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[Kim Seong-kon] Political ideology and culture in film

Movies are one of the most effective media for disseminating and propagating political ideologies to people. In communist countries where propaganda is imperative, the government controls the movie industry in order to produce and promote movies filled with propaganda. Unable to perceive latent political messages, people are vulnerable to such subtle brainwashing and thus are easily manipulated by ideologically-charged movies. 

During the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, at a time when South Korea attempted rapprochement with North Korea, South Korean movies also transmitted the political ideology of the dominant culture. “Shiri,” which was released in 1999 right after Kim Dae-jung was elected, conveyed a message that we urgently needed reconciliation through the motif of a tragic love affair that transcended the border. But it was “JSA” (2000) that boldly portrayed DPRK soldiers not as hostile but as capable of friendship with South Koreans, surreptitiously supporting the Sunshine Policy of the Kim administration. Watching this otherwise superb movie, we came to have the illusion that North Korean soldiers were our close friends or blood-brothers, not people we fight against.

During the Roh administration, ideological propaganda through films became more conspicuous. “Taegukgi” (2004), for example, audaciously asserted that fighting over political ideologies was meaningless and that the brotherhood between North and South was crucial, symbolized by the two brothers on the battlefield. “Welcome to Dongmakgol” (2005) was a hit movie depicting the friendship between American, South Korean, and North Korean soldiers who happen to encounter one another during the Korean War in the tranquil village of Dongmakgol, where time had stopped and villagers lived without knowledge of war or weapons. The odd group of soldiers cooperate with one another to defend the village from the imminent bombing of the South Korean artillery. If one looks deeply into the movie, however, it can be seen as a favorable portrayal of North Korean soldiers as “reliable friends,” and a depiction of South Korean and American armies as evil powers that threaten the serene, peaceful village.

Aside from political misuse and abuse, films can also be an excellent medium through which we can learn other cultures and societies. Hollywood movies, for example, reflect the main concerns of the American people: their hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, and so on. By watching American movies, therefore, we can understand how Americans think, live and act.

The same thing goes for Asian movies as well. By watching Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Japanese movies, we can learn about their culture, society and psychology. Korean movies, too, have played an important role in spreading Korean culture to the world, and they have won several international awards in recent years. Korean movies such as “My Sassy Girl” (2001) reflect the social changes taking place in contemporary Korean society, concerning the rise of a maternal society and women’s rights and the fall of the traditional male-chauvinist society.

Chinese movies have long fascinated international viewers with mesmerizing martial arts and sumptuous traditional Chinese culture presented on a grand scale. Internationally acclaimed Chinese movies such as “Farewell, My Concubine,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are good examples of movies that are steeped in traditional Chinese culture that captivate foreign viewers with extravagant costumes, gorgeous architecture and colorful scenes.

In Indian movies, scenes with singing and dancing are essential. As a result, there are usually 5-6 singing and dancing scenes in a typical Bollywood movie. In actuality, these scenes could be removed without affecting the storyline. But Indians often say, “Instead of removing the songs, we want to remove the story. That is what Indian movies are about.” Another characteristic of Indian movies is the long running time, usually lasting 3-4 hours. Indian people do not seem to be impatient when they are in theaters. Instead, they are relaxed and enjoy watching long movies.

If you like movies about children, you should see Iranian movies. As a Muslim country, Iran is very strict about stories of love between adults. Perhaps that is why Iranian cinema frequently features stories about children. In Iranian movies, children are presented as symbols of purity and innocence, which adults have lost. Adult viewers are touched by the innocent children who have hopes and dreams despite hardships and difficulties. The Iranian movie “Children of Heaven” is an account of independent but caring children who embark on adventures to pursue their dreams.

Japanese culture has a number of icons, such as the samurai, geisha, ninja, and so on. These icons have inspired Hollywood movies such as “Last Samurai” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” inspired the Hollywood movie “The Magnificent Seven.” Japanese films are famous for exploring the complex psychology of modern man: his secret fears and anxieties.

Films may inevitably reflect contemporary political ideology. Nevertheless, films are primarily a cultural text, through which we can learn other cultures and societies. 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.