Monday, 23 July 2012


I just watched a Korean film from 1999 called Shiri, and was touched by how it was of an era supposedly pretty recent, but that now seems so long ago. Back around the turn of the millennium, there still seemed to be optimism in the world that the Korean peninsula would be reunited sooner rather than later. There was activism and goodwill towards such a thing, as intermediary economic zones were being proposed and there had been real progress on the reuniting of family members separated for forty years. Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il were soon to have a public summit in 2000, at which real matters of cross-border travel would be floated. All this may have just been cynical baiting by Kim Jong-Il’s regime that would never really have gone anywhere, but alas we’ll never know for sure. All too soon 9/11 happened, North Korea found itself on George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” and the Kim regime went into the crazed survivalist mode we’ve all been hearing about for the last decade-plus, with the testing of nuclear weapons, the test-firing of huge ballistic missiles, the shelling of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong Islands, and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives. There is absolutely no way you’d ever see a movie like Shiri get made in this climate.

Viewed today, then, Shiri is a rather touching souvenir of that remote-seeming time of optimism. The movie is very cunning in how it plays on the gnawing spiritual guilt that many people in the modern, developed, consumerist world feel about their lives. The fast-food-and-neon-lights affluence that we live in has supposedly severed us from the connection with nature and tradition that all human beings back through the millennia of our species have felt, and thus we tend to idealize tribal and agrarian societies beyond all reason (James Cameron makes billions playing to this sentiment with his Avatar franchise). I don’t wish to be curmudgeonly and say that this idealization is totally wrongheaded, but the limits of it are clearly pointed out by the fact that many South Koreans feel their Northern neighbour – in whose society they could not survive a single day – to be somehow more authentically Korean. Shiri plays interestingly on this, with its beefcake Northern Special Forces villain froth-fleckingly ranting about the fat complacency of the South. It’s easy to preach slow, cautious and gradual reunification when you have cheese, Coke and hamburgers, he says; in the North, however, starvation is so dire that cannibalism has become common. Our beefcake Southern hero isn’t given any lines which refute this and blame the Northern regime's Stalinist policies for all this – he only wafflingly declares that blowing up Seoul and starting a Second Korean War is the wrong solution to this lamentable state of affairs. This is the same sort of socio-cultural masochism that one often saw in Hollywood movies of the late 60s and early 70s, when no denunciation of America as monstrous seemed to be too strident.

All this, however, is tangential to Shiri’s real appeal, which is that it is one of the most intense and gruesome action movies you will ever see. The opening five minutes are more intense than most Hollywood action movies in toto, as our anti-heroine Hee goes through the most inhumanly brutal assassin-training programs I have ever seen, to emerge as one of the most lethal hard-asses ever put onscreen. Exercises include knife-training on live targets, last-man-standing tae-kwon-do melees, and handgun exercises where failure means death by headshot. I adored how this is all done with no words, just vividly-composed images and music which tell the story on their own. “Training montage” sequences are an obvious device, yes, but they work. Trey Parker and Matt Stone display their own snotty childishness by presuming to satirize them while nonetheless using them.

The fact that our protagonist throughout all this is a woman is also interesting. As with Chinese drama and Hong Kong action, it’s intriguing that in so many East Asian films – the products of societies still more patriarchal than many Western ones – you have such compelling, nee commanding, heroines. Perhaps it has something to do with most of the filmmakers at issue being men, and thus feeling women to possess an innate spectacle of pathos and mystery which your average beefcake male action hero does not. We all know how many male directors – both Eastern and Western – seem to find their muse in one certain actress, from Joesph von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich to Zhang Yimou with Gong Li. It seems Jung was really onto something universal with his idea of the anima – the inner female persona of the male psyche – and that male artists often seem to have privileged access to theirs.

Finally, Shiri is interesting in terms of the gendering of the conflict between nations. The fact that the plot eventually hinges on a romantically-charged standoff between Hee and our beefcake South Korean hero -- her aiming to assassinate the South Korean president, him aiming at her to stop her -- had me cringing in dread. The movie seemed poised to take the old Henry V route of “he battles and kills beefcake North Korean soldier, then woos Hee; she swoons into his arms, and thus all is right with our nation’s valorous manhood.” To my immense gratification, however, the film doesn’t so betray its kick-ass opening sequence, and Hee takes the shot and forces him to kill her. Not quite as uplifting as The Last Seduction last week, but still pretty decent.

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