land of the morning ... WHAT?

After watching Old Boy, the twisted Korean revenge movie du jour, I couldn’t help but think about Korea and slogans. “Dynamic” yes, but “Calm”? In my experience with all things Han, Korea is anything but calm.

Where exactly did this sweet metaphor come from anyway? After a cursory googling, I unsurprisingly discovered that it was not a Korean, but the late Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore who came up with the confounding observation, “Land of the Morning Calm”. Well, I can’t really begrudge the pundit for his flattering phrase; after all, he was describing the beauty of the land, which admittedly has a remarkable sense of tranquility.

I remember visiting Panmunjom or “Truce Village” several years ago and being brought to tears. The serenity of the land dividing and surrounding North and South Korea was overwhelming. In the distance, like the din of AM radio, propaganda blared through loudspeakers piercing the misleadingly peaceful forest while aggro soldiers from both sides glared at each other in the Joint Security Area’s conference room. I imagined a tourist tripping on his own shoelaces reigniting the Korean War. Definitely not calm.

Look at what happened in Korea just a little over a year ago. Screaming, tears, yelling, cursing and chair-throwing, the Korean Parliament—comprised mostly of senior citizen men—went wild when President Roh was impeached. Of course, he remains in office today since he couldn’t get the votes from the Korean Supreme Court to be kicked out for good. Certainly Parliament had a premonition of the results, but still the ruling party was sent into an uproar by mere indignation.

And what about the controversy over the East Sea? Recently a Korean mother and son team sliced off their respective digits to protest the Japanese Prime Minister not conceding that the waters between Japan and Korea should be referred to as the more politically correct and universal “East Sea.” Instead, Koizumi prefers to stick with the neo-colonial, “Sea of Japan.”

So then I think back to Old Boy, and how this film won second place at the Cannes Film Festival last year. It is this impassioned face of Korea that is making people outside of Asia take notice.

Korea has had a tumultuous past and up until recently there really hasn’t been much that translated through cinema. But this dynamic character—excitable, zealous and revenge seeking—is what may make Korea the next “It” country, in terms of film, at least. The Korean government is selling an image just as Thailand advertised itself as “Amazing” and the UK as “OK.” But it’s the Korean auteurs that are presenting the rest of the world with a collective consciousness that might embolden and make us care more about the issues we are presented with, even if they are seemingly minor.

Maybe we should take a cue from Korea and be a little less calm when adversity comes our way if for no other reason than to make one hell of a dynamic movie.

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