How like “Swiri” is “The Way Home”?

That’s the intriguing question posed by Andrew Jackson’s talk at the Sheffield BAKS conference last week. It was a question prompted by a statement by Ahn Sang-gun, a senior figure in KOTRA, the Korean Trade Investment Promotion Agency, and reported in the Donga Ilbo on 5 April 2003: that The Way Home and Swiri are

the two films that best represent the modern face of the South Korean nation.

Swiri

Hmm. A Hollywood style action flick and a feel-good movie about a spoilt brat who can’t get his choco-pies when staying with his impoverished granny out in the sticks. How could either of these films be said to represent South Korean modernity? Andrew Jackson accepted the challenge. It was an interesting compare and contrast exercise which was maybe a little forced at times, as with any such exercise, but which in the end came up with some good answers to the question.

The Way Home

Jackson set the scene pointing out that each film was in its own way a landmark. Swiri was Korea’s first major film to use Hollywood-style techniques1 and was the first record-breaker of the Korean new wave2, while The Way Home was the first Korean film to be bought by a major US distributor. He also noted that Swiri was made immediately after the IMF crisis and some embarrassing building collapses which questioned Korean construction standards: South Korea was in need of a morale-booster and Swiri gave it. Jackson noted how despite the fact that armed agents were rampaging all over Seoul blowing up office buildings and having major shoot-outs, there was not an American in sight. This is a struggle that the South Koreans can win on their own3. The Way Home premiered in 2002 when the South Korean economy had recovered somewhat from the IMF crisis. Korea could therefore afford to start looking back to some of its heritage and consider its relevance in a modern context.

Way Home Swiri
Opening: the clash of systems Contrasts shots of a train (=modernity) with shots of a traditional home in the countryside. The modern world is about to intrude into the countryside (- but as we will see, modernity will be transformed by the experience) Contrasts shots of modern Seoul with the brutal, primitive regime of a DPRK training camp. The brutality of the agents is about to intrude on the modernity of the South — by blowing up the Olympic / World Cup stadium — a symbol of the South’s emergence into the international community.
Gender The women are the heroes, the men are “cripples” (the father is jobless and has left the family; the boy is helpless without his Nintendo)4 The men are the modern action heroes, the female lead is a monster, a Hydra.
Values While modernity has its attractions, the past has values such as jeong from which we can all learn. The South (=modernity) are rational, independent, individual, democratic. The North are group-minded, inflexible, irrational and savage5.
Resolution South Korean modernity needs to be informed by jeong and links with the past. South Korean modernity, individuality and democracy will win through in the end.

Jackson concluded by synthesizing the views of modernity to be found in the two films: that South Korea could partake in western-style modernity, but can do so without foreign interference and while retaining its own distinct culture.

A fun and thought-provoking session.

  1. which Jackson identified as a linear narrative, character-led plot and narrative closure []
  2. Someone from the floor also noted that Swiri was the one and only film ever made by the Samsung Group. At the time Sumsung had a big chain of multiplexes, which clearly helped in getting good distribution and hence box office; and they also incentivised employees to go see it []
  3. Kang Je-gyu’s follow-up blockbuster, Taegugki, similarly pretty much airbrushes out the US forces from the Korean war []
  4. excuse me if I’m a bit vague on plot details – I don’t know this film as well as I should []
  5. Jackson highlighted however the impassioned critique of the South given by the Choe Min-sik character, which is not really addressed or answered by the Han Suk-kyu character []

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