Four hours in Korea

On the way home last September I had the briefest of stopovers in Incheon, Korea. I was rushing home to start my new job and felt like I couldn’t afford to spend more than a few hours in Incheon, even though Korea was a country I had never been to before. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what the rush was…but at that point I also wasn’t too fussed after a busy summer spent in Europe.

Incheon Landing Memorial Hall
Incheon Landing Memorial Hall

I did a cheap tour of Incheon from the airport, stopping at a shiny new tourist information centre about the city; ate some street food (an omelette sandwich); then spent a bit of time at Incheon Landing Memorial Hall, learning more about the Korean War and buying my dad a souvenir. The final stop on the tour was a specially designated tourist shopping centre that was designed to encourage the consumption of Korean products. I stocked up on dried seaweed, collapsible chopsticks, soju cups. My contribution to the local economy.

I’m not sure I got much, if any, insight into Korean life on this four hour tour…but it was certainly an introduction of some kind.

Last night, I spent four hours at the Korean Film Festival…and you know what? It sounds obvious but you don’t have to physically go to a country to learn about it. There’s a lot to be said for armchair travel – learning about the world through books, films, people. I learnt more about Korea watching two of its films back-to-back in four hours, than I did physically being in Korea for four hours.

The film festival was a stopover after a function I attended at the Opera House. I didn’t really plan to spend my Friday night watching films but I’d had a crappy afternoon at work and thought escaping into film would soothe my soul. I walked past the cinema and saw that there was a double-bill for a mere $20 – The King of Pigs and Oldboy (a cult classic I hadn’t seen before).

I obviously know very little about Korean film if I thought last night’s excursion would distract me from my worries.

The first was an independent animated feature about the corrosive effects of schoolyard bullying. The second was essentially a brutal revenge flick – and executed beautifully, like nothing else I’ve ever seen before. Blood and guts aplenty and fighting galore.

I found The King of Pigs deeply depressing in its depiction of Korean society, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the writer was writing from personal experience. It was emotionally raw, and seemed like a sketch of reality. If this was indeed close to the mark, it seems that Korea, like Japan, has a fairly unyielding hierarchy. There was a strong sense of oppression that felt pretty alien to me…as was the discussion around suicide. The film was fearlessly gruesome and completely unflinching in showing the societal ripples caused by endemic bullying. So yes, not exactly light Friday night viewing.

Oldboy was as confronting as it was entertaining…and mostly it made me wonder what it was like to see the world through Korean eyes. A very different way of telling a story, and pretty dazzling in terms of its artistry. It’s the kind of script that I could never dream up in a million years, almost the exact opposite to a Hollywood movie. I’ll be curious to see what Hollywood does with the film when it coughs up a remake next year.

I’m not sure that I’m sympatico with Korean films, but last night I really felt like I learnt a bit more about their society. It’ll take time for me get my head around what it all means, and I’ll continue to turn it over in my mind. But it’s clear that digesting a culture this way can be a lot more enriching than digesting street food at a Korean War memorial – though that’s not to say I wouldn’t do the same again the next time I passed through.

Welcome Korea
Welcome Korea

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