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Opinion

Foreign Koreanness captured in the movies

With the recent release of the first two trailers for “Papa,” it looks like mainstream Korean cinema will continue to wrestle with the issue of immigration and multiculturalism into the new year. As new as this theme may seem for Korean film, “Papa” actually follows in the footsteps of last year’s very successful “Wandeuki” (English title: “Punch”) and 2010’s almost equally successful “Banga Banga” (English title: “He’s on Duty”), as well as a string of independent films that addressed the same theme.

Perhaps this cinematic development should not come as a surprise in a country that has been a destination country for the past 20 years. What I find interesting nonetheless is the consistent ― and insistent ― centrality of the family in these movies. The family connected to the migrant, whether in the home country or in Korea, is not represented by a few peripheral scenes but is part and parcel of the film itself. In a country where centuries of Confucian teachings and practice have cultivated an unyielding reverence for familial relations and filial duties, it appears that this portrayal of foreigners is a major point of attraction for Korean audiences.

There are two major ways of talking about migration in countries of destination. One way paints migrants as a threat to national security or national identity; the other represents migrants as contributors to host societies, primarily through their labor. These two discourses represent opposite poles in the broader public debate on immigration. At the same time, both ways of conceptualizing migrants have the common argumentative strategy of placing immigrants firmly outside the societal contexts of destination countries. In other words, the “outsider” position of the migrant is assumed.

Interestingly, the figure of the migrant in mainstream Korean film fits neither discourse. Here, migrants come not as threats, commodities, or even as labor but primarily as belongings, in the truest sense of the word. They come belonging to families and communities, cultures and ancestral histories, climates and tastes. The fact that they have left these behind in order to come to Korea doesn’t mean that they no longer belong anywhere. Korean neo-Confucianism itself teaches, even celebrates, that bonds of belonging related to the family name are never truly destroyed, are very receptive to being recreated or adapted, and thus will more than likely continue at destination.

Thus, the immigrants in these films actively “belong” themselves into the culture and lifestyle of the locals of similar socio-economic status. A recurring motif in “Wandeuki,” this is also portrayed at length in 2009’s indie hit, “Bandhobi,” wherein the social vulnerabilities of Bangladeshi migrant worker, Karim, are mirrored with those of Min Seoh, the Korean teenage daughter of a working-class single mother. In effect, these films suggest that migration is as much defined by social bonds as by political borders and is, essentially, a process of sharing.

Furthermore, the imposition of a Korean neo-Confucian lens reveals that migration is a fundamentally conservative act. Suddenly, the primary motivation in separating oneself from one’s family and roots is, in fact, for their restoration. As anyone who has gone away from home or sent someone away ― which, in this globalized world of 214 million foreign-born residents, is everyone ― may well know, sometimes certain bonds of belonging are worth severing for the very purpose of honoring them through the journey. This is the gospel of every odyssey.

The maturity with which Korean films have so far approached the issue of migration is frankly a pleasant surprise and leaves me optimistic that Korea will achieve that harmonious multicultural society which often seems so elusive. Yet, one senses there is still a reticence to them that is indicative of the reticence in the larger context of Korean society. Korea is still a relatively new destination country that is witnessing countries with longer immigration histories publicly declaring that their multicultural policies have failed. In this context, it is not surprising that many in Korea are concerned that fully acknowledging migrants as participatory agents of our society is to be caught in a zero-sum game of the worst kind; one in which there can only be one winner, and therefore everyone else loses.

There is a poignant scene near the end of “Wandeuki.” At the suggestion of a migrant worker acquaintance, the main character, Wandeuk, decides to take up kickboxing. However, he makes such a negative impression on his first day that the trainer forbids him from entering the ring. After seeing Wandeuk’s determination and that the boy had found a genuine sense of purpose through the sport, the trainer finally sets up a match between him and a Korean counterpart. Wandeuk gives his all, but is eventually flattened. The camera lingers on his bruised face. His trainer removes the mouth-guard. Then, for the first time in the film, Wandeuk laughs. Inside the ring, he was finally in a space where he was expected to fight back with dignity, to challenge and be challenged, and he comes to realize that the opportunity itself is already liberation, regardless of the outcome. Soon, everyone around him, including his opponent, is laughing right along.

By Kim Min-ji

The writer is the associate expert in labor migration of the International Migration Program of the ILO at the ILO’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. She was placed there through the Junior Professional Officer program of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in March 2011. The content of this article represents solely the personal views of the author and not necessarily those of the ILO. ― Ed.
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