(note: This article may contain spoilers to some movies)
It’s that time of year, and with the Oscars just a few weeks away, movie studios have been busily sending out screeners to publicise the most anticipated and highly acclaimed films and TV programmes of the year.
The overarching theme this year seemed to be about finding common ground in situations where racial tensions are divisive and prominent (Black KkKlansman, Black Panther, Widows, Green Book, The Hate U Give, If Beale Street Could Talk), along with biopics and historical narratives (First Man, Vice, Mary Queen of Scots, The Cold War, 22 July, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born), portrayals about drug addiction and the underground drug industry (Beautiful Boy, Ben is Back, Narcos Mexico, The Mule), and several amusing tales of unconventional relationships (The Kominsky Method, Wanderlust, Gracie & Frankie, Glow).
However, despite being inundated with a brilliant and intricate selection of films and TV programmes, with many coming from Netflix’s production division, two post-apocalyptic films, although not overtly political in nature, I think have a particularly interesting insight into the cultural mindset of North and South Korea.
In A Quiet Place, a desolate, deserted landscape surrounds a family in which they are not allowed to speak for fear of unknown monsters who have a way of honing into the population and going on murderous rampages if any voices are detected. Although this might at first glimpse, sound like a bad plot to a horror film, the film captures the nature of censorship that exists in many nations, including North Korea, in which people may be executed for expressing thoughts that do not align with state objectives. Hence these high tech monsters represent the totalitarian state, much like the Orwellian world of 1984, in which speaking up results in death.
In Bird Box, people are afraid to open their eyes and look out onto the landscape, for there is an entity that permeates the atmosphere in which people end up dead. The result is a claustrophobic environment in which blindfolded people lead the blind, closing up their windows, and blacking out any sources of light. Although sci-fi in nature, this landscape could closely resemble the cultural mindset of insular protectionism in South Koreans, in which for generations, there has existed a xenophobic kind of sentiment against people who are “different” from the norm and to shut out foreign influence. While much of the world has been open to progressive change, and acceptance of gay marriage, South Korea is a nation in which homosexuality is still illegal, and recently South Korean President Moon Jae-In has said in a nationalised debate that he did not support the decriminialisation of homosexuals in the nation, which was an about-face from his previous stance in the years before. In addition, whilst the rest of the world was active in the #MeToo movement of sexual harassment and discrimination against women, South Korean media executives downplayed #MeToo and instead output programmes of idealised romantic love involving women in what would be considered sexual harassment by coworkers and bosses in many of their K-Drama programmes.
See also: Olympic medalist Shim Suk-hee comes forward to accuse coach of rape and sexual harassment in a pervasive atmosphere of violence and intimidation against athletes in South Korea.
South Korea is a country that is still very much “in the closet”, resistant to change the current gender dynamics and culturally blindfolded in an attempt to bypass change, and a progressive fear rules the nation in which is considered one of the most high tech in the world. The shutting out of windows, and the perception that people who want others to “open their eyes” must inherently be evil and causes fear amongst the population is something that is firmly rooted in the psychological landscape of a nation that once sent their military to murder all their student protesters in the Gwangju Massacre of 1980 and which has the highest suicide rate of children and teenagers in the world.
Although these post-apocalyptic films do not paint a beautiful, idealised picture of life, but rather a bleak portrayal of people imprisoned by fear, these films could be cautionary tales to the leaders of North and South Korea, in the direction of which a nation may take and the legacy they leave behind.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has an opportunity to launch his nation into a high tech startup base, with many real estate ventures that could create vast amounts of wealth for the nation in the next decade, if he were to steer the nation towards humanitarian ideals in which there no longer existed a totalitarian state in which people fear speaking up for their opinions. When a nation is under the confines of extreme censorship, innovation cannot exist. It is the paradoxical value of rebellion that ultimately leads to innovation that the United States had successfully captured; instead of executing rebels and insurgents, the US recruited them, and this tactic has served its objectives well in the creation of a modern superpower. In addition, adopting humanitarian ideals also has a monetary advantage, the world’s leading billionaires and multi-national corporations are not willing to invest in nations in which they execute or target members of their own population with fear and censorship.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In when elected, became the hope of a new generation of young Koreans who had admired his background as a human rights lawyer. However, due to polls depicting his decreasing popularity, it would be no surprise that he most likely felt under pressure to no longer support the legalisation of homosexuality and to stop his objective of gender equality in a nation in which men openly expressed their dislike for his policies. However, President Moon Jae-In could learn a bit from American politics in that regard, of the power of the media to change people’s perspectives.
When President Obama took power in 2008, gay marriage was still quite unpopular within the general public, but in just seven years, he was able to steadily rise in popularity and make ready for its legalisation. Forging close relationships with media executives and a Hollywood darling, it was during the Obama years in which the US media suddenly took on a change from portrayals of women as victims in society, to powerful women. Whereas in previous years, it was common to see women being portrayed as sex workers, rape victims and unhappy housewives, suddenly, the US market was flooded with movies and programmes that portrayed women as CEOs, executives, scientists, politicians and math quants. The subsequent launching of films and programmes depicting homosexual relationships in normal family situations also paved the way for its acceptance. This created a psychological landscape gearing the population to get ready to accept the landmark legislation that would become prominent in 2015, when President Obama declared, “love is love” and lauded gay marriage activists. As one of the most popular Presidents in American history, South Korean President Moon Jae-In could follow in President Obama’s footsteps and also forge strong relationships with media executives and the South Korean film and television industries in order to create content that moves away from the current and overt sexism that exists in South Korean media outlets, and the rampant discrimination against the LGBT community. As a human rights lawyer, one can only argue and win individual cases, as South Korean President, Moon Jae-In has the power to inspire change in the minds of an entire nation, and not merely follow the fleeting opinions of polls in a futile attempt to tailor policy in a world in which the blindfolded lead the blindfolded.
In the Bird Box, the blindfolded come across a centre for the blind, and live out the rest of their lives in isolation, blind to the outside world. Is this the kind of xenophobic future of insular protectionism that President Moon Jae-In envisions for South Korea? Or would President Moon Jae-In become the first in a long succession of others to break free from the cultural landscape of fear and develop policies which opens South Korea to the ideals of the global world, making it a powerful nation in its own right, and one in which humanitarian ideals are seen as a strength of a nation and not a source of fear?
By Sierra Choi
This article originally appeared in globalfounders.london