I recently read The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by John Burnham, one of two books Michael Malice recommends (along with The Righteous Mind) for understanding the current political situation and it had the side-effect of crystallizing for me what it is that I like about Korean movies. I caught the Korean disaster movie Emergency Declaration and followed it up with Hansan: Dragon Rising, and both of them underscored a central point raised in The New Machiavellians. I then caught two Western movies: A Love Song and Medieval, which tended to reinforce what I was thinking. So let’s dive in!
The New Machiavellians
As I understand it, Machiavelli’s premise is that all countries are (by necessity) ruled by a small group (maybe even just one) person, and this person or group stays in power by virtue of a myth. Once pointed out, this seems obvious—and I think it’s fair conclusion that Machiavelli was reviled primarily for giving the game away. The myth, ultimately, bears no connection with actual governance as the oligarchs involved are primarily motivated by maintaining their own power.
I often say, on coming out of a Korean movie, that it made be proud to be a Korean. Although the sentiment is tongue-in-cheek, it references a very real experience: In just a handful of films—actually within the first few films I saw—the myth was a clear expression of a national identity that, while it showed flaws and humility, did not contain self-abnegation—even in cases where it arguably should have, from a strictly historical standpoint.
Hansan: Dragon Rising
This story of Admiral Yi, the 16th century naval officer who scored devastating wins against the Japanese with both tactics and technology—super-cool “turtle ships” that spook the Japanese enough that they name them bokaissen, after sea monsters. Struggling with a bureaucracy/royal court that has no shortage of cowards, narcissists and traitors, Yi boldly takes the correct action to defeat the real enemy (always and forever the Japanese).
The theme of “man with integrity does the right thing for Korea in the face of corrupt, cowardly bureaucrats and hostile foreigners” sums up a great many Korean movies, both historical and contemporary. Critical to this theme is that the Korean people themselves deserve competent leaders who do not oppress them overmuch and who recognize that their job is to serve the public, not exploit it. (In the Machiavellian sense, this myth has nothing to do with what actually happens, but we’ll come back to that at the end.)
This is the #2 highest grossing Korean movie this year. A similar American movie might be The Patriot (2000)—and that was more successful overseas than in the U.S.
The next movie on my double-feature was actually a fairly old-school disaster movie: Emergency Declaration. A maniacal terrorist infects a plane with a deadly disease, creating multiple crises as the issue becomes where should they land? Should they land at all? The classic formula of having many people from many different walks of life (though all Korean, of course) gives you the melodrama of social clashes in parallel with the desperate race on the ground to solve the problem.
One of the heroes of the drama is the Minister of Transportation, a no-nonsense woman who shakes down the evil PharmCo (and its white American CEO, heh) for information and accountability. The responsive, intelligent bureaucrat is far more common in Korean films than in American films. The Korean myth still includes the possibility of functional government, with a strong hint of foreign influence being behind corruption. The shocking thing about this movie is that the terrorist is Korean—I would’ve bet $50 that he would be all or part Japanese.
Ultimately, when the dust settles on the various dramas, we’re left with a message that Koreans are fundamentally decent people, and while they can be selfish and short-sighted, when push comes to shove, they’ll do the right thing and even sacrifice themselves without complaint to save their friends, family and countrymen.
Critics are very lukewarm at best toward this movie for some reason. I found it incredibly effective even as I marveled at how manipulative it was. Although critics compare it to The Host, to me it felt right at the tone of, say, The Poseidon Adventure, though with stock characters that aren’t quite so melodramatic as the doubtful priest, the cop married to the hooker with a heart of gold, etc.
The American equivalent? Independence Day would be my closest analogue. (Earth is invaded, sure, but it’s America that saves the day.)
A Love Song
Just by virtue of having three weeks between these blog posts (at Ace of Spades HQ), I had time to stumble across A Love Song. This is a low-key slice-of-life story starring Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water, Winter’s Bone) as a widow who meets up with childhood near-boyfriend Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans, Mystery Men) on a campground out in the Utah desert.
The most pro-American movies I’ve seen in the past 20 years were the German film Schultze Gets The Blues (2003) and the New Zealand film World’s Fastest Indian (2005). This is the first American film I can think of in that time period which captures some of the feel of those pro-America movies as the hopeful widow meets an assortment of characters that represent and reflect American decency. (It has what yaboi Zack might call a “statistically improbable black lesbian couple” who work fine as a characters in an individual movie, but in 2022 feel more to me like genocide on the down-low.)
It’s probably not fair to compare a low-key indie that maxed out around 100 theaters and made a quarter-of-a-million dollars to Korean big-budget summer flicks, but then again, how many American big-budget flicks can we compare for our purposes? (We’ll talk about the box-office elephant in the room at the bottom.)
Medieval seemed to pop up from nowhere, and actually maxed out around 1,000 theaters, with a million BO in America and a million BO foreign. I had not heard of it but The Boy and I ventured out to see it before it vanished as mysteriously as it came. It has Ben Foster as the Czech hero Jan Žižka (zhizhka)—which should actually be the title of the movie—and Michael Caine as a (fictional, I believe) go-between trying to stabilize the teetering Holy Roman Empire by getting King Wenceslas IV to Rome to be blessed by the preferred Pope.
For giggles, I checked Medieval on RT and it had a score of 37/72. The Boy and I side with the audience here: It’s got problems, and director/judo champ Petr Jákl is definitely more comfortable with action scenes than drama, but it also fits beautifully into the discussion of the Western myth. Because while the Koreans are constantly reinforcing their myths, with so many Joeson-based films they have to compete with each other on terms of action, romance, adventure as well as historicity, this is the only 2022 candidate for promoting the myths of Western civilization that I can find and it’s an also-ran about the last time things really went to hell (the 14th century).
This is a pretty light year for Koreans, actually, in terms of serious historical drama but even so, two of their big popcorn movies (The Pirates, as well as Alienoid, which I plan to catch this week) have a big heaping helping of identity myths. Medieval, alas, is no 300, either in terms of its action or myth-building.
Oh, No, You Read The Content
The box-office elephant alluded to earlier is, of course, Top Gun: Maverick. From the perspective of the American myth, it’s actually not very powerful. The original Top Gun spurred enlistment in the Navy and I’m fairly confident the sequel did not. It’s almost atavistic in its vision of a competent military—although, come to think of it, the military isn’t that competent in the movie, is it? But it has this little spark in it. Here’s a movie about America and Americans and we don’t suck and we’re not rotten to the core—and Americans showed up in droves, as did people worldwide in countries where it was allowed to be shown.
It’s the runaway #1 film in America—and also France, the U.K., Sweden, Italy and so on. (It’s #2 in Korea behind The Roundup—but ahead of Hasan.)
They used to say the only color Hollywood cared about was green—it was all about the money. That was never true, but never more obviously so than in the wake of Passion of the Christ, which should have resulted in a bunch of serious Biblical epics by true believers (or Jewish immigrants, like in the Golden Age of Hollywood). No matter how starved people are for the American myth, I don’t believe we’ll see much from Top Gun: Maverick. They’ll put it all on Cruise, or the lockdowns or anything else.
The #155 movie at the box office in 2022 USA is Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America: I can 100% guarantee we’ll see more like that. Another Top Gun—or even Top Gun-style blockbuster? I’d bet against it (barring a huge shakeup).
The hard question, though, is…is that a good thing or a bad thing? Quite apart from doomed Hollywood, does it at this point make sense to shore up the American myth? The opening of New Machiavellians is the 1932 Democrat party platform, where they swear to rein in expansive government and to balance the budget. In the sense of doing anything to shore up the complete nonsense of politicians whose entire ethos is “what do I have to say to get you to do what I want?” I can think of little more evil.
But in at least one sense, the myth has value: As a group, we are not our government or our “elite”, and when I think of those most pro-American movies (Schultze and Indian), what stands out is how Americans are portrayed as decent, generous, kind to strangers—probably not for nothing they don’t spend a lot of time in the cities, now that I think about it—which is an aspect of the American myth which is true, irrespective of the “intellectual” narrative.
And it makes for much better moviegoing: I would rather see a movie about good people, even if they’re not in my “tribe”. Hence, Korean movies it is.