January 25, 2002

Both sides of the DMZ irked by James Bond

By S. Kenneth Pai
For the Northwest Asian Weekly

After the demise of the Soviet Union, and with Colombian drug lords becoming a little stale, 007 needed some fresh international villains. In Korea, the producers of "Die Another Day," the latest James Bond adventure, seem to have found what they were looking for.

In one of the film's scenes, an American officer barks orders for a South Korean military mobilization. In another, Korean farmers are shown goading a water buffalo, then staring in bewilderment as a luxury automobile is lowered from the sky.

Exciting and glamorous enough for you? For Koreans, this can be hard to take. Throughout much of its history, the country has suffered the humiliation of foreign invasions and foreign domination, and where Westerners may find something quaint and amusing, Koreans may rightfully regard it as insulting.

None of the women that Bond goes to bed with is Korean, but Korean audiences nevertheless find it disturbing that one such act takes place in front of a Buddhist statue. The Jogye Buddhist Order issued a statement saying the film is "disrespectful to our religion and does not reflect our values and ethics," according to a report in the Korean Herald.

In addition, some of the actors in the movie have been criticized for their participation. Rich Yune, a Korean American who plays a North Korean military officer, Colonel Zao (a role another actor, Cha In Pyo, turned down), had to defend his accepting the role at several hostile news conferences.

So incensed are some Koreans that a boycott has begun outside the 145 theaters that are showing the movie in South Korea since it opened on New Year's Eve. (This is happening at a time when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has provoked the United States by reviving his nation's nuclear-energy program, and many in South Korea are unnerved by U.S. President George W. Bush's tough talk.)

Overall, South Korean public opinion is becoming resentful of the United States, despite the latter's defense of the South during the 1950-53 Korean War. The majority of young South Koreans, two generations removed from that war, do not see Pyongyang as a real threat. Reporting from Seoul, the Washington Post found there is growing sympathy for the North, a yearning for unification, and anger toward the United States, which still maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea.

An official of the South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism says he agrees that "Die Another Day" is "the wrong film at the wrong time." Clearly, Seoul does not wish to anger groups that are eager to continue their ongoing programs aimed at improving relations with the North.

North Korea, for its part, has called the film "a dirty and cursed burlesque." Its official news agency said that the United States is "the root cause of all disasters and misfortunes of the Korean nation." (This, despite the fact that few, if any, North Koreans will get to see the movie, and the country's "Dear Leader" is reportedly a passionate James Bond devotee.)

So if nothing else, "Die Another Day" has given North and South Koreans something in common. Daniel Schorr, commenting in the Christian Science Monitor, said, "Communal bonds tend to override ideological conflict."

Hollywood's insensitivity toward other cultures is nothing new, however. Although it has been decades since Native Americans were portrayed as savages, deserving only of slaughter by superhuman cowboys and U.S. Cavalrymen, the film industry still has not pulled itself out of the deep hole of stereotyping people of other cultures.

Some will say it's only fiction -- why be so serious? But in movies, white Americans -- and it matters little that James Bond is a servant of Her Britannic Majesty -- always come off as smarter and stronger, while nonwhites are portrayed as either stupid, evil, inept or all of the above.

Let's face it. American movies and television, now distributed throughout most of the world, are ubiquitous purveyors of American pop culture, and South Korea is among their top ten international markets.

This latest episode shows why so many Koreans are angered when their brethren are cast in an unflattering light: it is as if they were extras in an upcoming blockbuster (to be produced by President Bush) called "War on the Axis of Evil."

S. Kenneth Pai observes the national and international scene from Seattle. He can be reached at scpnwan@nwlink.com.

Send correspondence to:
Northwest Asian Weekly • P.O. Box 3468 • Seattle • WA  98114
Tel: 206.223.5559 •  Fax: 206.223.0626 • Email:
Please bookmark this site: www.nwsianweekly.com