We all have mothers -- but not all of us have Korean mothers.
“All Koreans in North and South are working tirelessly for reunification,” I’ve heard a northerner state many a time.
To which I will usually nod, trying not to offend.
“What do you think? Is it the same country as ours?” I’ve been asked more than once by a southerner.
In answer, I’ll often say, “some things look exactly the same: ajosshis red-faced and burning through packs of cigarettes, ajummas cackling in groups as they picnic by the river, and students being forced to study harder than is probably healthy to get ahead in life.”
Then I continue, “Man, though, a lot changes in in 70 years. Almost no one remembers a unified Korea directly, and those who do will be dead soon. So much has changed in that time, in such extreme ways. It’s hard to see it as the same culture any more. It’s really different.”
One South Korean responded to this answer with a resigned, tragically Korean summation of the road ahead:
“Fuck,” he said.
What he neatly summarized in a single deflating word was this: “We’re keeping this single culture, one country idea alive, but the longer we let it go, the harder it is to do. We know this. And it hurts.”
Koreans still largely imagine themselves to be part of the same community, which counts for a lot, but it can be depressing to see such different Koreas. It is also hard seeing Koreans on both sides often resorting to negative constructs of valiant struggles against destructive outside forces as a common cultural element, when so many of the rhythms of daily life have diverged so far. The abstract idea of unity gets buried under a landslide of details.
So, it was with some pleasure that I got to rewatch Koryo Group’s excellent romantic comedy, Comrade Kim Goes Flying, this week in Beijing. The film, a joint UK-Belgium-DPRK production, is the fantasy tale of miner who dreams of being an acrobat and through pluck, good fortune and hard work, makes it happen.
One curious thing, though, was that I didn’t laugh as much as I did when I saw it two years ago at the Busan International Film Festival, where it showed to a mostly South Korean audience. I wondered why I didn’t find it as funny the second time around, until I realized I was laughing less for this reason: the Korean audience in Busan were in hysterics, and it was infectious. The mostly western audience in Beijing was politely enjoying an anthropological experiment on film, perhaps basking in the vague air of self-congratulation that takes place when watching a film with subtitles.
In Busan, in particular, everything that a meddlesome mother character does was met with peals of joyful guffawing: she doesn’t have that much screen time, but every minute she does have is spent poking her nose relentlessly into her son’s affairs. Mostly, she is keen on she blocking certain romantic options while at other times helping set chances up. At another point, she forces a raw egg-Kimchi juice concoction down her son’s throat as a means of curing a hangover. Friends who have seen it shown in North Korea said a Pyongyang audience was similarly amused.
Before the showing in Beijing, one of the directors, Nick Bonner, said: “We set out to make a girl-power rom com…it was made for a North Korean audience, so please try to set your preconceptions aside.”
And try as we might to do that, the meddlesome mother just didn’t resonate with us. We were not Korean and most of us never had such figure as part of our shared experience. The South Koreans did, however.
As one audience member at the Busan showing Q&A bluntly prefaced his question: “Wow…that was just like my mom.”
Bonner said Comrade Kim was made for a North Korean audience, but really it was for a Korean audience. For this viewer it was a lovely reminder that, despite the myriad differences between the Koreas and the divergence in modern ways of working, living and thinking that have developed over 70 divided years, there are a multitude of little things that have stayed the same. Such as meddlesome mums. And this is a hopeful thing.