[NOTEBOOK]The brotherhood of pawns

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[NOTEBOOK]The brotherhood of pawns

There was a time when the state had the power to tell citizens how to live and what to do. The Confucian ideal taught the people of the Joseon period that ended in 1910 that the king, the teacher, and the father are revered. Koreans had to live by the National Charter of Education back then. The charter defined the reason for Koreans’ existence by declaring, “We are born on this land with a historic mission to revive the nation.” Making an opulent living was the purpose of life. For the prosperity of the nation, some people had to earn money as if they were waging a fierce battle. Those who could not even participate in the battle had to live desperate lives for survival. Desperation was the truth of life, and it was glamorized as humanity and integrity. It was the myth of Korean society and the hidden secret of how life was lived here.
But the message has changed, and now the motto is “As you like it.” No one tells you what to do and how to live. The changing of the times has brought psychological confusion and insecurity. Some people seek a new leadership model from a character in a television show or a dead president. That might be another way to express desperation. Would it be a stretch if I found desperation and anxiety in the eyes of the audience watching “Silmido” when I visited a dark theater before writing this column?
True, “Silmido” is a well-made movie. But over 10 million people have watched the film so far, and I am concerned that the movie might have brought the mass hysteria of the past into the 21st century. It is one thing that something you had to do for survival was fabricated into something you chose to do in response to the call of the state. The cliched lines and exaggerated script could be considered an expression of desperation. But there is something more profound in the emotions this movie triggers in the audience.
“Silmido” vividly depicts the images of the leaders and the pawns we expect and experience in real life. The leader in combat boots and dark sunglasses is a reincarnation of a former president we have nearly forgotten. The latest message of “Find your own path” would be too hard. Living without a cause is also futile. The times when someone told us what to do and we could become a tool were not so bad. The obvious purpose of life was a reflection of the desperate psychology of wanting to trust someone and create a legend.
But Sergeant Park, a rational and realistic character in the movie, is the kind of boss who could easily abandon us for his own good. The trainees on the island of Silmido were given the task of decapitating the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. They also had a clear purpose to survive their mission without falling behind.
They did not know what the task meant for their lives, but their comrades were the team leaders and the other pawns.
“Silmido” is an action movie about the training of the special infiltrators. But the film became immensely popular because it also addressed the choices Koreans faced and their suffering. The change in roles that followed the changed situation reflects the absurdity of that reality. Koreans had to be rational and realistic to survive in those turbulent times. The movie has revived a sense of brotherhood, a value that many Koreans had forgotten.
The sense of brotherhood is apparent in the movie in lines such as, “Even the most painful road can be traveled when we are together,” and “Once a pawn, always a pawn.” When the state and our leaders could not take care of us, we believed that the only way to survive was to take refuge in brotherhood. For the agents, the hope for the rest of their lives was to have their existence recognized. They had hope that even if they died, they could be buried in the National Cemetery, and the wish became more desperate when the agents wrote their own names as they met their ends.
This is the image that has been combined with Korean myth in a series of domestic hits from “Swiri” and “Chingu” to “Memories of Murder” and “Silmido.” The unusual popularity of the movie ― to the point of mass hysteria ― is worrisome because the audience might be caught up in backward, authoritarian values such as the state, leaders and brotherhood.

* The writer is a professor of psychology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Whang Sang-min
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