Sunday, November 22, 2009


In the evenings after unni comes home from work, we usually watch some TV drama together. The newest one which I am attempting to follow is IRIS, which stars two of my favorite Korean actors, Yi Byong-hon and Kim Tae-hee, who are both highly trained agents working for something called the National Security System (NSS).

I can't understand enough to make out the details of the plot, and anyway I missed several episodes, but it's very fun to watch. Many of the basic elements are clearly borrowed from the American drama "24" - the 3rd-person camera angles, the darkly lit high-tech NSS office full of computer workstations and glass-walled conference rooms, the bad guys who have somehow infiltrated the highest levels of the agency. There is even a female technician at NSS who is painfully reminiscent of Chloe O'Brian - quirky, snappy, cute but not elegantly beautiful like Kim Tae-hee, and she always comes through in a pinch with some last-minute computer hack. Yi Byong-hon is a talented actor with enough charisma to match Keifer Sutherland, although he has become too much of a boy-toy in recent years and never loses an opportunity to take off his shirt. Like Jack Bauer, he rarely gets through an episode without being tortured or double-crossed by some trusted friend.

The significant difference with 24 is that, particularly in the love story aspects of the plot, they can't resist working in some of the standard Korean drama cliches. So, for instance, you'll have Yi Byong-hon and Kim Tae-hee working together to chase the bad guy through the streets of some foreign city, but for the background music there'll be this really inappropriately sweet "we're-falling-in-love-for-the-first-time" type of Korean pop song.

The bad guys seem to be a combination of Japanese yakuza and North Korean agents. Some of the North Koreans are good though, and some South Koreans are bad. When we were watching the other night, I had an interesting and revealing conversation with unni. I asked her if the actors playing North Koreans spoke with northern accents. She seemed surprised by the question. Of course not, she said, after all they are all well-known South Korean actors. It would be weird if they suddenly started speaking with different accents. I told her that in American movies, actors are commonly expected to adopt a different accent to suit the character, be it British, Australian, South African, whatever. She seemed to accept this but didn't think it was necessary in the case of the two Koreas.

From this and other conversations I've had since I've been here, I've come to suspect that a lot of South Koreans are unaware of - or in denial about - just how different their two societies have become. It's not just the accent, or the different levels of development - They don't seem to consider that while South Korea has been changing all this time, North Korea has been changing too. I've heard two different people (South Koreans) tell me that, although South Korea is a nicer place to live, they believe that North Korea is more "essentially Korean" or "true to its roots" than the South. This is a common theme in DPRK propaganda, but I don't agree with it and I'm surprised that so many Southerners buy into it. I think it's wrong to simply equate economic backwardness with a greater respect for traditions. Particularly in the case of a Communist society like North Korea, with the pressure placed on people to reject old ideas and religions, the radical attempts to upend the class structure, and the elaborate system of ideological training and control. Of the two, North Korea shows far less respect for Korean history prior to 1900; they would certainly never erect a 10-meter-high bronze statue of any historical figure other than Kim Il Sung in the middle of their capital city. I suspect a Korean from 100 years ago would be equally bewildered trying to have a conversation with someone from either the North or the South.

No comments:

Post a Comment