In the wake of February’s historic Oscar sweep for Parasite, Bong Joon-ho has repeatedly reiterated that much of his early film-education was obtained via VHS tapes of mainstream Hollywood fare, viewed when he was a nerdish teenager 1980s Daegu. He was far from alone; thousands of his South Korean peers devoured such movies with the same avidity as their western cousins.
And even beyond the 38th parallel — in the Democratic People’s Republic then ruled by Kim Il-sung — the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Lee, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were, in certain quarters, household names.
This is the «hidden history» explored by acclaimed Finnish visual-artist Maija Blåfield in her new half-hour work The Fantastic. An aesthetically distinctive and consistently illuminating essay about the impact of cultural creations upon the human psyche, it draws upon from the theories of illusion and reality expounded by Bulgarian-French structuralist Tzvetan Todorov.
Her starting-point is the weird historical detail that countless tons of western consumer products were for decades transported to North Korea to be burned as waste. The vast bulk duly went up in smoke, but a significant quantity of videocassettes were surreptitiously saved from the flames. They were taken into homes and played — illegally but discreetly, an unlikely form of samizdat.
In a control-based society where external elements were routinely excluded and demonised, such glimpses of world(s) beyond often proved transformational. Blåfield’s audio foregrounds interviews with anonymous defectors who had their eyes opened by Hollywood’s excesses: «We could see things we had never imagined before,” notes one. «I wanted to experience something new. I was curious,» recalls another. «After the film, reality became different… The film became the reality.»
The Matrix, with its vision of sinisterly extravagant mental manipulations, unsurprisingly struck a particular chord. One speaker, meanwhile, remembers being startled by Die Another Day, in which James Bond battles nefarious North Korean soldiers — the latter …
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