This weekend gave us the opportunity to watch two very different documentaries which cast their critical eye over contemporary Korean society and recent political history. Part of the fascination of both of them for UK-based Korea-watchers is the way they resonate: they provide, in the one case, a laser-like dissection of an issue of which you may have been tangentially aware, and in the other we are told the story of contemporary Korea through a seemingly insignificant rock band, nevertheless touching on items we’ve come across in the news.
Of the two, the documentary that will have your jaw hitting the floor and blood boiling in outrage is the polemically but almost inappropriately titled Criminal Conspiracy: conspiracy implies an element of subterfuge, and there didn’t seem to be much of that in the story being told here, namely the blatant abuse of political power by the Lee Myung-bak administration in restricting the freedom of the press at the two main nationally owned TV stations, KBS and MBC.
KBS’s crime was to reveal the murky past of two politicians nominated to the Lee Myung-bak cabinet, forcing the withdrawal of their candidacy. MBC’s misdemeanour was to lead on the BSE issue which led to the candlelight protests over the US beef imports. The Blue House’s actions were similar in both cases: the channels’ CEOs were forced to resign and replaced by government nominees; senior journalists were arrested, harassed, reassigned to the sports desk (or even to maintaining an ice rink); investigative news programmes were decommissioned and replaced by more government-friendly programmes. The response of the journalists was to mobilise via their unions and strike; but this only resulted in dismissals, some of which were alleged to be illegal.
The abuse continued under Park Geun-hye, according to the documentary, with the networks being told to be less “neutral”: in other words, they were encouraged to push gushing news stories about the President. Given what we know now about Choigate, it comes as no surprise that an aide of the President managed to get his son a part in an MBC TV drama by pulling a string or two. What is perhaps more of a concern is that, according to the documentary, both KBS and MBC consciously avoided reporting on the Choigate scandal, or tried to mislead by focusing on peripheral elements.
As if all this were not serious enough, the documentary concludes that government meddling cost lives. Those familiar with the Sewol disaster will be aware of the misleading reporting by the main networks as the crisis unfolded. As this documentary shows, despite conclusive evidence from reporters at the scene the stations in Seoul persisted in broadcasting the fiction that the students had all been rescued. The accusation is that this mis-reporting cost lives by reducing the sense of urgency in the rescue efforts.
The makers of the documentary are Newstapa, an investigative news organisation funded by donations and staffed in part by journalists who left KBS and MBC in the period under discussion; the director / chief investigative journalist on the project is Choi Seung-ho. The format of the documentary is very conventional, and none the worse for that: it tells the story straightforwardly, laying out fact after devastating, depressing fact, via interviews with the people directly involved and using contemporary footage. It perhaps makes you understand the sense of relief that many Koreans seem to feel with the election of President Moon, though (unless I misread some of the subtitles) at the time the documentary was copmleted the CEOs appointed under the Park Geun-hye administration were still in charge of the networks. No matter how incredible the story being told by this documentary, what we know about Choigate, the artist blacklist, and the latest news that the National Intelligence Service had a department that policed the film industry, makes everything here entirely believable.
A much more unconventional documentary screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival: the incongruous collision of four nouns that is Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno. To explain the title a little: Bamseom Pirates were a two-man indie metal-core band; Seoul Inferno is the name of their first (and only) album, the title inspired by the incendiary rhetoric of the DPRK at the 1994 North-South talks: that in the event of a second Korean War Seoul would become an inferno.
Formed in 2010, the band consists of two middle class university students who seem to be interested in not very much apart from their music, which they perform at the fringes of street demonstrations or in buildings about to be demolished. The camera follows drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist / vocalist Jang Sung-geon around as they smash trash at their gigs (other bands smash their instruments, but the Pirates can’t afford to).
Poking fun at the way companies prefer to use contractors rather than full-time employees, the band members brainstorm some lyrics: “let’s outsource our limbs, let’s replace our livers with non-regular workers”. At the next gig they take the theme to its logical conclusion, outsourcing the performance of that particular song to members of the audience. “Wasn’t that much more efficient?” they joke as they take back their instruments from the guest performers.
In the world inhabited by the Pirates, life in South Korea is grim. Long before Hell Joseon became a meme, one of their songs had the lyrics posing the rhetorical question “Would I rather eat piss or shit?” We learn later in the documentary that one possible interpretation of these words is that whether you live north or south of the DMZ, life is pretty unappetising.
The lyrics are designed for shock value. Another case in point: the song “All Hail Kim Jong-il”: it certainly grabs the attention, but the lyrics go on to enumerate all the people in history who happen to share the name of the North Korean leader.
So here we have a couple of students larking about, not taking anything too seriously, participating in protests such as the campaigns against property development in Myeongdong, against the privatisation of a college, or against the Gangjeong naval base, but without seeming to be too politically engaged in the issues themselves. When plain clothes police / hired thugs disrupt their gig at one protest event, they take it in their stride. They’ve got some savings and can replace their instruments.
And then we get a connection between this insignificant underground band and a news story that made it into the Western media: the case of the joker Park Jung-geun who got arrested under the National Security Law for retweeting the posts of the North Korean site Uriminzokkiri – the connection being that Park was the band’s manager. Much of the later section of the documentary deals with his trial, and the band’s testimony in Park’s defence.
Of the two documentaries, it is Bamseom Pirates that one would want to watch again. Criminal Conspiracy lays out the facts, tells the story, and once you’ve seen it you’re converted (if you were ever in any doubt). With Bamseom Pirates you want to re-watch to try to understand the two central characters better: how politically engaged are they? How seriously do they take themselves?
The movie’s opening titles promise that it will “chew up and spit out the National Security Law”; and apologise for the poor sound balance which they deliberately left unprocessed in order to reflect the lack of balance in Korean society. Yet the documentary itself is much more ambiguous, much less polemic than those opening titles promise. You want to re-read those lyrics, presented to you in eye-popping graphics which flash by at the speed of light (yes, they sing damn fast, and my attempts to quote them in the preceding paragraphs are of necessity approximate). You want to check whether the Dan Pyun Sun whose name is in the credits is the same guy who fronts Danpyunsun and the Sailors. You want to understand whether the Pirates disbanded in 2012 (as they announced on their Twitter feed) or 2016 (per their Facebook feed). The film is anarchic and laid-back, grungy and fun, like the band themselves. And also kind of endearing.
Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno will be screening at the London Korean Film Festival 2017 in the Indie Firepower strand along with other films by Jung Yoon-suk, including his well-received debut Non-Fiction Diary. Directo Jung will be on hand to answer questions. It also screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Criminal Conspiracy screened on 7 October at the Birkbeck International Documentary Society.
Choi Seung-ho (최승호) Criminal Conspirary (공범자들, 2017):
Jung Yoon-suk (정윤석) Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, 2017):