[Viewpoint] For arts’ sake, not politics’Korean filmmakers did not disappoint us at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Lee Chang-dong won the best screenplay award for his film “Poetry,” and director Hong Sang-soo won the top award in the Un Certain Regard competition for his movie “Ha Ha Ha.”
Lee stepped into the spotlight three years ago when Korean actress Jeon Do-youn, the heroine in his movie “Secret Sunshine,” won the best actress award at the same film event. With this year’s best screenplay award, the novelist-turned-filmmaker became a prominent figure in the international film industry.
The director and screenwriter is interested in the lives of the socially underprivileged, and poses existential questions about humans and society. It is good that Cannes chose to honor a director who possesses a unique philosophy and coaxes fine work from his actors. In Poetry, leading actress Yoon Jung-hee gave a great performance.
But while Poetry won the award at the prestigious international film festival, it was turned down twice when Lee submitted the screenplay in the hopes of getting a grant from the Korean Film Council. The organization sponsors a film director who can represent Korea or who has already shown international competitiveness.
When it was screened for the grant, Lee’s Poetry received fewer than 70 points on average. One jury member even awarded it zero points. Instead, the council chose a movie by another director, Kim Ho-sun, who has hardly made any movies since “Henequen” in 1997.
The KFC’s decision prompted more than raised eyebrows: Suspicions swirled that Lee was turned down because he had served as culture minister in the early phase of President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration. The talk has only intensified since Lee won the prize in France.
Art is, of course, subjective and any evaluations of a single work can vary. It’s not unusual for the same piece to earn good reviews abroad and poor ones at home. Nonetheless, the fact that 13 film industry organizations urged Cho Hee-mun, the chairman of the KFC, to resign shortly after Lee won the Cannes prize implies that something is seriously wrong.
On May 20, jury members of the council’s grant project revealed that the chairman called them repeatedly while he was at the Paris film festival to promote certain movies for the grant. Cho allegedly said the council needed to find a balance when choosing a movie to sponsor.
The chairman promoted two films: One was a documentary about a right-wing organization that dropped leaflets in North Korea and the other was a documentary about the life of the late director Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korea and later returned to the South. Cho even appeared as an interviewee in the latter movie.
Early this year, the KFC had to select an organization as a venue for independent movies and a media center. It chose one with hardly any experience, and that raised the movie industry’s hackles even higher.
Since Cho was named its chairman, the KFC has become conservative and pro-government, and the change has created a series of problems. The government must share some of the blame, because it has divided even the art and cultural community between left and right based on political convictions.
Since the Lee Myung-bak administration began, rumors have circulated that the government exerts political power in culture and art, media and entertainment, and even the religious community.
For instance, after singer Kim C was dismissed - without explanation - from a popular entertainment program, suspicions swirled on the Internet that the broadcaster let him go because he belongs to the same agency as TV presenter Kim Je-dong. Kim displeased the Lee administration last year when he hosted a street memorial service ceremony for President Roh, and he was shortly thereafter suspended from a program on a national network. He had planned to host “The Kim Je-dong Show” on a cable channel, Mnet, but that’s been suspended, too, for no apparent reason. The netizens’ theory is that broadcasters won’t hire Kim anymore because the government wields political power over their affairs.
Is this the truth or an exaggeration?
Members of a society can only base their judgment on common sense. And there is no room for common sense if a society is driven by ideologies.
The renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that it is an act of violence to ignore people’s differences. It is like regarding homosexuality as unethical just because a majority of society is heterosexual. It is wrong to see the world only from one’s own perspective and believe that one’s own judgment is the only correct one.
When our society comes to its common sense, our movies will go beyond political conviction, become diverse and win even more awards at Cannes.
*The writer is a professor of journalism and media at Seoul Women’s University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Kim Mi-ra