Comments on Katyn

I watched the Polish movie Katyń (2007) on the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish military officers in 1940.

I felt the acting was mediocre, the “shaky camera” technique used annoying at times, and the background music rather primitive, but there were also many strengths to the movie. It had some excellent scenes that capture the Polish dilemma with remembering this pivotal event of 1940 or—as the Soviets would have them believe until official admission to the crime in 1990— 1941.

One thing that particularly impressed me was the portrayal of the process of the massacre itself. Most of us are familiar, desensitized even, to portrayals of massacre in the many films on the Holocaust or World War II in general. There are certain aspects of these scenes that seem almost required: images of angry shouting soldiers herding a crowd of helpless victims, the evil officer given ample chance to fully personify the diabolical, and so on.

Katyń initially passes the point of the massacre without any depiction of it whatsoever, letting it instead hang over all the scenes to follow and allowing the audience to only imagine what has transpired. We then return to the actual scene of killing at the close of the film.

I thought the depiction of the killing was done wonderfully, if one can use such a word to comment on the cinematography of massacre. With the exception of Soviet officers confirming the identity of some high-ranking officers, the perpetrators hardly speak and are generally without expression. Instead, the soldiers simply carry out their terrible task in a quiet and methodical fashion. The killings proceed smoothly and as part of a highly mechanical procedure. Instead of sacrificing an opportunity to vilify the Soviets who carried out Stalin’s orders, this approach, I believe, adds to the horror felt by the viewer, and reminds us of how this process may have been seen by soldiers for whom executions of reactionary elements were thought a natural and necessary component of the revolution.

One after another, we are shown the Polish officers taken to the killing grounds in a truck, individually unloaded, tied, shot, and finally covered with others in the mass grave. In the case of some officers killed separately, the rapid procession of killings in an abandoned forest house is interrupted only by the splash of a bucket of water upon the blood covered concrete basement floor, the expulsion of the corpse through a shoot into a waiting truck outside, and a newly loaded gun being handed to the executioner.

I’ll close these comments by sharing one of the fragments of dialogue which describes the dilemma of collaboration in the postwar Soviet dominated Poland and in so many other places seen, as it was at the time, as a stark choice between silent acquiescence and open resistance. It takes place in a graveyard between the wife and a sister of the slain. Magdalena has a gravestone for her brother made with the forbidden 1940 death year carved on the stone, while the other, Róża, the wife of a dead general, keeps her mourning to herself, finds work as an art teacher, and tries to plead reason with Magdalena:

Magdalena: You’ve found a place in this new world of yours, whereas I am whole in that where Piotr is. If I must choose, I stay with him.

Róża: You choose the dead, which is morbid.

Magdalena: No. I choose the murdered, not the murderers. – The College Entrance Exam

The new Korea podcast SeoulGlow looks very promising. View the Youtube video below for a fascinating set of interviews of high school students preparing to take the college entrance exam, and view the spectacle of police rushing late students to the exams:

The creator of this video podcast is Michael Hurt, who writes at one of the best Korea weblogs out there, the Scribblings of the Metropolitician. He is especially good discussing issues of race and identity in contemporary Korea.


Kurosawa’s movie Ikiru (1952) has to be one of my all time favorite movies. Every time I watch it, I feel grabbed by the movie from the very opening scene, when we are introduced to the main character, Watanabe Kanji. We are shown him working at his desk at the local municipal government office, completely disinterested in the world around him. The narrator introduces him to the audience saying,


“This is the protagonist of our story. However, to tell his story now would simply be tiresome. This is because [at this point] he is simply passing his time. He has no time to live. That is, you can’t even say that he is alive.”

Ring Derivatives

Korea and Japan both have really led the way in the whole genre of horror which appeals to a new generation of youth, especially women. America and Hong Kong are following behind, translating and redoing some of these movies (Ring, Grudge) or making others in the same vein (White Noise, the Eye) but many of them have a very derivative feel.

Of course there is lots of borrowing the other way as well, and much of it to great effect. The beautifully filmed Korean movie “A Tale of Two Sisters” (which I highly recommend despite many contradictions and loose ends) borrows heavily from US movie plots, and comes off as a combination of “Sixth Sense“, Japan’s “Audition“, “Identity” and a few other psychological thrillers. This sort of mixing and matching of ideas is what creating culture is all about.

Some of the stuff coming out though is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. The Korean version of the Japanese “Ring” was really awful. The Japanese mini-series version of the story also sucked. The sequels got a bit too scientific and Darwinian in their message. Other Japanese and Korean movies coming out recently are also trying to capitalize on the bizarre but terrifying example of the “Ring” have made ridiculous versions of a similar concept.

Many of these movies involve some kind of object (like a cellphone, or a stereo and its white noise) being cursed or otherwise being connected to the world of the dead. Today I saw one example of how bad it can get. A horror movie showing on SBS here in Seoul this evening is clearly a knockoff of the same idea. In the “Ring” (I know this sounds stupid but the Japanese movie is really a classic) a cursed video, when watched, shows a bizarre female figure. Those who watch the movie are cursed (mostly school girls) and the frightening long black haired female figure kills them a week later or something. Long black-haired ghosts seem to be a consistent theme here, but they will be familiar to anyone who has read old Japanese ghost stories or seen the movie Kwaidan. In tonight’s movie, instead of a cursed video, the school girls are slain by:

A cursed sticker-picture vending machine

When their picture gets taken in the machine, a mysterious and horrifying female figure is seen behind them in the picture, foreshadowing their impending death.

Korean Drama: The Fifth Republic

There is a historical drama to begin soon in Korea. I wish I was in Korea to watch this and that my Korean was good enough to enjoy it:

“The 40 episodes cover the period from the morning of president Park Chung-hee’s assassination to the handover of power from Chun Doo-hwan to Roh Tae-woo.” But the first nine episodes concentrate on the last months of 1979, from Park’s assassination on Oct. 26, 1979 to the Dec. 12 putsch. The 1980 Gwangju Uprising gets four episodes to itself. “We will focus on the New Military Group’s preparations and decision-making process in brutally putting down the uprising.”

One or two episodes each will deal with other incidents like various financial scandals, the shooting down of a KAL airliner over Soviet airspace, the Rangoon bombing, occupation by demonstrators of the U.S. Cultural Center in Seoul, sexual torture inflicted on female protestors by police in Bucheon in 1986, Geumgang Dam, the torture and killing of collegian Park Jong-chol in 1987 and the June 29 Declaration of the same year that forced democratic change.

◆ The characters

The “hero” is Chun Doo-hwan, played by Lee Deok-hwa. “His negative side is well known, but he had a charm about him, like a boss who takes money from this person and that person to buy booze for his underlings in order to keep those around him happy,” Lee said. “We will show this as central to his attraction.” Roh Tae-woo (played by Seo In-seok), on the other hand, is depicted as an introverted, calculating fellow. “There is evidence if you look at Chun’s autobiography, where he says whatever he starts, Roh finishes,” Im said.

I would be very interested to see how the drama juggles accuracy, popular impressions of the recent past, and the views of the writers themselves. I’m sure there will be lots of interesting commentary floating around about this. I hope I can live to see the day when China permits the showing of a historical drama giving 4 episodes to Tiananmen in 1989.

Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat

I watched an episode of the cartoon “Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat” today on PBS while eating lunch (shǎguā 傻瓜, meaning “fool”). Aimed at kids aged 5-8 years old, it is perfectly targeted to keep me entertained. When watching anything these days, I always feel my critical knife want to go into attack mode but I must say I thought the cartoon was very cute and it prompted me to visit the PBS homepage for the show.

The cartoon follows the adventures of the mischievous cat 傻瓜 and other characters. The show is deeply engaged in ethical education and multiculturalism, and according to their site each episode is dedicated to: 1) Modeling strategies for dealing with the personal and social issues children face as they grow into a variety of new roles. 2) Exposing children to elements of cultures other than their own and showing that children all over share many of the same interests and emotions. In other words there is a clear universalistic Enlightenment approach here combined with an appreciation for cultural diversity.

WishbearI’m not sure how much influence they have on children, but I certainly remember all sorts of warm and fuzzy lessons that learned from watching the Smurfs and Care Bears as a kid. Ok, so one of the Care Bear artists (writers?), Kathy Bostrom, is also author of “Little Blessings: God Loves You” and is perhaps the same Kathy Bostrom which was a previous president of the Presbyterian Writers Guild. However, I’m happy to see one author find that, “The occult images found in the Care Bear series are extremely subtle. On the surface, the Care Bears teach the children to express their feelings, especially those of love, to others. At first, these sound like very good ideas, but, they are Humanistic principles, which are in contradiction to God’s teachings. Magic and Eastern religious ideals also are prevalent in this series.” (Cited here from Phillips, Phil: Turmoil in the Toybox).

What I liked most about the Shagua/Sagwa cartoon, which is apparently based on a story by the bestselling author Amy Tan, was that unlike many cartoons that show aspects of cultures that are unfamiliar to many of its viewers, this cartoon actually tried to slip in a variety of cultural material which goes beyond the regular standard images. Sure, it had really stereotyped images in some scenes, but I liked how simple Chinese words constantly slipped into the dialogue (kinship terms, greetings like zaijian, food items like baozi, instrument names, and other daily words). Of course, many of the characters act in strangely Western ways, and promote entirely anachronistic values, but a child watching this will be exposed to a host of new cultural images, and vocabulary. After a word, for example is introduced, it is often simply referred thereafter by its Chinese name. I would love see more multi-lingual cartoons out there, even if this just means that we call baozi a baozi, and not a “steamed bun”!

As for the moral education aspects of the cartoon, looking over the list of “messages” in each episode, I liked how we start with an episode which mocks slavish obedience to authority! The question the site suggests parents ask children, “Ask your child to think of a rule that he or she believes is unfair. What could be done to change the rule?”

Oasis: Kim Kyung Hyun Talk

I attended Kim Kyung Hyun’s talk today on the Korean movie Oasis. Kim has written The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema. His talk, “Between Greenfinches and Sparrows: Interpreting Signs in Oasis” (He actually changed the title but I didn’t catch the new one) focused on Fantasy, Language, and Naturalism in director Lee Chang-dong’s movies, especially Oasis. I was a bit disappointed at what I felt to an excess of fluff in his talk (fluff: a precise technical term which I use to refer to slightly incoherent theoretical babble which constructs impossible and unfinished sentences that can only give the listener a sort of approximate idea of what the speaker is trying to say). He also had a tendency to spend several minutes explaining what questions he wants to grapple with but then giving us a single sentence answer which is then repeated for us in many eloquent but ultimately redundant ways. However, this is not at all uncommon in literary or cinema related talks.
Continue reading Oasis: Kim Kyung Hyun Talk

Just Watched Oasis

I just finished watching Oasis, a Korean movie directed by Lee Chang-dong. It is perhaps the most emotionally challenging movie I have ever seen. It is a tragic love story but also a merciless social critique. I’ll be attending a talk on the movie tomorrow given by Kim Kyung Hyun from UC Irvine and I’ll write more then.


It was Cary Grant movie night at Dudley, the graduate student activity center of campus. I stopped in for one of the movies, the 1946 suspense movie Notorious. It was fantastic. While it has a kind of simple “lets prevent a group of ruthless postwar Nazi Germans from creating nuclear weapons in a Brazilian mansion” kind of plot, this old black and white Alfred Hitchcock directed movie reminds me yet again that movie making didn’t always get better with time. He directs some wonderful scenes with their memorable camera shots, whether it is hiding Cary Grant from us in the opening scene, a certain angle on a coffee cup, or the ultimate feeling of suspense generated from a slow camera descent with the main characters down a flight of steps as a few distant looming figures of Nazi evil stand in the background and watch. There is a love story, but it is a cynical love, where almost every exchange of emotion is a defensive insult or a probing stab. Finally, what I loved the most was that the movie maintained a constant threat of violence that we await with every scene, only to be denied it throughout.

55 Days at Peking

I watched the old movie “55 Days at Peking” starring the National Rifle Association’s dear leader Charlton Heston. The movie is an account the Boxer rebellion in China in 1900, but specifically of the valiant defense of the foreign legations by a divisive group of Great Power diplomats and soldiers from around June 20th, when a German minister was killed by Boxers, to August 14th, when Allied forces take control of the city.

The movie was full of blanket stereotypes, weird music (presumably to give it a Chinese feel) and western actors speaking in a mechanical tone of voice to help us believe they are the Empress Dowager and her followers. Nothing more or less than common for a movie of its time.

To its credit, the Westerners don’t come across completely untarnished. In the first few minutes we hear some disgruntled Chinese say, “Different nations say the same thing, ‘We want China.'” The audience is also asked to respect the Chinese as Charlton Heston reminds his US soldiers, “This is a highly cultured civilization so don’t get any idea that you are any better than these people just because they can’t speak English.” It doesn’t help though that the next scene has Heston trying to save a Western missionary from torture and execution at the hand of Boxer rebels (who for some reason all seem to wave banners saying “Beijing” 北京 and “the capital” 京都). When he tries to buy the life of the missionary, our hero explains that the greedy capitalist Chinese will sell anything at a price.

Our American hero, as is often the case in these movies (and in reality?), is an impatient, aloof, but thoroughly seasoned warrior who doesn’t have time for the subtleties of diplomacy (that is left to the British ambassador). He only knows bravery, duty, and action and he gets very angry at the British ambassador when told that killing the Empress Dowager might not be a good way to resolve the crisis. I could see his eyes totally flashing, “Dude! But she’s like, EVIL!” More below…
Continue reading 55 Days at Peking