Throwing cold water on Korea’s American dream
‘Escalator in World Order’ questions glorified images, national aspirations
By Kwaak Je-yup
To most Koreans, history is boring. It is a subject that needs to be mastered for exams through mindless memorization or an explanatory note next to century-old artifacts and monuments. And people easily forget the dates, facts and names of kings.
But when it comes to contemporary Korea ― since 1945 ― they are fired up, with a slew of facts, myths and even baseless claims inspiring political disputes and demonstrations on the streets. With the daughter of a former dictator running for president this year, interpretations of history find themselves at the center of political discourse.
In his feature-length film debut “An Escalator in World Order,” which opened this week, documentary director Kim Kyung-man puts forward his own ― polemical ― version of what has happened since the end of World War II, with a singular focus on deconstructing the glorified conception of the United States as the cornerstone, the guardian and the future of this country.
The two hours of government newsreels and other video records are montaged together to poke fun at Korea’s unconditional faith in America while also accusing the latter of acting purely out of self interest.
Even without narration, the clips provoke with their similarities to many of today’s government campaigns, though propagandist messages were more flagrant in the past.
Local school children and adult performers sing “God Bless America” and church pastors fervently advocate U.S. interests. Anyone who disagrees is treated as a traitor and a communist. Former U.S. President George W. Bush, derided in his home country, is invited as the guest of honor to a massive group church service at the World Cup Stadium in Seoul to commemorate the Korean War ― just because he is the American president.
The documentary successfully points out this U.S.-friendly ideology that has exerted a great influence over the Korean political discourse ― and the film works best when it seems innocuous, i.e. devoid of an agenda.
But as he told The Korea Times last week, Kim hopes that everyone who sees his work will think like him and be critical towards the “hypocritical” United States. This is when he becomes pedantic and as simplistic as the government propagandists.
His condemnation is justified for some, to be sure, especially for the superpower’s inaction during the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, where thousands were massacred by the military forces under then-President/dictator Chun Doo-hwan. Later that year, Miss Universe was held in Seoul, and star singer Donny Osmond is shown performing surrounded by the world’s most beautiful women. (Kim asserted at the interview that it was expressly hosted by Korea as a distraction to the public.) As Osmond sings “Let’s Learn Korean” and President Nixon sings the praise of Chun against the images of brutal beatings and deaths of Gwangju citizens, one has to feel at least uneasy about the “beneficent” America.
In other moments, however, Kim is overly simplistic and idealistic about earning the audience’s sympathy. Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War, for instance, surely ended up with too many mistakes and unwanted consequences, yet viewing these clips will not push the audience’s conceptions about the historical event towards or away from the director’s.
Unlike the masterful 2005 documentary by German director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, “Our Daily Bread,” where clips of modern food production were shown in a similar manner to Kim’s film, “Escalator” does not let the audience judge for him/herself. It instead tells people what to think while picking and choosing evidence.
But as any serious historian knows, what happened in the past is by nature far spottier and more complicated than what Kim leads us to believe.
“An Escalator in World Order” is now showing in selected theaters in Seoul. Rated 15 and over. Runs for 118 minutes. Distributed by Cinema DAL.