In a year that we remember the 60th anniversary of the first post-WW2 US military involvement in Asia, it was a great idea to invite Director Jeong Ji-yeong (정지영) to the UK. Jeong is known for a number of well-received films, including Nambugun, a film which gives a nuanced view of the Korean War from the point of view of the leftist partisans in the Jiri mountains. The main purpose of Director Jeong’s visit was a retrospective of his films in Cambridge, at the invitation of Mark Morris. But while he was in the country Jeong came to the KCC to answer questions following the screening of his film about the Vietnam War, White Badge, on 28 April 2010.
There are many parallels and connections between the two wars. One can reel off a list of similarities in terms of divided countries, US involvement, cold war politics and the like. But more interestingly, the Vietnamese War played an important role in South Korea’s emergence from the wreckage of the mid 20th Century. South Korea provided the second largest contingent in support of South Vietnam, after the US. Providing what was effectively a mercenary force, South Korea earned payments from the US which kick-started her period of meteoric economic growth.
On a more complex level, the experiences of the Korean soldiers in Vietnam elicited a weird sense of déjà vu. Twenty years previously it had been Korean kids running behind military jeeps asking for “chop chop” and foraging through military garbage heaps for food. Now these same Koreans had Vietnamese kids running after their jeeps asking for food or foraging for rubbish.
White Badge presents these parallels very well – both in Jeong Ji-yeong’s film and in Ahn Jung-hyo’s novel on which it is based. Neither Jeong nor Ahn saw active service in the war. Jeong volunteered but was turned down, while Ahn went in a non-combatant which enabled him to do some literary research – not only polishing off his Silver Stallion, about the Korean War, but also giving the raw material for White Badge.
Ahn’s novel was published in Seoul in 1983, and subsequently translated and published in English in 1989 to some considerable success. This meant that when Jeong came to plan the film, the funding was not as difficult as one might expect for a movie about the Vietnam War. It was in fact the ubiquitous actor Ahn Sung-ki who suggested the novel to Jeong as the possible basis for a film. Jeong had worked with him on Nambugun and had come to respect his versatility and professionalism. And when filming White Badge on location in Vietnam he came to rely on his professionalism again: the cast were very nervous about getting in to the rather unreliable military helicopters which were a necessary part of the film. It was only when Ahn Sung-ki took a flight that the rest of the cast agreed to get in to the machines as well.
Jeong has a multi-layered view of the war. “In Korea, we only knew about the war from American films,” he said. And in fact, in an early scene in White Badge you can see a poster advertising a screening of The Deer Hunter. “But the extent of US opposition to the war was not known about in Korea.” Jeong sees an irony that although at the time Korea’s involvement in the War was portrayed as being in support of a good cause, it was a dictator who decided to send the troops. And throughout the film we see a backdrop of military dictatorship – whether it be the assassination of Park Chung-hee or the subsequent demonstrations against Chun Doo-hwan.
Both Ahn Jung-hyo and Jeong show the process by which the enemy is dehumanised – the main objective of many of the soldiers was to kill a VC, and that objective becomes an obsession. But Jeong’s view is that Korea should apologise for its involvement in the war, which he sees as something of an embarrassment. We see an aged Vietnamese farmer saying that all he wants is for the soldiers to go home: he doesn’t care who wins – he just wants to end the waste and the pointlessness of it all.
One of the pivotal characters in the story is someone who is severely traumatised by what happened during the Vietnamese War, and the ending can clearly be seen as an attempt to remove the trauma of the war. “This is not meant to be a feelgood film,” said Jeong. But like Nambugun, it’s an attempt to show an alternative view. This alternative view is not something that will win him friends in certain circles – and indeed veterans of the Vietnam War have walked out of his screening. But sitting in the audience at the Korean Cultural Centre was a Vietnamese man, who clearly applauded Jeong’s attempt to question Korea’s involvement and to start the healing process.