Thursday, May 12, 2011

J/K Crossover Movies (Part 1 of ?)

Korea and Japan have a complicated history. Complicated. Kind of like how the Titanic sprung a leak. Movies that touch upon Koreans in Japan, or the relationship between Koreans and Japanese, or Japanese people in Korea fascinate me—whether directed by Koreans or Japanese or whoever else. There's not really a whole lot that I've seen, and some of them are just plain bad (there's a disappointed rant/review about 2009: Lost Memories forthcoming, some day).

The most recent one I've seen is Linda Linda Linda. It's a Japanese movie and it's mostly Japanese, in that Korean-Japanese relations are barely even a tertiary issue. Much more central to the movie is the infectious love of music and four high school girls' push to get ready for a performance at their school festival.

Even without the Korean angle, I would have loved this movie. The cinematography is exceptionally well-done, as is the characterization. But the fact that the lead singer is a Korean exchange student (Son) whose Japanese is sometimes lacking pretty much seals it for me. Add in the fact that Son is played by Korean actress Bae Doona? Consider my heart warmed to the very cockles. (You often get Japanese movies about Koreans in Japan that simply cast Japanese actors as Koreans. Come on guys, they're right next door. It's not so hard to find the real thing.) Also, Bae Doona is amazing—you might recognize the name from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or The Host.

The movie makes a point of highlighting the Korean Son as the school's "token Korean"; when the movie opens up, she is the only student in charge of organizing the "Japanese-Korean Culture Exchange" for the upcoming school festival. She has a perpetually confused air about her whenever she interacts with people around her, like you can tell she's working really hard to listen and comprehend and formulate her thoughts. You also get the impression that this leaves her socially stranded; the only people with whom you see Son interact prior to joining the band are the teacher in charge of the "Japanese-Korean cultural exchange" and Son's "host sister," an elementary school student who reads manga with her. Son is Korean, and because of that (at least in part), she's alone. Not an outcast, not a pariah—but without a group.

Bae absolutely steals the show as Son, as far as I'm concerned. She's a lighter, slightly chattier version of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club: earnest and to the point and charming.

All of the girls are worth watching, though, and I appreciate the fact that Nobuhiro Yamashita made sure to find actresses who could at least pass as musicians. The girls all play their own instruments, at least on screen—I haven't done enough digging yet to see if they also performed on the EP released, with music from the movie.

What I found kind of interesting was the subtitle job, at least in English. In other movies I've watched where more than one language was spoken, an attempt was made to differentiate between them, for the sake of the foreign audience. Not so here. Which isn't really a big deal, I guess, but there's a couple of parts where the essence of the scene is lost if you don't realize that the language you're hearing is Korean instead of Japanese. I guess Viz figured, "The only people interested in this movie are going to be able to tell the difference anyway."

For all of the frenzy inherent in the story of a thrown-together band pulling through last-minute rehearsals for an important gig, the pace of the movie itself is relaxed. People have complained that it moves too slowly, but I disagree. It never really drags or gets bogged down; I guess the best way I could describe it would be "dream-like." It has less of the tone of nervous anticipation for the future, and much more nostalgic recollection of the past. As if the story we're watching unfold is being presented through the framework of remembrance, and not current experience. It does help, though, that movie is quite visually striking and well-shot, as I mentioned before.

As for Korea and Koreans and their relationship with Japan, it's hard to tell. There's the odd scene or two where it seems like Yamashita was trying to present some larger message about Korean-Japanese reconciliation (Son doodles and dreams up the name of the band on the back of a flier for the Japanese-Korean culture exchange), but in the end it's really a movie about the music, and about a love of it. This is no gritty immigrant tale like Yôichi Sai's Blood and Bones or Fighter in the Wind; no drama like Go!. It's about how one outsider finds her place in a foreign country because of a shared love of music.

When you see Son rock out and belt out "Linda, Linda! Linda, Linda, Linda~!" with her classmates, what you feel inside is very much a warm fuzzy. You don't get the impression that she's been mindlessly assimilated into her new culture, without any room for Korean-ness. On the contrary, Son very much thinks and feels "in Korean"—her innermost thoughts and most heartfelt exclamations are in Korean, not in Japanese.

(Also a scene where the girls are shopping for dinner supplies, since the bass player is making them dinner: Son gleefully adds a whole bunch of garlic to the cart. I had a laugh.)

Maybe the larger point is simply that people should stop making a point; that there are things two cultures can love and have in common and that if we focus on those, the differences don't matter anymore.

No matter how you spin it sociologically, Linda Linda Linda is a solid movie with great acting and an awesome J-punk soundtrack. Definitely worth watching and (in my opinion) owning. I leave with you one of the songs covered by the movie's fictional band (since "The Blue Hearts" were a real and much-beloved Japanese punk band):

Owaranai Uta (Endless Song) by The Blue Hearts