Anarchist from Colony / 박열 (2017) Korean Movie Review

Starring Lee Je-Hoon, Choi Hee-Seo, Kwon Yool, and Min Jin-Woong

You hear from time to time that one movie is basically just another movie with a different coat of paint. This idea can be expanded to the maxim of “there are seven stories in the world” by people such as Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch or Christopher Booker who wrote a book about it. And if you have spent a lot of your life watching movies, at least mainstream Hollywood, that maxim does sound to be close to the truth.

There's that old adage about how there's only seven plots in the world and Shakespeare's done them all before.
--- By Terri Windling

Leaving aside its accuracy, it is not a stretch to say that, in storytelling, there are a very few number of thoroughly developed plots--- let’s just call them story molds --- with accompanying character architypes that really get embodied within culture. The audience accept these plots and is acclimated to consume them over and over in slightly different forms. Since this is what the audience expects, creators or movie makers oblige with this since they want to separate the audience from their hard earned cash. So, the cycle is reinforced. However, audience expectations are not the only reason why the cycle is not broken.

Simply stated, using these story molds are simply far easier for creators…the let’s say film makers. These plots have been refined over the years by masters and workmen a like to the degree that there is basically a set of rules to follow that everyone accepts; even the audience. In other words, there is a manual; a how to book on storytelling for dummies. And the collective intellect behind group endeavors such as movies are dumb. Thus, it is prudent for the film makers to just follow the manual for most cases. The end result is just better and getting there is far less of a pain. There is enough flexibility within the rules to accommodate slight deviations for novelty sake. The audience only really need a pinch of novelty to be pleasantly surprised.

Some may say this is cynical and lazy on the part of the film makers. However, we cannot really blame the film makers’ behaviors. Making a movie is difficult enough trying to get all the parts to fit together. You don’t want to put in the extra effort, if not desperately needed, into trying to develop an original plot on one’s own. Not only would it be difficult and take away resources that could be better used elsewhere, but most likely it wouldn’t be good and the audience would reject it just based on unfamiliarity. Sticking to the manual is a safe and prudent bet. However, some film makers insist on going down the unknown and challenging path. The Korean movie “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) starring Lee Je-Hoon, Choi Hee-Seo, Kwon Yool, and Min Jin-Woong is one of those movies.

Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.
---by Ray Bradbury

The Plot
“Anarchist from Colony” (2017) is a period movie “based” on actual events and actual people. The time period is around the dates of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake in Japan. The Great Kantō earthquake … the Kantō Plain on the Japanese main island of Honshū …on Saturday, September 1, 1923…had a magnitude of 7.9…Estimated casualties totaled about 142,800 deaths (Wikipedia). It had been about 13 years since Japan official absorbed Korea than Joseon as a colonial province. And many Koreans relocated to Japan over this timeframe since the economy of Korea was not much beyond the 3rd world throughout its existence. The Korean population in Japan reached more than 80,000 at the time of the earthquake.

The plot of “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) is the story of Park Yeol, a Korean socialist poet with anarchistic tendencies, and his Japanese girlfriend Fumiko Kaneko, a fellow anarchist and a poetry groupie. Well, it was a time when anarchists and socialists were a dime a dozen in Japan. Also a lot of bad so called poets. So, expect a lot of rants about how great socialism, nihilism, and anarchism are as  this movie displays those political ideologies in a positive light.

Your pretty empire took so long to build, now, with a snap of history's fingers, down it goes.
Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

When the movie begins, Park Yeol and Fumiko Kaneko with their like-minded cohorts are your run of the mill anarchists who beat up people on the streets and discuss socialist literature over lots of alcohol. They are not even a proper terrorist group since they are fairly incompetent in matter beyond basically violence. Not surpassing since they are at most in their early 20s and people tended to be really stupid at that age especially under the influence.

The plot really kicks in when 1923 Great Kantō earthquake occurs. During the post- earthquake chaos, the confusion of the Japanese population turned into an anti-Korean massacre in which something like 3000~6000 Koreans were kill in Japan. After the dust settled, the Japanese government started to round up Koreans to so call “keep the peace”. Park Yeol and Fumiko Kaneko were one of many to get caught up in this. Then, things started to escalate as they were picked out as terrorists planning to assassinate the Japanese Royal prince in an Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria manner. You know the spark of World War 1. Now the movie is off to the courts.

Kaffee: Colonel Jessup, did you order the Code Red?
Judge Randolph: You don't have to answer that question!
Col. Jessup: I'll answer the question! You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
--- from A Few Good Men (1992)

Hate! We hate Japan.
As a side note, this movie falls clearly into the Korean movie genre I call “Japan bashing”. Statistically, movies in this genre are the only ones that make it big in the Korean box office. It has that much cultural cache. But this was not always so. The rise of this genre only started over the last decade or so. Ad it has been an illuminating experience in understanding basic human nature for me. For a long time, I couldn’t get my head around it.

I’m a member of generation X and we Korean Xers grew up as Japanophiles. At least 35% of our cultural consumptions were of Japanese origin. In addition, we hadn’t really had any actual significant interaction with Japan that could be called negative. Japan was just a cool neighbor that the old folks had a bad history with. Silly feuds!

I look upon the whole world as my fatherland, and every war has to me the horror of a family feud.
--By Helen Keller

About a decade ago, this all started to change. All the anti-west, anti-US, pro-China and pro-socialism forces came together to product a massive wave of anti-Japanese cultural messaging. And it worked. It changed the narrative of generations and country. Generation X and millennials drastically turned against Japan for no real practical reason. The baby boomers were also affected but to a lesser degree. In fact, as you get closer to the demographic who actually experienced Japanese rule, people tend to be more rational and less emotionally anti-Japanese. It makes you think about how emotional reactions regarding the abstract are based on nothing real and are easily influenced by cultural propaganda and indoctrination.  

Now back to the movie.

Breaking the Mold?
Considering the movie’s plot description, one obvious manner in which to tell this story comes to mind. It is the court room drama. More accurately a “social message” activist drama in which the courtroom acts as a major backdrop. You know those movies where the defendant ---our protagonist --- gets his day in court to grandstand against injustice and etc. It is not so important that the defendant win but put his message out into the wider public consciousness with as much saintly aura as possible. And “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) does take this approach. However, there is a problem to using this story mold for this real life figure which is inherent to the story itself. I

The protagonist or more accurately protagonists of “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) are not your traditional characters for this type of storytelling. I say this in one small way and one big way. First, the minor thing; the dynamic. While the Korean title “Park Yeol” is the main characters name, his girlfriend Fumiko Kaneko is almost treated as an equal lead. It is not his story but their story. It is the joinery that this couple takes together. This type of character dynamic is not very conducive “social message” activist drama approach I mentioned because it does divert attention from the “soap box” message of the movie. We have to have a protagonist who is isolated and focused on his mission and not run around with his girlfriend like Bonnie and Clyde as represented in the 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The bigger issue is with who the protagonists are.

Technically, Park Yeol and Fumiko Kaneko are dead on guilty of what they are charged with in court as much as Bonnie and Clyde were guilty of being Bonnie and Clyde. They were wannabie terrorists and assassins which matched their charges. They were also guilty of beating up political opponents in the streets frequently but who cares about those cute acts of violence committed by a gang of roaming young anarchists. This lovely couple are your typical young 22 and 20 year old anarchists of the times. In other words, they are guilty. And the standard “social message” activist drama story mold has a hard time accommodating protagonists that are not actually pure or innocent. Separate from the legalese in the court room, the protagonists in this story mold has to personify the story’s message --- basically be anointed as a saint of that message ----at least at the end and having them be Bonnie and Clyde creates issues. One could make it work but not easily.

Talking about Bonnie and Clyde, Park Yeol and Fumiko Kaneko doesn’t perfectly fit the character architypes from the mold of the “tragic but romantic criminals on the run” story. In many ways, the character journey of Bonnie and Clyde is self-destructive but also relatively straightforward in its trajectory. It is basically a chicken race against destiny towards a cliff with a cut break line. The protagonists of “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) are similar but different and even more complicated in their journey. Rather than be described as the Korean Bonnie and Clyde, Park Yeol and Fumiko Kaneko are more accurately be described as the non-clinically insane and generally more incompetent versions of Joker and Harley Quinn from the Batman franchise. They are agent provocateurs. They are trolls. The trial in the courtroom is essentially a farce, a mere platform to mock the social and cultural foundations that make up Japanese society at the time.  You know .., payback for the occupation and massacre thing…

An agent provocateur is a person who commits, or who acts to entice another person to commit an illegal or rash act or falsely implicate them in partaking in an illegal act.
---from Wikipedia

Round peg in a square hole
Throughout the history of cinema, a solid mold on how to tell a story about these peculiar individuals have never been developed. The closest fit would be satirical comedies and that fit would not even be that close. All this means that “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) has to go in without a guide to how to tell this story. What does this mean? In 99.9999% of these cases, the results aren’t great. These movies don’t have to be disasters but you feel the cracks in the experience. This is true even if the production quality is great, the cast give good performances, and the direction is decent. Well I just described the conclusion to this review didn’t I?

“Anarchist from Colony” (2017) uses the “social message” activist courtroom drama mold as its backbone in telling this story. And it goes hard essentially trying to elevate this anarchist trolling couple into a holy personification and thus provoking the sense of victimhood and indignation within the mostly native Korean audience. Usually, this leads to the villagers lighting up the torches in one hand the swinging the pitch folk in the other. Burn the Japanese and such! And rake in the cash!

Separate from the side effect of trying too hard, this approach clashes with two things and thus fails to evoke the intended emotional response from its audience. The first is the comedic aspect of the movie. Yes, this is a comedy or at minimum a dramedy. This is how the movie tries to deal with the “Troll” aspect of the story. However, the movie doesn’t seem to know how to use comedy for this purpose. On one hand, the comedy is subtle to the degree your never 100% sure the movie is trying to be funny. On the other hand, you can never be relieved of the feeling you should be laughing. And the antagonists are portrayed as silly comedy light as is standard for a comedy. This contradict the movie’s effort to make the Japanese the evil bad guys...

The second and larger conflict is with how Park Yeol is portrayed. The movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. What is a troll after all? What are its motivations? What is the characteristics of that mysterious human subspecies? The movie has not clue. Thus, the movie just uses the “smartest wiseass in the room who is 3 steps ahead of everybody” character trope. Not only isn’t this consistent with the fact the he is a pathetically or some may say comically incompetent as a terrorist, it doesn’t really fit the nature of a troll. And not only just a troll but a 22 year old young troll. He is simply a too cool character for school and also doesn’t fit that well with the subtle comedic tone the movie has.

Too much ambition can be the death of a man. ... Or of many, if he can persuade them to follow.
--- By Lynette Hill

The Judge speaks

As mentioned previously, “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) took on a task that had a high degree of difficulty in terms of storytelling. It chose a story without a pre-existing developed cinematic story mold. It tried to find its own way. The result is that “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) is a mere movie in which the production quality is great, the cast give good performances, and the direction is decent but is full of contradicting forces. It is not funny nor satirical enough to be funny with a bite. It is not romantic enough to work solely as a romance. It is not historically accurately to be a learning experience. It is not subtle nor detailed enough to be deep. It is too silly for its serious intentions. And it is too over the top to be sincere. “Anarchist from Colony” (2017) is a superficial experience which would only be notable for its failed ambitions. If you hate Japan, you might get a minor kick out of it.


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