Care to venture a guess what the HOTTEST topic is in Korean cyberspace these days? It’s neither Taleban’s Korean hostages nor the second inter-Korean summit meeting that will be held in Pyongyang this month. Much to my amazement, it’s a newly released monster blockbuster called D-War. An iconic comedian of the 1980s Shim Hyung-rae has been passionate about film-making and has poured his time and money into it. His pieces of work were never quite appreciated though, including his last attempt Yonggari, a film about dinosaurs that became a national joke as soon as it was out coincidentally with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Timing couldn’t have been worse, could it? D-War is his comeback after 6 years. And this time, he seems to have hit the jackpot. According to the latest figure, more than 5 million 6 million people have already seen the film since it was released on 1st Aug. In other words, 1/10 12% of the populace within 2 weeks.
A Discursive War [pun intended 😉 ] then broke out between cultural critics and Netizens. On the one hand, online bulletin boards are flooded with positive reviews, mainly about how proud viewers have felt with cool CGs developed by “purely domestic technology”, how refreshing it is to see a Korean sci-fi instead of usual genres, what a great family day out this film offers, and how respectful they are for the director for “his indomitable attitude”. On the other hand, critics and mainstream filmmakers mock it saying that the film itself is “embarrassingly poor in everything”, perhaps except for “the B-grade imitation of Hollywood’s computer-generated imaginary” at best, but the public “is coaxed by the director’s patriotic appeals” and “become soft with him for his pitiful life stories he seems so willing to share during PR activities”.
Last Friday, there was even a live debate on TV [!] questioning whether this D-War phenomenon constitutes “hope for Korean cinema” [!!]. I’d thought this midnight TV show, called 100-Minute Debate, was reserved for political affairs. Didn’t it use to be? Anyway, I watched it. The pro-D side consisted of a critic and a professional journalist and the anti-D side consisted of a film producer and a professor. Both sides more or less repeated the same arguments already addressed in the mass media and on online bulletin boards, but overall the latter outvoiced the former during the programme. The professor Jin of the anti-D side was particularly fierce attacking the film and its director. He insisted that due to “fanatic threats by immature Netizens”, critics can’t do their job, which should be to “lead the public to good films” by providing objective reviews regardless who has made a given film under what circumstances. He then went as far as to say this particular film itself is “unworthy of criticism” because of “the absence of plot” and “Shim’s lack of understanding of cinematographic grammar” among many other reasons.
When the debate was towards the end, I visited the bulletin board provided by the programme and eye-witnessed something rather chilling. I read through the titles of the posts on the first page and clicked to move on to the next, the same titles appeared there. I initially thought some users had put duplicates up, but soon realised that while I was reading the titles, users kept posting new stuff, which consequently pushed the posts to the second page in a matter of seconds. And this continued through the following days.
(Captured on 10 Aug, 8 p.m., i.e. 18 hours after the programme.
265,794 comments posted under the real names of the respective authors)
Apparently, Jin’s provocative language sparked a public furore. Indeed, most of the postings were specifically addressed to him. Recurring points can be summarised as follows.
# Who decides what a good film is? Is it some arty-sharty critics or those who willingly pay 8,000 Won [approx. 4 pounds] out of their own pockets and enjoy 2 hours of experience that a given film offers so much as to recommend it to their friends and families?
# Are there some universal criteria for film excellence while different films aim at different audiences and different achievements? Some films aim at Oscars or the Cannes grand prix, but others aim at crowd-pleasing. Why didn’t you tear apart 300 (2006) or Transformers (2007) as well as you do D-War now? [Jin apparently wrote rather positive reviews for the two aforementioned films – in his own words, which Netizens are now throwing back at his face, “Films of this kind are not about a tight plot. Visual impacts make up for it.”]
# Not to mention the Screen Quota system, patriotic marketing is nothing new in the Korean film industry. Any sectors, for that matter. Why is it a problem only in this case? Why does Chungmuro [the mecca of Korean film production, i.e. the Korean version of Hollywood] have to be overly and exceptionally harsh against Shim? Isn’t that because he is not one of you?
And above all,
# Critics and so-called experts, what do you think you are? Who has given you the right to insult more than 5 million people who have consciously chosen the film and have genuinely enjoyed it? We were aware of the shortcomings of the film, but still went for it because we overall liked it. Don’t be so certain we are all so foolish to fall for marketing tricks, even if there are some. We don’t need your guidance.
This is definitely déjà vu. Korean online discourse has always been marked by this kind of elite-versus-masses dualism. For example, when Roh the sitting president was impeached in March 2004, support for him was demonstrated through mass candlelight rallies organised and advertised online. At that time, many “political pundits” made cautious comments on “the danger of populism”, and Netizens eagerly proved in various forms, from text-based posts to parody products, that they knew what they were doing.
I have been extensively reading about this whole D-War gale, naturally with a focus on whether/how the Internet should be factored in. Like every time this kind of discursive battle takes place, media analysts hasten to conclude that it indicates a power shift from traditionally defined elite groups to individual citizens. While I was wondering whether that really is the case, I encountered an article, which approaches to it from a slightly different perspective. The writer’s hypothesis is that people defend the film so desperately because they actually don’t have enough faith in their own judgement as culture consumers. Hmmm, interesting.
I don’t necessarily agree with where the writer eventually takes his readers to, but his hypothesis has given me a considerable cause for thought. It then struck me why I wasn’t too sure about the citizen empowerment motion. When I was attending a CAQDAS conference last April, a presenter Cathy Murray from the University of Stirling made a fascinating point applying Derrida’s idea of binary opposition to her research on juvenile offenders. Her argument was that in a binary opposition, it is always the dominated who have to justify themselves. To be more specific, when it comes to teenagers, despite the general perception of offenders as a marginalised group, they are indeed the dominant and non-offenders are the dominated. Hence, the latter feel compelled to explain why they don’t commit crimes (any more).
What has this got to do with the so-called D-War phenomenon? Quantitatively speaking, yes, ordinary citizens now have more channels to get their voices heard with the advent of the Internet and other digital technologies. But isn’t it still the very citizens who have to justify and defend their decisions (against accusations of populism, social narcissism, etc.)? For example, thumbed-up posts on such bulletin boards almost invariably have citations of other established critics that spoke positively of the film in order to rebut anti-D critics like Jin. Isn’t it an irony that those who advocate the empowering of ordinary individuals can’t let go of “arguments by authority”?