, that Bandi's literature uses a far more subtle and diverse palette. Even through the biases of edition, translation, and that very special para-propaganda genre, I believe Bandi to be not only one unique person**, but also a true humanist, and a great author.

The editors cleverly dropped the manuscript's chronological order, starting 'The Accusation' with stories showing how trust can be a challenge even within the most intimate familial circle, and ending with 'The Red Mushroom', a masterpiece linking modern times to the grand Korean tales tradition, a farce and a tragedy, complete with a Kafkaian trial***, the Saint figure of a hero, and a narrator I suspect to be among the most autobiographical in the whole book: a disillusioned official scribbler compelled to serve the regime because he needs to survive, but also a compassionate soul marveling at how great humans can remain or become, even in this Pandemonium.

Frankly, I don't care if Bandi is 'Mr Bullshit Reporter' or 'Mrs Bullshit Writer'. I care that Bandi cares.

And so should we.


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* yet reaching far beyond - among my favorites:

'Sipping Waryong-dong coffee in a book lover's lair. Among the odd volumes, this 'Pictorial Chosen and Manchuria' (Bank of Chosen 1919) (20180627 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/1011933015843336193)

** some think there are various contributors, I presume because of the way Bandi convincingly carries male as well as female voices, or ventures into farce as easily as into tear-jerkers, but the risks would have been even more extreme, and the author's own 'voice' / vision remains consistent. 
*** not just K's. Because of KO Inshik's figure, that trial also brought memories of the one in Iain Pears' 'An Instance of the Fingerpost', which Bandi probably never had a chance to read.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Chaebolplex v. Indie Movies - The Sequel

According to KOFIC / KOBIZ, Korea's 2,870 movie screens recorded almost 220 M admissions last year, a 49% increase in ten years. That's enough to take over (30% more populated) France, where admissions gained only 11% over the same period, from 190 to 209 M. Korean and Foreign films have basically maintained their positions on the market: around 50/50 for the number of admissions, 28/72 for the number of films released, knowing that the biggest blockbusters tend to be local (only Avatar appears in the all time top ten, as #3).

The number of movies released exploded (from 380 to 1,765), which is not a guarantee for quality, but an encouraging sign for culture diversity*. Indeed, the big 'chaebolplexes' that control the market have at long last started to propose independent movies.

Which doesn't mean that Korea's indie movie ecosystem is better off.

When six years ago, chaebolplexes were forced to feature them following the 'Pieta' scandal, I worried that they would struggle to kick their bad, closed circuit habits (see "Saving Korean cinema... and even Chaebolplex"), and that's pretty much what happened.

Just a few significant events that followed the 2012 'Pieta Law':
- 2013: ten indie movie producers pool their efforts to create Little Big Pictures
- 2014: CJ Group launches CGV Arthouse (chaebolplexes create their own 'indie' theaters)
- 2015: it gets political when AHN Cheol-soo brings the spotlight on the cause, and indies push for laws similar to the 1948 Paramount Decree (the "antitrust case that ruled against big movie studios operating their own movie theaters"**)
- 2016: Netflix launches in Korea
- 2017: produced by Netflix, BONG Joon-ho's 'Okja' is boycotted by Korea's biggest theater operators
- 2018: IPTV takes over cable TV as main provider, controlled by the Big 3 (KT, SKT, LGU+), and 'chaebolplex' snatch exclusivities for indie movies away from 'independent art houses', even for re-runs.***

How can indie theaters survive, or compete with lavish complexes that in terms of diversity, contribute essentially to one of chaebolplex's core business models: real estate. There are so much new complexes Seoul can host, and the 'art house' alibi provides a perfect 'alternative' offer to developments that target culture-friendly elites.



Institutions like Seoul Cinema or Indie Space embody the resistance, but for how long?


'Smells like Seoul Cinema spirit' (20180517 - www.instagram.com/p/Bi4AYl9ll7H/?taken-by=stephanemot)


'not sure the one in the middle will be featured in a chaebolplex' (20121213 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/279079561419960320)


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* on this issue, read " Heralding cultural diversity - a stronger and more sustainable Korean wave" (2013)
** "South Korea’s Chaebol-sized Movie Problem"  (WSJ 20150130)
*** "Art house cinemas lose their exclusivity : As more indie films are screened at theater chains, smaller venues suffer losses" (KJD 20180706)

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