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Posted : 2010-02-12 16:30
Updated : 2010-02-12 16:30

Seeing Avatar

By Kim Heung-sook

Being quite ignorant of the cutting-edge technology, I wasn't sure if I wanted to see James Cameron's ``Avatar." I was intimidated by ``3-D," ``4-D" and all other technical terms used to describe the movie. News reports that the epic had already drawn over 10 million viewers put me off seeing it, as I have a tendency to disregard bestsellers. If it had not been for a few articles on the film, I wouldn't have seen the blockbuster.

In an article printed in the vernacular daily Hankyoreh Shinmun on Jan. 11, Bang Gwi-hee, a widely known spokeswoman for people with physical handicaps, questioned if Cameron was prejudiced against the disabled. She said she had been initially thankful to the director for presenting the wheelchair-bound protagonist with people with no special physical needs, but that she became skeptical later.

``Though (the movie) says that Jake wants to be assimilated with the Na'vi natives out of his instinctive and ethical (longing) for love and peace, one can guess that Jake doesn't want to wake up from his dream because he doesn't want to go back to his handicapped body."

She also raised a question about the three-meter-tall Na'vi people. ``Couldn't he make the tribe smaller and physically weaker than humans on the earth? As we can see from its name, Pandora is the object of human hope in the universe. Then why are all the creatures there great and strong? It tacitly suggests that only the strong can survive."

Another interesting comment on the hit film came from Kim Soo-hyun, a famous soap opera writer, who confessed in a Jan. 29 Twitter text that she had dozed off while watching the film.

``The story was so simple that it was boring. The ridiculous animals with wooden pillows on their noses were forcing smiles," she said, asking why the humans, who could advance to outer space make the spaceport, flying objects and robots so crude and dull. ``You all seem very generous. I have seen lots of positive reviews seeing the movie through symbols. Perhaps I am perverse?"

Harsh criticism was heard outside of Korea, too. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times on Jan. 7 that ``Avatar" was ``a racial fantasy par excellence" resting on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. ``It rests on the assumption that non-whites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades."

So, I saw the movie and happened to like it and its way of conveying an important message: ``Let's return to our true selves." As Kim pointed out, symbolism is everywhere and is both justifiable and enchanting. As I see it, the Na'vi is a metaphor for our true selves, who are peace-loving, great and strong. Their tails tell that they are animals and members of nature. As we exploit the earth as ``lord of all creations," many of us have forgotten that we, too, are animals and belong to nature as do trees and rivers.

The Na'vi habitat, rich in precious material, symbolizes planet earth, whose value is not appreciated by us humans any longer. The employees of the giant corporation targeting the Na'vi tribe shows our contemporary features, destructive, degraded and dwarfed by a blind pursuit of profit-making. The former marine in a wheelchair reflects our mental and physical states, damaged by our own wasteful exercise of strength and power, yet yearning to return to our original states. In a nutshell, the Na'vi and their earthly aggressors are two aspects of the same beings.

Therefore, I don't buy the claim that ``Avatar" succeeds to the ``White Messiah" films. Jake doesn't remain a ``white" hero but transforms himself into a Pandora resident of blue green skin with a tail. He is received by the tribe as a member, not a leader. To Bang who suspects Cameron to be prejudiced against the handicapped, I would like to say that the wheelchair is but a metaphor. Jake becomes a Na'vi despite the corporate offer to fix his legs.

As Kim said, many weird-looking creatures, including the Na'vi people, appear in the movie. However, if you ``see" the movie through the eyes of a viewer, not as a judgmental critic, you may come to like them as the story unfolds. Apparently, seeing is the first step towards love, for seeing is the first step to gain knowledge. Living in a time of visuals means we are too busy following images to ``see" real people and things. The lovers in ``Avatar" never say ``I love you." They say ``I see you."

So, go "see" the movie as it is. After seeing it, you may join me in retorting the loud criticism about ``Avatar' with the terse statement of the late Venerable monk Seongcheol: ``Look at the moon, not the fingers."

kimsook@hotmail.com