Sunday, March 21, 2004

SUNDAY COMIC? Maybe not.

Sorry, but I don't think there's going to be a Sunday comic this week. Bad form, I know, but it can't be helped.

You have to be in a wicked mood to draw comics like mine, but I saw "T'aegeukgi Huinalli-myeo" yesterday, and just can't seem to cheer myself out of The Pit of Despair. While I didn't exit the theater a blubbering mess (my buddy's wife had to borrow my Kleenex-- she was a mess, and even my buddy was a bit misty-eyed), I did leave with a very tight throat. We three stepped out of the cinema, piled into the car, started driving-- and no one said a thing for about 20 minutes. When the silence finally broke, we found we had very little to say.

Cinematically speaking, the movie borrows the visual tricks and storytelling tropes you've seen in American war films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Platoon." "T'aegeukgi" is a morality play that centers on two brothers. It's arguably more complex than "Platoon," in which Charlie Sheen is faced with a fairly straightforward moral dilemma personified by his two spiritual fathers, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe as the good guy) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berrenger as the bad guy).

The symbolism in "T'aegeukgi" (and I have to give Korean filmmakers credit for their talent in making symbol-rich films) often reminded me of the yin-yang symbol at the heart of the South Korean flag. That symbol, the t'aegeuk, or Great Ultimate, shows a cosmos in process, one in which yin and yang intertwine with and imply each other. You see this cosmic tumble in the interaction between the two brothers: the elder brother, already bitter, seeks glory (and perhaps death) in combat. He'd send his younger brother off the battlefield if he could, because despite his gruffness, he loves his younger brother deeply. The younger brother, a gentler and more compassionate soul, simply wants to survive the war and desperately begs his older brother to stop risking his life. This conflict is fairly clear-cut in the first half of the film, but becomes murky and confused-- like war itself-- in the second half.

For me, as the eldest of three brothers, the film was hard to watch because I could put myself in the place of the movie's elder brother. Though I never express this to my younger brothers, I feel very protective of them, and like the older brother in the film, I'd want to send my younger brothers out of harm's way. Sorry if I'm revealing too much, but the elder brother dies to give his younger brother the chance to survive, and I was left hoping that I could be so noble. If anything ever happened to my brothers, I'm not sure what I'd do, though I know I'd feel responsible.

"T'aegeukgi" did a great job of depicting the Korea of half a century ago. It fleshed out, in my mind, many of the stories my mother told me about her own horrifying experience in that war, in which she lost two brothers, and which is still the source of nightmares for her. Mom can't watch "Taegeukgi"; I'd never recommend it to her (though I'm recommending it to Dad).

I suppose what makes this viewing experience different from watching "Saving Private Ryan" or "Platoon" is that World War II and the Vietnam War are over. Here, barely 30 or so miles from where I sit, there's still a DMZ, and technically, there's still a war going on. This isn't over for the Korean people.

Strangely enough, "T'aegeukgi" seems to support my position on Korean brotherhood. Yes, North and South were one people. There's no denying the long and deep historical ties between them. As the movie shows when the older brother loses faith (he thinks the younger brother is dead) and switches sides to fight for the North Koreans, it's possible for those ties to be severed. But if this symbolism is political, then it's also optimistic: the older brother's change of heart, when he rediscovers his younger brother and gives his life to save him, is that brothers, once cruelly separated and devastated by an act of fate, can find and love each other again. That would be my hope for the future as well.

There's a lot more going on in "T'aegeukgi" than I've described. It's a complex film. My buddy's verdict was, "Some things are more important than ideology, communist, capitalist, whatever." I can see where he's coming from. His wife's verdict was, "Sad. So, so sad."

There we are. Now you know why there's no Sunday comic. Am feeling a bit too drained and depressed to stick one up. Much of my weekend has been spent in planning lessons for the upcoming teaching gig, and I think I'll keep doing that this evening.


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