[Viewpoint]Stories about minorities by a minorityWe are in an era of globalization and in the age of wanderers. People not only immigrate from one place to another, or travel around the world, but also visit various Internet sites, even when they are at home. And they can watch dramas and stories from all over the world easily through cable or satellite television networks. “Globalization: The Human Conse-quence” by esteemed postmodern sociologist Zigmunt Bauman challenges readers to take a critical look at globalization. What appears as globalization for upper- and middle-class people means localization for many others. Even in this age of globalization, there are people whose life is similar to those who are forced to immigrate to other areas. They are the migrant workers.
“Hyazgar” or “The Desert Dream,” directed by Zhang Lu, a third-generation Korean-Chinese, has not been screened in Korea yet. The film deals with the problems related to the cultural shock of immigration. It was introduced at major film festivals this year, including the Berlin International Film Festival, and had the honor of being screened as the opening film of the Barcelona Asian Film Festival. “Hyazgar” is the Mongolian word for a region situated on the border between desert and steppe. The film was originally planned as a piece for the enhancement of people’s awareness on environmental protection by showing the desertification of a steppes.
The movie, which is filmed against the backdrop of the tranquil and poetic scenery of a steppe area, deals with the environmental issue in depth, in the form of a love affair between a Mongolian who struggles to stop the desertification of the steppe and a Korean woman who came to Mongolia after escaping from North Korea.
His debut feature, “Tang Poetry,” which was first screened in 2005 in Korea, is a story about a pickpocket who leads a secluded life in an apartment. It ended up attracting only 236 viewers in Korea. It was a wretched failure, but it succeeded in engraving a memory in the minds of film critics and fans for its unusual nature. The next film, which was produced in between “Tang Poetry” and “Hyazgar,” was “Mangjong” or “Grain in Ear.” It was first screened in 2006 in Korea. Fortunately, it attracted more viewers than the first.
“Mangjong” is an excellent film on the life of an ethnic Korean woman in the northern provinces of China. It attracted the attention of the viewers because of the checkered life story of the protagonist, its surprisingly beautiful images and wonderful sound. Mangjong is one of the 24 subdivisions of the season, when farmers reap barley and plant rice. In the cinema, Mangjong is mentioned in a song sung by a woman who earns her living through prostitution in a deserted border town. After her husband was put in prison, Korean-Chinese Choi Soon-hee, 32, moved with her son to a remote border town, where no one would recognize her. She made a living selling kimchi. She taught her son Korean by telling him that “Your father is a Korean. As the son of a Korean, you should learn how to speak Korean.” For a short time, she had a love affair with an ethnic Korean, a married man, who used to buy kimchi from her. But after his wife discovered the relationship, the man told the police that Soon-hee was a prostitute. After that, she faced more intense pressure and was exploited even more by society. Even when her son died, she tried to make society pay for wrongs done to her. She created a catastrophic situation by using kimchi. In the movie, kimchi is used as a symbol for the survival and livelihood of Soon-hee and her son, as well as the mark that distinguishes Koreans, an ethnic minority, from others. The tragic ending of “Mangjong” is an attempt to open new horizons. The meaning of the film is to reap a crop from a field and then sow the seeds in another. In the last scene, Soon-hee trudges along the path that leads to the field past a railroad station, which is hinted at as the place of her suicide.
In the history of Korean films, many directors, including Kim Ki-young, Lee Man-hee, Lee Du-yong, who directed “The Last Witness” and Korean-Chinese directors such as Zhang Lu, have depicted scenes in which Koreans suffered during the transitional modern period in a tragic but bold manner. The reason Zhang Lu attracts the audience’s attention is because he is, unlike other Korean film directors, a Chinese-Korean who came to Korea to produce films on the lives of ethnic minorities, such as ethnic Koreans in China or North Korean women who escaped their country. Right now, he is producing a film on the railway explosion in Iri, North Jeolla, 30 years ago.
His films have dealt with the topics and events created when the forced migration of Koreans to Manchuria or Central Asia met the globalization and regionalization of Asia. For Korean cinema, it is a rare opportunity to liberate itself from those limits and restrictions imposed by tragic historical experiences.
*The writer is a professor of film studies at the school of film, TV and multimedia at the Korean National University of Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim So-young