Thoughts

#048

TV DRAMA, PATRIOTISM & NATIONAL IDENTITY.

This is a random thought about a new Korean drama I am watching these days. The show, Descendants of the Sun, is about a surgeon and an officer somehow falling in love in Korea and meeting again while being dispatched as members of a peace-keeping/humanitarian team. To be frank, I only started watching it because it’s starring Song Joong Ki, who just finished his military service and came back as a very handsome man (hi there). Ahum. The role he has perfectly matches his new “manly” look and he sounds very natural when talking in a very dry military manner. Welcome back to the normal world!

The first episode starts in a confusing manner. Song Joong Ki plays the role of a super-special-forces member, being in charge of delicate cases. He suddenly appears in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by anxious soldiers and goes into a hut to negotiate with North Korean soldiers who hold 2 South Korean soldiers hostage. I was suddenly reminded of a short presentation I attended at a congress in Paris. A professor was talking about the representation of North Korea in South Korean dramas, as an enemy at the beginning and progressively becoming an interesting alter-ego. This is exactly the same here. You see Joong Ki fighting a North Korean officer (with a knife, much sexier than guns) and ending the fight by telling him “Well, it was nice meeting you, but I hope we won’t see each other every year, Lieutenant XXX”, as if they knew each other well. You see two people speaking the same language, going through a never ending (and meaningless) fight, leaving the hut as if nothing happened. North Korea is a mysterious neighbor, an old grumpy (but not that scary) enemy, wearing old-fashioned uniforms and playing with guns from another century. South Korea has high-tech equipment, gorgeous looking soldiers and ends up reminding North Korea that it would crush the enemy in order to protect its population. South Korea is represented as a proud, modern, powerful nation, while North Korea disappears in the shadows. The message could not be more subtile…

This mission is not the only one. Every time, you see Joong Ki running to get a plane, go to a dangerous place and secretly overcoming who knows what kind of threat. There is even an image showing something that could basically be a representation of ISIS on screen. And of course, he always comes back victorious, reminding the world (or maybe just South Korean people?) that South Korea is an important military actor.

The main story takes place in an imaginary country, apparently in the middle of a (civil?) war. You see children starving, asking for food at the military camp. UN buses are used by a local mafia to smuggle weapons. The local police/army is corrupted. In the middle of all this misery (even though you see people – tourists?- with sunglasses downtown…), the South Korean army has a cozy camp, eating porc BBQ, tofu (where did they find that?) and spicy cup-ramen, while everyone uses her/his handphone (I don’t want to imagine how expensive their bills are going to be…) and moves around in shiny Hyundai (product placement, hello) cars.
At first, I was a little surprised. I am not really well aware of what the S. Korean army does in this world. I don’t know how many peace-keeping missions are going on these days, nor which countries are sending men. But I’ve never really heard of S. Korean soldiers involved in peace-keeping operations. I’ll look at that later.
Anyway, S. Korea is portrayed as a developed country, helping another country in need. (I can seriously not decide where that country is. Is it in central Asia? Eastern Europe? Northern part of the Middle East? Can someone tell me what language they speak?) Soldiers are protecting convoys from the UN, while doctors do… What do they do? I was expecting them to take care of sick and hungry children from the beginning, but that was not the case. There is one kid who comes in after fainting in front of one doctor (Onew on the screen, at last!), but that’s basically all. The patient that needs treatment is a VIP President from a certain Arab country (… really?), coming in a helicopter, causing diplomatic issues but surviving thanks to the amazing talent of the head surgeon (Song Hye Kyo). Here, you have a S. Korean surgeon showing incredible skills and saving a worldwide political superstar, preserving the world’s peace. Interesting.

I find this drama fascinating. We’re only at the 4th episode, but there are continuous signs saying “Hey, S. Korea is great! International level of awesomeness!”. Sometimes, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable or annoyed. Those people never eat local food, never talk with local people (seriously, the girl at the youcanfindanythinghere shop is… KOREAN! There are in the middle of NOWHERE, and she’s KOREAN!!!), almost never take care of local people. Almost all landscapes are empty, without local inhabitants. I guess I’m not really aware of how peace-keeping/humanitarian missions operate, but this seems odd… The movies that generally leave me this impression are American movies. US = powerful, hyper-developed, protecting the world. I guess you see what I mean. I tend to avoid those kinds of movies and prefer watch lower budget films that make me discover another country, another culture, another point of view (and another language). But I guess I should pay more attention to the messages embedded in audiovisual materials. There is so much hidden (or not really hidden), it’s actually pretty fun to deconstruct them. Even though it’s sometimes distracting from the disgustingly cheesy (but unescapable) love line which, for once, is not being too “yes/no/yes/no/yes/no/yes/no”.

Anyway, Song Joong Ki & Onew, FIGHTING!

PS: I just realized that this drama is produced by KBS2. KBS stands for Korean Broadcast System, a broadcasting group founded by the South Korea government. How interesting…

***

Listening to: t Yoonmirae (t 윤미래) – ALWAYS (Descendants of The Sun – 태양의 후예 OST)

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One thought on “#048

  1. Melanie says:

    Very interesting perspective on this new drama and I share similar views about the patriotic/nationalist representation of South Korea. I also feel uncomfortable and annoyed as it made me cringe but I can’t say I’m surprised!
    You can also find this dimension in historical films or dramas that are based on real events, and more particularly those which deal with the Korea-Japan relations. I’m thinking about Bridal Mask/Gaksital for instance or the film The Admiral: Roaring Currents… or more recently “Spirits’ Homecoming”, a film depicting the painful lives of the ‘comfort women’ during WWII and it’s currently a success at the box office. Overall, I think this nationalist dimension in films or dramas is recurrent but not only in South Korea or in the USA. You can find it too in Indian cinemas for instance.

    On another note, I don’t think we can expect a ‘realistic’ drama from KBS! 😉 That’s why I usually prefer dramas from cable channels such as TVN (Misaeng!!), but I don’t know why I’m still enjoying Descendants of the Sun hahaha

    Regarding the contribution of South Korea in peacekeeping operations, here’s what I found: http://www.providingforpeacekeeping.org/2015/03/30/peacekeeping-contributor-profile-south-korea/

    Like

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