The Map Against the World / 고산자, 대동여지도 (2016) Review

The Map Against the World / 고산자, 대동여지도 (2016) Review
#ChaSeungwon #고산자 #대동여지도

Going to the movies is an event. You pay for a ticket with your money, take the time and expense to travel to a theater, and spend the 90 minutes to 3 plus hours required in the dark. It is not cheap an investment although still an affordable one. What is the minimum bar, in terms of elements, a movie needs to pass over so that you basically aren’t dumbfounded about its existence? I’m not talking about whether the movie is good or not. It is not a matter of whether you enjoyed the movie or not. Even hating a movie has its own returns after all.

Some cinephiles would say “ARTISTRY” as an answer to this question.  The pissed off disgruntled folks would answer with “SOCIAL CRITIQUE” and others would say “ACTION” or “SEX”. In many ways, you could boil these down to two broad elements: “Talking” about a subject or showing some deed being “done”. A movie usually have both of these elements but in different concentrations. With more arthouse cinema, there could be movies with almost no deeds being done. I mean there are movies with no protagonists. On the other side of the fence, there are the so called “POPCORN” movies which some call “hollow vessels of pointlessness.” I do defend many of those movies as movies that just don’t talk about subjects in the manner and to the concentration some want. There is nothing wrong with that! However, that discussion is for another time.

Whether a movie leans towards the “TALK” or “DO” side, if it includes at least one, I would say that it at least justified its existence independent of whether the movie is a so called “good” movie. Then, there are movies that barely have anything to “talk” about or barely show deeds being “done” because the purpose of making the movie got lost in the confusion of the behind the scene process. They essentially have no core. When I say purpose, I’m pushing aside the gold old dream of making the “greenbacks” rain down for a moment. Cinema is a business after all! In fact, it is a business of making a product from scratch to sell to customers. If there is not at least some kind of core essence to work with, it is very difficult to make something that holds together. You will notice this type of train wreck of a movie when you see it since they are very obvious. The Korean movie “The Map Against the World” (2016) starring actor “Cha Seungwon” is sadly one of those movies. I really don’t know what the purpose of this movie was. It feels like being lost in spite of holding a map right in your hand. Whenever you look at it, you can’t make heads or tails of it. Where is up and down? Where am I?

Relevant map reference! You know because this movie is about a map maker?

“Based” on Historical events
The Map Against the World” (2016) is a story inspired by the life of a historical person call “Kim Jeong-Ho” who lived in the 19th century when the Joseon dynasty was nearing its ends after more than a century of decline in which the people suffered terribly. Have you heard about “Anti-stratfordians?” They are people who deny that William Shakespeare even wrote the works contributed to him because of the lack of historical documentation. If we would take that approach, we would have to deny “Kim Jeong-Ho” even existed since there is barely any information about him. What we know is that he was born and died during the 19th century and was a great map maker or in fancy terms a “cartographer”. The most famed map “Daedongyeojido” of the era which lays out in detail the geography of 19th Korea is contributed to him.

For those who don’t know Korean history, you would have to ask “why is this map maker famous?” I would say “that is a good question! What map maker every garnered such fame beyond their niche world?” I googled “famous map maker” and I don’t recall anyone on that search result. And I have a decent or at least passable knowledge of history. In contrast, every South Korean knows about “Kim Jeong-Ho!” Not sure about the North! He is essentially a folk hero like “Davy Crockett” who is more myth than real at this point. However we know more facts about “Davy Crockett” than “Kim Jeong-Ho!” This is because he wasn’t enough of a prominent person during his time to have much written about him.  We guess he fell into the “Middle person” caste who were a section of the Joseon (Korean) population that were low level government officials or craftsmen who do work for the government. There is not have much recorded about this caste.

Let’s get back to the question of “why is Kim Jeong-Ho a folk hero?” You get why “Davy Crockett” is a folk hero. It is far less easy to comprehend why a map maker, who no one really knows anything about  and living in the age when craftsmen were viewed as being of very low social status, is a folk hero. They aren’t as interesting as artesian or even courtesans! To understand the reason for this, you have to understand the death of the Joseon dynasty. The dynasty lasted about 500 years and essentially was dying for at least the last 300 years of its existence. At the end, it really had nothing to claim as its accomplishments other than corruption, incompetence, and starvation. The dynasty didn’t even end with a bang. There was no war. The last king basically sold his right to rule over to the Japanese and it was over. Dead and buried but for the people left without a King and a country to call their own.

Entering the 2oth century under the Japanese occupation and facing the modern age of practical science, there was a need to fabricate a folk hero to unite the Korea people. This folk hero needed to be one that fit into the 20th century the Korean people were suddenly shoved in to. What would this hero look like? You have to remember the fact that the early 20th century was the age of practical science. Inventors and scientists were being elevated as folk heroes. Think “Thomas Edison” (1847 – 1931)! Influenced by this trend, the Koreans looked for someone who fell into this category but this was not an easy task. Practical knowledge was vilified for most of the Joseon dynasty and only ethical/philosophical dogma had value. During this search, “Kim Jeong-Ho” was discovered and a myth of him being this noble progressive modern figure/scientist who worshiped practical science, resisted the ruling class, and shared knowledge widely with everybody including normal folks and slaves was born. In reality, he most likely would have been a great map maker employed by the government. He lived. He did good work. Then, he died. That is mostly all that should have been said about this map maker without the intervention of history.

A sitcom about nothing
Making a movie about “Kim Jeong-Ho” should not be hard! Movies don’t need to be true to “FACTS.” They just need to be true to the “STORY.” In the case of “Kim Jeong-Ho,” his modern existence is built to be a good story. So, how did the Korean movie “The Map Against the World” (2016) starring actor “Cha Seungwon” screw thing up? The movie couldn’t come to a conclusion of what it is about.

Since this movie is about the character of “Kim Jeong-Ho,” you would expect the movie to be about him or the making of his map “Daedongyeojido” which is the reason he is remembered by anyone. But the movie disappoints this expectations. “The Map Against the World” (2016) is 2% the protagonist “Kim Jeong-Ho” wandering around the landscape you would see in beautiful screensaver shots. This is part of his myth in which it is said that he walked around the country several times on his own in order to make his map through personal observations. All of this is in the beginning of the movie. So, a decent start? But wait! After the movie opens like this, the movie is basically done with the whole map making part of the movie.

For the remaining 68% of the movie, “The Map Against the World” (2016) is an US 90s sitcom like “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996–2005) which revolves around the incompetent dad and his family doing nothing really significant. Just in this case, is that the sitcom is set in 19th century Korea and the dad is a map crazy nerd who is incompetent in anything that isn’t related to map making. Just mix Raymond of “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996–2005) and Doctor Emmett Brown from the back to the future movies. Toss in a bit of Married with Children (TV Series 1987–1997) also. During this sitcom section of the movie, nothing really happens other than basic family shenanigans you would expect from a sitcom. There is nothing much related to the map going on since the map is already 97% done at the beginning of the movie. An earlier version had already been published. He only needs to get to a distant island to finish his map.

A sitcom about nothing
For a sitcom, what you get is not bad. Actor “Cha Seung-Won” plays “Kim Jeong-Ho.” Actor “Kim In-Kwon” plays “Ba-Woo who” is the apprentice. Actress “Nam Ji-Hyun” plays “Soon-Sil” who is a teenage daughter. Actress “Shin Dong-Mi” plays the older female neighbor who seems to be Kim Jeong-Ho’s girlfriend and mother figure for his daughter. This the basic four character dynamic you see in Sitcoms and it works in this movie also. All the main actors and actresses do a decent job with what was written for them although no one standouts beyond their comfort zones. While I’m not really into Korean comedy, there are moment of amusement I had with the sitcom aspects of this movie. In terms of what type of sitcom this is, it is more of a “Seinfeld” (1989–1998) in the fact that it is not really plot driven. It is more of sitcom about “nothing.”  All we are shown are incidental daily family interactions about a dysfunctional family. Not only that but the so called protagonist “Kim Jeong-Ho” does not any agency in even these trivial family moments. He is just there. While this may work for a sitcom, this becomes a problem when you are making a feature length movie with a protagonist, a story, a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is in addition to the fact that the movie doesn’t seem to be meant to be a comedy. So, you come to the conclusion that 70% of this movie is basically just a long set up, a fist act, for the rest of the story.

Political intrigue without room for our protagonist
What is that story? Is about finishing that map? You know it was 95% done! It’s not really. What we get are basically scenes in which characters within the government engaged in internal political squabbles. What does that have to do with protagonist Kim Jeong-Ho? How does he fit in? I don’t really think he does since the movie awkwardly inserts him into the plot. This is because he is not really a player in the larger political scene as a character in a story nor as a historical figure. In this story, he is just an eccentric map maker and is not even really a player in his family also. The movie meld the character and the political plot together by making the original wood printing plates of his famous map a McGuffin that the bad guys chase. I mentioned this map before: “Daedongyeojido.” At the present, portions of the plates are stored in a museum and considered a national treasure. This attempt to use a McGuffin does not work at all to the degree it is rather weird.

There are several issues that arise. First, at the end of the day, the bad guys’ interest in the plates is treated as halfhearted and doesn’t really drive the plot. It is as if it was just a forced motivation on the part of the writers. Why should the audience care? Second, it doesn’t really make sense that the plates would be of that much importance in the context of the story. The plates are now considered a national treasure but that is because of it is a historical artifact. In the context of the plot, there is nothing that special with the printing plates for a map that has already been published. The protagonist would have just given them a copy if they asked. Or they could have just bought an early copy. There was not really any strategic advantage getting the plates in political terms. Finally, the protagonist Kim Jeong-Ho, as he really doesn’t fit into the story, has no agency here also. In fact, he has only one choice to make throughout the whole movie and this decision is made meaningless by the story not waiting for him to make a decision. So, why is he the protagonist?

What is the point?
Overall, I’m not sure what the over arcing story of this movie is meant to be. In terms of story structure, the protagonist is introduced. Then, his family is introduced. That is more than half the movie. Then external events happens almost regardless of the protagonist. He suffers and then the movie is over. What is the point other than the base melodrama of having the protagonist suffer? And we are not even given much of that since it goes pass so fast. If I do some considerable stretching, I could say that the movie wanted the protagonist to embody the suffering of the normal folks of that era. The Christian persecution of the time is an okay backdrop for that. However, not only is this handled without much effort or care in terms of what we are shown but the movie doesn’t really tell the audience why the protagonist had to be the historical folk hero that is Kim Jeong-Ho. Why is Kim Jeong-Ho the protagonist?

In terms of overall quality of the movie, most of what is on screen is above board expect for the storytelling. The only real complaint I have is the music which is very familiar and Hollywood “epic-y” as if someone barrowed the soundtrack of a movie from about a decade ago. In addition, why is Korean movie about a Korean historical figure set back in the period before the western encroachment use very very standard western orchestra music?



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