The past subjunctive "if clause" structure -- mournful, a study in sepia, the fate of the main clause held hostage by an impossible conditional, its hope tethered to a sinking stone. "If I were a rich man…" runs one famous example, "All day long I'd biddy biddy bum." (And who wouldn't?) The problem is, "you use the subjunctive," The American Heritage Book of English Usage says, "to describe an occurrence that you have presupposed to be contrary to fact." The statement "If I were a rich man" tells us that the speaker is, lamentably, not rich.
If You Were Me, a film commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, doesn't bother to follow up with a main clause in its title. Composed of six shorts by leading Korean directors, the movie chooses, instead, to dwell on a supposition that is powerful and perhaps outrageous, especially in these postmodern days: that through film, viewers can see into lives that have been rattled by societal discrimination, lives that may be light years from their own experiences. Showing at the New York Korean Film Festival and San Francisco's 8th annual Asian Film Festival this month, the film delves into the stories of a former sex offender, a disabled man, and a Nepali immigrant, among others, with a remarkable, emotional power out of proportion to the length of the shorts and the potentially maudlin pitfalls of the subject matter.
The "Weight" of Her focuses on a plump high-school girl who faces diminished employment prospects, she's told, because of her weight and her single-fold eyelids. Eye surgery has become popular throughout Asia -- I've often seen tiny crosshatches of scars on the eyelids of Asian acquaintances -- and Korea is no exception. Director Yim Soon-rye breaks the frame at one point in this film and features her own stout self -- a refreshing contrast to scenes that depict the employment prospects of the "pretty girls," who wind up simpering over businessmen in hostess bars. Is this, Yim seems to ask, what beauty will get us?
The Man with an Affair draws on a palette of cold, blue-tinted white to depict an encounter between a child with a bed-wetting problem and a former sex offender who live in a sinister apartment building set in the near future. Unlike the other shorts, the film doesn't focus on building a sense of the character with whom we are expected to empathize. Rather, this short focuses on creating a hermetic, sterile world -- a Korean panopticon of surveillance where neighbors spy on each other but never interact -- to illustrate the adult protagonist's isolation and claustrophobia.
The outstanding Crossing features 13 scenes in the life of the severely disabled Kim Moon-joo as he tries to tell a woman he loves her, applies for a job, and shoots the breeze about porno films with a friend. The scenes have an absurdist humor and beauty to them -- a kindly but misguided neighbor stuffs Kim back into his parents' apartment as he is attempting to go out for the first time in eighteen years; a shot of an ascending chairlift is filmed in lovely counterpoint to able-bodied people galloping up and down the stairs.
The film's production team became concerned about the ethical issues of making this short, wondering, "Is this film about the world from our perspective? Is it actually the world in their viewpoint?" according to the production notes. In a fine act of empathetic responsibility, they decided to consult with disabled activists and theatre troupe performers on their film; their efforts paid off handsomely. Despite an abrupt tonal shift from humor into wrenching melancholy at its end, Crossing is the short that brings its subject most sharply into full, human light.
With their critiques of physical beauty and depictions of the crushing pressures on Korean children, Tongue Tie and Face Value share some themes in common with the first short, The "Weight" of Her. The first focuses on the horrifying practice of performing oral surgery on children in order to improve their pronunciation of English. The second features a conversation in a parking garage on the societal expectations of beauty. While these two films are more gimmicky than the others -- the first relies on cringe-inducing footage to make its points, the second on a plot twist -- they still manage to impart their characters' conundrums and leave us with a lingering unease over their fates.
Like Crossing, N.E.P.A.L.: Never Ending Peace and Love is another standout. Technically masterful, N.E.P.A.L. is based on the true story of Chandra, a Nepali immigrant who lost her bearings one day and wound up in a mental institution for six years. Built almost entirely on point-of-view shots that literally place the audience in Chandra's shoes, N.E.P.A.L. blurs fiction and fact, creating dissonances with its shifting perspectives and its use of subtitles. Although N.E.P.A.L. stumbles in presenting Chandra's homeland as a bathetic paradise after the hell of Korea, the short's combination of technical skill and deep empathy make it an unforgettable illustration of one immigrant's experience of disorientation and fear.
The title of If You Were Me has an uncanny resonance with the words written by Korean farmer Lee Kyoung-hae in the publication Korean AgroFood last year. "If you were me," Lee asked, speaking of the despair of Korean farmers over their drastic impoverishment, "how would you feel?" In September 2003, Lee went to Cancun to protest WTO policies that he linked to the devastation of small farming communities; his AgroFood article received widespread attention after the 56-year-old farmer pulled out a knife during the protests and silently plunged it into his heart. He died shortly thereafter.
While If You Were Me focuses on societal discrimination and not the effects of WTO policies, it offers a filmic response to Lee's silent, volcanic anguish over his ability to communicate his suffering and reach those who seem impervious, inaccessible to the plight of a fellow human. The directors try to answer Lee's question, walk the proverbial mile in others' shoes, take the artistic risk of trying to bridge differences through the empathy of imagination. Although the phrase "if you were me" already tells of the distance between its object and subject, this film puts forth its supposition anyway. If you were me, the film seems to ask -- for a mile, for a day, for the minutes in these shorts -- would the world be a better place?
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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