Taegukgi – Humanism and Antihumanism

It probably doesn’t happen often in anyone’s lifetime, and, more so, perhaps, in my own cynical one, that a media text resolves in a way to reveals to you a pivotal shift in your world view.

I just finished watching Je-Kyu Kang’s Brotherhood (태극기 휘날리며, 2004), and I had one of those moments.

Firstly, it dawned on me that Korean films, and, by extension, contemporary Asian cinema, notwithstanding language barriers, and issues with Asian films made for Western audiences (叹息, misguided producers), are prolifically adding some of the most powerful and honest titles to the world’s filmic canon (another Korean film, in all of its populist chick-flick glory, that I adore is 써니 (Sunny) which came out last year (2011) to record breaking Korean audiences). And, these aren’t just niche arthouse experiments, these include box office exploding populist films. Oh why, oh why, is Australia an English speaking nation…

Secondly, as I get further sucked into the film’s narrative nexus, barring the occasional ham-handed moments and slightly overpowering John Williams-esque soundtrack, Brotherhood did something to my thought process that very few films manage to do to me these days. Film connoisseurs (or snubbery, depending on whichever point of view you decide to look at it), will often turn there noses up at films that don’t aim to force the mind into contemplation, either through complexity, pure profundity or just explorations into confronting material (a truly terrible film(s) that comes to mind that would fit the bill would be… All of the Step Up films), while a 13 year old high school kid (or just a human being with the mind of a 13 year old… yes many adults would fit into this category) would either be mindlessly bored, or repulsed by films that aren’t escapist, populist fare (films such as Schindler’s List, or a little more out there like Eraserhead / Anything Lars von Trier/Terrence Malick, or more recently, and closer to home, Snowtown). What Kang managed to do (in the case of my viewing) was not only create a populist sentimental sob-fest epic, but also a plot that would eventually lead to only one result somewhere mid-way through the film – that of provoking deep contemplation.

The Korean War is well known for being the war that many forgot, the main reason for this was the fact that, despite it being a civil war on a massive scale, it was as proxy war for the rival thought paradigms of the time of Capitalist Democratization and Communism/Socialism. Anyone who says that the Cold War was a war in which not a single shot was fired forgets the political maneuvering required to get other smaller nations to fire those weapons for the dominant nations of the time (USSR and the US). However, the brutality with which war is portrayed in Kang’s film, and the barbarism to which all involved are reduced to, made me realize that this was not a film about the clash between Western and Communist ideals (as is so often portrayed in American films (don’t forget, at this time, the US film industry was subtly creating propaganda to support the ideology of the time, with or without government intervention, think Stallone’s films). This has continued today, although the face of the enemy has changed from Russian to Middle Eastern Terrorist), this was a film about the tension between both Humanism and Anti-Humanism. Between ideological parameters that reduce people to conflict over arbitrary issues, and the universal concept of human dignity and family relationships (a prominent part of most Far Eastern societies, arising from an agrarian history).

In fact, to put it in to perspective, all of the conflict our world is experiencing today is motivated by a clash of ideologies. Kang’s film got me thinking, rather than assess an ideology as either right or wrong (in either case, there is the possible consequence of self-righteousness), shouldn’t we be assessing the concept of ideology as a whole? If paradigms inherently lead to conflict (for example, think about the track record for all Religions), then should these views be considered valid at all, especially when in comparison to the human condition.


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