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[Lee Kyong-hee] Cultural leverage to better neighborly ties

As President Yoon Suk-yeol’s foreign policy advisers attempt to mend fractured relations with Japan, they will likely sense a palpable change in the dynamics; they will realize they have more leverage than their predecessors. They can thank, in part, Korea’s ascent on the global stage, its popular culture being a huge boon. Though the cultural dimension may have its limits and needn’t be a zero-sum factor, perhaps it can serve as an alternative pathway to smoother relations.

The troubled modern history of the neighboring countries remains a major stumbling block. To be sure, Japan has issued apologies for its colonization and wartime treatment of Koreans in the first half of the 20th century. But to many Koreans, the apologies were half-hearted and negated by Japan’s bowing to wartime criminals and whitewashing of its imperial aggression and atrocities. Up-and-down bilateral relations have been stuck at a low for years now.

In this context, two hit drama series streaming globally effectively counter Japan’s policy of concealing its dark past from its younger generations through revisionist history textbooks. “Pachinko” on Apple TV+ and “Mr. Sunshine” on Netflix are poignant dramas that relive the turbulent era from the late 19th to 20th century. Beautifully produced with terrific casts, both are epic sagas that depict generations of Koreans confronting and enduring the turmoil of history.

“Pachinko” is an adaptation of the 2017 bestselling novel of the same name by Min Jin Lee, a New York-based Korean American writer. The eight-episode series is faithful to the gripping tale of resilience, identity and trauma surrounding Sunja, the daughter of a couple that runs a boarding house in Yeongdo, an island beside Busan. Born on the island during the Japanese occupation of Korea, she ends up in Osaka, where she raises her family in the land of her homeland’s colonizers.

“Pachinko” is fiction, but it is based on the experiences of real people and a nearly three-decade quest. Back in 1989 at Yale University, where Lee was a history major, she attended a guest lecture by a Japan-based American missionary about Zainichi, or Korean residents in Japan. She heard about the history of Zainichi and a middle school boy who was bullied in his yearbook for his Korean background. The boy jumped off a building and died.

“I would not forget this,” Lee says in the acknowledgements in her book. She became convinced that “the stories of Koreans in Japan should be told somehow when so much of their lives had been despised, denied and erased.”

In 2007, a job offer brought Lee’s husband to Japan. She used the time to interview dozens of Korean residents and realized their life was more nuanced than she had assumed. “The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people I met in Japan.”

That was how her novel came to offer a sweeping narrative about four generations of immigrants, a portrayal of ethnic bigotry, a celebration of women’s resilient capacity to survive, and a vibrant history lesson that can resonate with a broad range of people.

“Mr. Sunshine” spotlights Ae-shin, a nobleman’s daughter who secretly learns how to shoot and does it so well that she becomes a sniper to fight Japan. She crosses paths with Mr. Sunshine, or Eugene, a Korean adoptee who is assigned to the US Legation in Seoul as a military attache.

The drama is set in the waning years of the Joseon era.

In the wake of the Western Disturbance of 1871, also known as the US Expedition to Korea, Eugene runs away from his brutal master and stows away to America aboard a military vessel with the help of a Protestant missionary. To overcome racial discrimination in the foreign land, he joins the US Marine Corps and fights in the Spanish-American War.

When he returns to his birthplace, Eugene has no intention of lending support to the independence of a Korea that he despises. But he gradually finds himself involved in the activities of Koreans to resist Japan’s attempt to totally subjugate their country. He eventually sacrifices himself to save Ae-shin, who replaces her fallen mentors to command an armed struggle of independence fighters.

In the finale, standing alone in the northern wasteland of Manchuria, Ae-shin remembers her slain comrades in a monologue, “We were all flames, rising and falling. And we’re about to blaze up again, with the seeds of flame left by our comrades. Goodbye, comrades. See you again in our independent fatherland.”

This 20-episode series, written by screenwriter Kim Eun-sook, simultaneously premiered on cable channel tvN and Netflix in July 2018. It garnered an outsized audience as well as critical acclaim for its fine cinematography and storytelling, buttressed with poetic lines.

On a different note, the 75th Cannes Film Festival, held in May, highlighted successful collaboration between cineastes of Korea, Japan and China. Two Korean films won major awards at the world’s most prestigious film festival. Both involve prominent non-Korean artists.

“Decision to Leave,” a romantic thriller which earned Park Chan-wook his first best director award at Cannes, stars Chinese actor Tang Wei. “Broker,” a family movie about characters surrounding a baby left in a baby hatch for adoption, brought the best actor award to Song Kang-ho in the role of a middleman, and it was directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda of Japan. It is the first Korean movie by Kore-eda, the 2018 Palm d’Or winner for another family movie, “Shoplifter.”

At a time when security in Northeast Asia is coming under mounting strain, it is hoped that the accolades at Cannes will encourage more active exchange and cooperation between filmmakers and artists of the neighboring countries. An increase in mutual awareness and partnership will surely be conducive to peace in the region along the bumpy road ahead.


Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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