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South Korea: Inside the Miracle

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The only good thing about this video is its title, South Korea: Inside the Miracle. Most often courses on contemporary South Korea profit from setting up just such a dichotomy. This video, however, will not be much help in unraveling the complex contradictions of Korean political and economic development in the postwar era. The video is poorly produced; its imagery, sound and graphics are quite primitive. It has virtually no distinguishable narrative line, and the narrative as it exists is given no temporal or analytical context. Its major contribution is a pastiche of rather gripping visuals of labor demonstrations and the horrifying arrest of a severely injured labor activist from his hospital bed. Such footage reminds us that violence remains an important tool of politics in post- “democratization” South Korea.

The video opens with a statement of its intent; that is, it wishes to challenge the perception of a democratizing Republic of Korea in the era of Kim Young-sam’s presidency. The narrative, if there is one, revolves around the 1995 Subway Workers’ illegal strike and the violent methods the government employed against it. Along the way we are introduced in very truncated and incomprehensible form to snippets of labor activism history: mention of the martyrdom of Chon Tae-il, the garment workers’ struggle of the early 1970s, later travails of workers in heavy industry such as the Hyundai ship workers, etc.

While it starts with the intent of narrating workers’ struggles in South Korea, the narrative quickly switches to the making of a feature film on Chon Tae-il (a young garment worker who immolated himself and became an icon of the movement) by the well-known director Park Kwang-su. This video can’t decide what it wants to focus on: the fact that Park Kwang-su wants to make a film celebrating worker struggles, a narrative of labor struggles, the continued existence of the National Security Law and its abuses, or a biography of martyred workers.

All of the material shown is compelling and instructive. It is important to know that violence in the name of the NSL continues in “democratizing” South Korea. But this documentary will do more to confuse and alienate viewers. It barely rises above a bad polemic and makes little sense as a documentary. If it is to be used in classrooms, background history and skillful guidance will be necessary. Incidentally, the feature film mentioned in the documentary has been completed. It is released under the title A Single Spark (1996) and will tour the U.S. with five other new Asian feature films in the 1998 Asian Film Tour organized by the Asia Pacific Media Center.