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Gazing Downward, Looking Back

The cinema of neoliberalism in South Korea and the Philippines

As every bright adult so fortunate to have been raised in its embrace well knows by now, neoliberalism prescribes unbounded capitalism as the cure to the socioeconomic ills inflicted by unbounded capitalism. Less understood and more felt, however, is the emotional pitch that corresponds to such a doctrine. While the Cold War and the current era glory in antagonism with apocalyptic overtones, the intervening period of neoliberal dominance delivered its values more quietly. Looking back at the quarter century between the passage of NAFTA and President Trump’s declaration of a trade war with the rest of the planet, it’s striking how much its rhetoric relied on restrained condescension.

With history at an end and the globe wrapped snugly in the coils of the one true ideology, there was no longer a necessity for high-pitched belligerence; so, perched securely in economics departments and the op-ed pages of the major newspapers, the high priests of neoliberalism made a specialty of stoically looking down. Like doctors faced with so many recalcitrant patients, they simply repeated their prescriptions in a soft, superior voice: take ten privatizations and call the IMF in the morning. They were confident in the correctness of their treatment; the measured volume of their language served as an implicit rebuke to anyone who, being too incensed or lacking the requisite schooling, was incapable of matching it. There was no alternative, no second opinion left: in this, doctors Thatcher and Fukuyama concurred.

Nowhere was the condescending discourse of neoliberalism more pronounced than in the case of its most vital process. Inscribed in globalization’s dichotomy of “developed” and “developing” countries was the presumption that the economy, society, and culture of the First World were the most that could be hoped for; much as individual human beings could only mature in one direction, individual nations, if they were to advance at all, advanced toward secular belief, liberal democracy, and consumer capitalism.

China was the ultimate proof, for the cheerleaders of neoliberalism, that capitalism was for everyone.

Globalization held out the promise that anyone who signed on to the neoliberal program—and why wouldn’t you, when there was nothing else on offer?—could get rich. As with all uplift narratives, it was essentially self-serving bullshit, but for a time there was just enough positive proof to fend off the spectre of absolute fraudulence. By combining luck and sociopathic opportunism, start-up founders raised in the suburbs really did become billionaires. In America the sleek, sterile radiance of Apple stores and products—and of “the Internet” in general—distracted the national audience from the nation’s withered manufacturing, decaying infrastructure, and rampant addiction. The mirages of progress were minimally genuine, but for a time the prospect of mobility they held out seemed better than nothing at all.

Yet there were parts of the rest of the world where capitalist growth, however foul and brutal, was gargantuan. In London, Washington, and New York, liberal and conservative pundits flocked to point to the successes of Asian economic growth: hundreds of millions lifted out of destitution, new middle classes numbering hundreds of millions, a profusion of new roads and railways, gross domestic product figures multiplying like rabbits. Far more than the barons of Silicon Valley, it was the nations of Asia which made the most convincing poster children for the neoliberal promise: one could view there, spread out over space, an exhibit of the various stages of “development,” from start to finish.

There was Japan, long touted as proof that nonwhite countries could make it to the First World; following closely in Japan’s wake were Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, the so-called Asian Tigers; less developed but nonetheless developing steadily were Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam. Last and anything but least, there was mainland China, risen over four decades from an impoverished rural backwater to the premier factory of the world. If capitalism was delivering the goods it promised anywhere, there was a good chance the goods were originally assembled in China. Between 1980 and 2018, China’s GDP based on purchasing power parity exploded by a factor close to eighty, from $300 billion to nearly $25 trillion. China was the ultimate proof, for the cheerleaders of neoliberalism, that capitalism was for everyone, that it worked, and who could argue with such swollen numbers?

Of course, this fanciful narrative hardly held up under close inspection. The People’s Republic of China was finally rich under capitalism, but it wasn’t doing so playing by the neoliberal rules; none of the Asian Tigers had, either, and Japan hadn’t, either. Far from welcoming free trade, these East Asian states had practiced mercantilism: identifying key industrial sectors, then shielding them from competition with tariffs and accelerating their growth with subsidies until their quality and cost could compete in the world export market. Instead of heeding IMF prescriptions and reducing the imprint of the state on the economy and letting laissez-faire magic take effect, these states modified their economies so as to secure and elevate their position in the global hierarchy of production. The most astounding Asian capitalist success was predicated on a refusal of neoliberal doctrine: it was the state that drove the market to triumph in the way neoliberals claimed the market naturally did on its own.

The entire continent experienced industrial growth, but specific industries in specific nations would be advanced only if the state created the conditions for its advance. Many of the factories sprouted on the continent were hand-me-downs from the West,“sunset industries” such as textile sweatshops whose technology had scarcely changed from that of their English originals two centuries ago. (Western capitalists had transferred them overseas for two reasons: first, to restore profits cut into at home by unions and relatively high working-class wages, and second, to weaken the bargaining power of said unions and depress the wages of said working class.) An Asian nation relying on such low-level industries to enter the developed world would fail unless the state channeled the profits drawn from them to fuel the growth of higher-level manufacturing.

Flat-world enthusiasms aside, the structure of the global capitalist economy remains a pyramid: there is only so much room at the top, and only a dedicated state could manage the climb. Asian development was genuine, but arrested development in Asia was more genuine still. In the absence of a central government capable of managing the social transformations wrought by rapid growth, nations could find themselves trapped in limbo, the various aspirations of their citizens—socioeconomic and political—curdling into a frustration whose potential for violent expression mounted over time. This, too, was a kind of growth, but it was one the West preferred to overlook.

Such a situation, in which economic progress, far from abolishing stagnation, accentuated it all the more, was bound to make its mark in culture. If Western talking heads and op-ed columnists were telling one story about Asia, Asians were telling their own version of events in their own language—through literature, but more immediately through film. Much as the achievements of the great postwar Japanese, French, Italian, and German directors had been intimately linked to the rapid industrialization that was flinging their respective countries forward into American-style modernity, so now new waves of Asian films have been underwritten, spiritually no less than financially, by a hyperactive convergence with American conditions.

Here was, if not quite the culture globalization claimed for itself, the culture it deserved, an accounting of its gains and losses whose creativity was not, or at least did not have to be, essentially fraudulent. In script or image, what the First World artist now tends to take for granted—completed development—is precisely what artists of the developing world cannot. Contrarily, what the Western (and Japanese) artist now struggles to discover—active material, an appealing mystery of means and ends, a dialogic if not dialectical relation with the audience—is precisely what Asian filmmakers and authors currently possess in abundance.

In more emotional terms: just as condescension is intrinsic to neoliberalism, so, too, are the anger and incomprehension to which it gives rise, and this affective volatility, if narrated carefully, can be a source of vast artistic energy. Though a total survey of contemporary Asian film exceeds our current reach, a perceptive review of four recent films, two each from the Philippines and South Korea, reveals something of the common energies that define this geographic field of art.

“If it’s not a love story, it’s also not not a love story.” | Viva Films

Sleepless in Manila

Directed by Irene Villamor, Sid and Aya: Not a Love Story begins by reminding its audience that a few of their countrymen are doing well for themselves financially. Dingdong Dantes plays Sid, a stockbroker whose labors are being amply rewarded: the film opens in his penthouse suite overlooking the Manila skyline at night. Unlike his boss Darren, a more classically sociopathic finance bro coasting on nepotism, Sid is self-made; intelligence and diligence have raised him to the heights where he first appears. Rich, young, and handsome, he’s an avatar of the nation’s new 1 percent. Villamor’s script takes pains to render him with some sympathy: he’s not quite a broker with a heart of gold, but he does suffer from incurable insomnia.

The consistent lone denizen of a local coffee shop during the early morning hours, Sid naturally attracts attention from the night shift employees, who bet among themselves as to his occupation; Aya (Anne Curtis), who pluckily dares to approach him and find out, ends up guessing right. Then and in further brief exchanges, the duo hit it off. One night, after closing, Sid offers her an exchange: money for her, talk for him, no strings or sex attached. Not unwarily, Aya accepts: she needs the money. Over the course of their conversations she discloses her situation. Her ailing father needs his hospital bills paid; her younger siblings need support; she wants to pay to bring her mother, working full-time to support them in Japan, back home.

Sid, an orphan raised by his uncle after his mother’s death by illness during his childhood and his father’s suicide during his teens, can sympathize. And after listening to her, he can sleep. He pays her more, sees her more—not always on purpose. Dropping clothes off at a dry cleaner’s one morning, he comes across Aya, drowsy from their chat last night, who also works there. Talking with him, it turns out, isn’t her second job, or her third, but her fourth. Capital lets no one rest; as one of her employers, he’s doing his part to keep her awake.

If it’s not a love story, it’s also not not a love story.

Merit or no merit, sleep or no sleep, Sid remains a capitalist, determined to gain for himself by any means. He steals clients from his coworkers; asked by his uncle to invest his savings, he plows them knowingly into a sure loss for his own benefit. He eavesdrops on corrupt dealings between businessmen and elected officials, not to report them but to conduct insider trading. His attraction to Aya suggests human sensitivity, but his other relationships suggest that his callousness proceeds unchecked. He continues to see his globetrotting girlfriend Dani more for the wealth and class he stands to gain by marrying her than out of any real affection.Viewed through the lens of competition, Aya was always going to lose out. Not long after they go to bed with each other—finally, greedily, to a drizzling soundtrack of Bush-era American indie rock—Sid tells Aya that he plans to marry Dani. Then he takes her to a jewelry store to try on engagement rings: it’s efficient, he says, since their hands are the same size, her and Dani’s. When she steals the ring and disappears, it’s impossible to fault her.

The last section of the film takes place in Japan after some time has passed. Sid’s still in finance but has struck out on his own. He’s in Tokyo for more than just business. Devastated by withdrawal in the wake of Aya’s departure, Sid is properly remorseful; having learned that Aya works in Japan, he’s determined to make amends. It’s here, late, that Sid and Aya begins to run up against its limits: if it’s not a love story, it’s also not not a love story, and the indeterminacy of genre comes to suggest a deeper confusion, one of ideology. The impulse to maintain the possibility of true love, which entails endowing Aya with a degree of equality beyond what her gender and class can afford, somewhat contradicts the unsparing vision of the rest of the film, where capitalism tramples any possibility of cross-class romance.

The film is haunted by the spectre of sex work. Each working woman in the film finds herself compelled, by the iron laws of supply and demand, to enter into imbalanced relationships with men where love is reduced to a commodity. (Even well-off Dani isn’t quite exempt; her characterization makes it difficult at first to distinguish her from a high-end escort.) Real or sublimated, sex is what the capitalist man buys from the laborer woman: this economic reality, presented so ruthlessly and consciously by Villemor for the vast majority of the film, casts any prospect of reform and reconciliation in an incredible light; after all, if love were really possible under neoliberalism, we wouldn’t need to watch romantic comedies. Condescension kills love: even if Sid stopped looking down on Aya, the gap between their incomes would remain inherently patronizing.

Still from BuyBust (2018) | Well Go USA Entertainment

Rings of Fire

Romance and action are genres commonly opposed to one another, and one can hardly imagine, on the surface, a Filipino film more different from Sid and Aya than Erik Matti’s BuyBust. Instead of Villemor’s stately compositions and subversive banter (a kind of Tagalog parallel to Nora Ephron’s dialogue in the original, overlooked classic of the anti-neoliberal romcom, You’ve Got Mail), Matti’s violent epic treats conversation like it treats any other soft tissue: something soon disintegrated over waves of hectic shots. Only the presence of Curtis as the female lead seems to link the two films together. As Manigan, the Philippine DEA agent recovering from the guilt and shock of having the rest of her team massacred in a prior bust gone wrong, Curtis finds herself repeating history with her new team, assigned to a new bust. Betrayed and stranded in the clotted nighttime precincts of Gracia ni Maria, a fictional Manila slum, Manigan and the remainder of her unit are driven to commit atrocities while their health and ammunition dwindle down to nothing.

In its conception and its execution BuyBust clearly owes much to Gareth Evans’s The Raid, the 2011 Indonesian film whose relentless pace and slashing claustrophobia, framed as critique of a disastrous drug war, triggered a novel thrill throughout the international community of action connoisseurs. Yet Matti’s palette of influences is more colorful than just one film. His sense of color, warm and almost gleeful, is gaudier than anything presented in the gray-heavy Raid. He borrows expertly from zombie films, taking evident pleasure from the spectacle of swarming mobs and rearguard sacrifices. A humorously macabre sensibility all his own animates BuyBust, most notably the scene where hulking Yatco (played by MMA star Brandon Vera), beset by vengeful slum dwellers knee-deep in torrential rains, electrocutes the masses by plunging a stray power cable into the water.

Matti’s innovations are hard to separate from his specifically Filipino politics. Uniquely, the war in BuyBust, somewhat like the Philippine war of independence, is three-way: not just the misguided PDEA versus the vicious drug dealers, but the local poor, infuriated by the constant death of friends and relatives in the crossfire, taking up arms against both. Condescension punctuated by ultraviolence, ultraviolence punctuated by condescension: it’s a strange film whose sympathies are less with the heroes than with their victims. The villains get a chance to express their perspective too: late in the film, a gunpoint colloquy between Manigan and the elusive drug lord Biggie Chen exposes the economics underpinning the entire drug war. “We’re just slaves to your business,” Biggie rages. As he explains to his incredulous interlocutor, the heads of the PDEA use the raids to extort the dealers for protection money rather than to wipe out the drug trade. The murderous triangle of soldiers, criminals, and the poor serves as the base of a pyramid whose summit is the capitalist state.

It’s striking how, set in another half of Manila than that of Sid and Aya and relying on diametrically opposed techniques, BuyBust arrives at the same primal scene, where a woman recognizes that the faith she invested in her male boss has been completely misplaced. Like Sid and Aya, BuyBust, after demonstrating the impossibility of reparation for the irreparable, gestures at its possibility regardless. As the poor prisoners in Biggie’s cages are freed, Manigan calls a truce with the slum dwellers. Yet the difference in genre leads to a difference in outcome: instead of trying to see her boss on equal terms, Curtis kills him before he can kill her. It’s odd that Rodrigo Duterte, the profane Philippine President whose homicidal drug war policies BuyBust takes aim at, nonetheless allowed the film to be screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. Odd, and maybe just a bit impressive. The national income of the United States far exceeds that of the Philippines, but despite both nations having experienced the same type of ruinous drug war, popping the DEA chief in the head is a spectacle Americans would be unlikely to see.

Still from The Villainess (2018) | Well Go USA Entertainment

I Gave You Power

The parallels run deep between BuyBust and The Villainess, the South Korean film directed by Jung Byung-gil: to begin with, the two action films shared the same time slot at the NYAFF in consecutive years, the former anchoring closing night in 2018, the latter in 2017. In each case the protagonist is a female state assassin and the plot is driven by her quest for revenge; in each case she succeeds, albeit at horrifying cost to herself and others. Going further, one could even speak of parallels between the Philippine and South Korean states: when, under the pretext of fighting Communism, South Korean president Park Chung Hee converted his rule into an army-backed dictatorship on October 17, 1972, he was inspired by the example set by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos one month prior. (The coups were welcomed by the United States government, for which both states provided major military bases.) The Philippines and South Korea would return to democratic government at roughly the same time as well—1986 and 1987, respectively—and in each case the end of strict military censorship led to a revival, in both quality and quantity, of domestic cinema.

Even the differences between the films mirror those between the two states under which they were produced. In BuyBust the state appears to be on the heroine’s side but is eventually revealed as her archenemy; the Philippine state, from Marcos to Duterte, has had a largely negative, at best neutral, relationship to its citizens. In The Villainess the state appears to be the heroine’s enemy but is eventually revealed as her ally; the South Korean state, from Park to the current center-left president Moon Jae-in, has provided its citizens major benefits. From the Park era onward state-directed industrial policy has boosted South Korea into the ranks of the First World, with an economy five times that of the still-developing Philippines.

The grip of the South Korean state is strong but not essentially detrimental, a fact The Villainess repeatedly represents. The protagonist Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) spends the majority of the story watched over by the state, her progress overseen by a network of omnipresent cameras. Captured after slaughtering dozens of gang members in the film’s opening scene, she finds herself drafted into the state intelligence service’s squadron of lady killers. The government uses her, but to do so it invests in her personal well-being: for free she receives, along with weapons training that she hardly needs, plastic surgery and something close to a normal higher education, cycling through courses in cuisine, dance, and languages before settling on dramatic arts and taking on a cover occupation as an actress.

Completing one’s development proves inseparable from risking one’s life to reject violent, paternalistic condescension.

Theater proves to be the master metaphor for her existence, both after her induction into state service and before. The tug-of-war for her loyalties manifests as a competition between two scripts produced without her knowledge: one a cute, state-produced romantic comedy, the other an underworld tragedy written in blood. Gently and firmly, Jung sustains a dialectic between a peaceful middle-class life and the state-imposed obligation to kill and die at any moment. It’s a relation reflected widely in modern South Korea, a nation where military service has been mandatory since 1957 and whose seed money for successful industrial development derived from the tens of billions of dollars in aid bestowed upon it by the overlord in Washington grateful for Park’s deployment of hundreds of thousands of South Korean troops in the Vietnam War.

While conscription is mandatory only for South Korean men, by selecting a woman as the figure forced to be a soldier, Jung thickens the plot. Recalled in flashbacks shifting seamlessly from and toward the present circumstances triggering them, Sook-hee’s history of trauma and development under the syndicate leader Joong-sang Lee (Ha-kyun Shin) displaces both the formative masculine brutality of South Korea’s military state and the greed of its new capitalist economy into the realm of criminality, lawlessness; meanwhile, the state’s capacity for nurturing independent life, incarnated in the female intelligence chief Kwon-sook (Seo-hyung Kim), is associated with legitimacy. Both the state and the syndicate deceive Sook-hee with a romantic narrative, and both provide her with an attractive husband. Still, there remain crucial differences: in the quality of child care (very good versus extremely bad) and in the length of violent service demanded (ten years versus lifelong).

So although the influence of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill on The Villainess is especially pronounced, the specifically Korean setting generates unique dimensions of political allegory. The female assassin liberating herself from the man who gave her a daughter and the training to kill becomes an image of the democratic citizen overthrowing authoritarian government. For both Sook-hee and the South Korean demonstrators whose efforts toppled the military dictatorship in the 1980s, completing one’s development proves inseparable from risking one’s life to reject violent, paternalistic condescension.

SOOK-HEE: How could you do this to me?

LEE JOONG-SANG: I have that privilege. Because I made you.

SOOK-HEE: Let me show you. What you made me into.

The film begins from the first-person perspective of Sook-hee; her audience, literally identified with her point of view, must recognize her face first in a fractured mirror. Though Jung shifts to third person for nearly all of the rest of the film, The Villainess ends much as it began.

Still from Burning (2018) | Well Go USA Entertainment

Greenhouse Effect

Reflections on the state of South Korea take a somewhat different form in Burning. Written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, a successful literary fiction writer who pivoted to filmmaking, the film is Lee’s most bookish production to date, adapting Haruki Murakami’s 1983 short story “Barn Burning,” which itself refers back to Faulkner’s 1939 story of the same title. Burning is essentially a translation, the most advanced form of close reading, and its narrative is one that firmly underscores translation’s ethics. It is impossible to view the film without sensing the responsibility attached to what one chooses to emphasize and overlook, play up and play down.

Asked what he does for a living, Ben simply responds, “I play.” No further details being provided then or later in the film, it’s unclear what he’s playing at: Steven Yeun’s unflappable performance, whose layers of ambiguity approach Jamesian degrees of concentration, renders Ben perhaps the hardest character to read in all of recent cinema. The only thing about him that is clear is his status in the world. Like Dantes’s Sid, Ben is one of the supreme winners that liberal market society was bound to produce: rich, young, male, and handsome, his relation to the world can’t not be condescending. His Korean elocution gleaming with an unreal polish, Ben resembles a literary character: it’s something his foil Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is quick to realize. An unpublished fiction writer fresh from college and army service, Jong-su likens Ben to the Great Gatsby, another playboy with a mysterious occupation and lots of money.“Korea’s full of Gatsbys,” he notes as he smokes on the balcony of Ben’s luxurious Seoul apartment, his tone striking a balance between bemused and resentful.

His audience on the balcony isn’t Ben, but Ben’s girlfriend. Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) has a hometown and a class background in common with Jong-su. Raised by working-class parents in Paju, a countryside city on the border with North Korea, the two shared Hae-mi’s bed in Seoul, briefly. Picking her up at the airport on her return from a trip to Africa, Jong-su found her accompanied by Ben, whom she had befriended along the way. Still living on his father’s farm in Paju and driving a beat-up mini-truck, Jong-su cedes Hae-mi to hot, cool, Porsche-driving Ben without a contest. Yet as his presence on the balcony attests, Jong-su can’t part ways completely. Tagging along with the couple and Ben’s set of stylish, well-off friends, he’s seeing things he wouldn’t otherwise: the world and attitude that money buys in the developed world.

Jong-su’s favorite author is Faulkner, a detail entirely absent from the original Japanese story. Instead of Murakami’s slick and prosperous narrator, director Lee presents a protagonist relating to Faulkner’s battered rural characters, stiff with unvoiced bitterness and rage. Jong-su is educated and trained to kill, yet excluded from further development; as a television broadcast highlighting South Korea’s soaring rate of youth employment implies, he’s far from the only one. In Ben’s liaison with Hae-mi and Jong-su’s orbit around it, the outlines of an imbalanced class structure present themselves, with its twinned potential for acquiescence or revolt from the have-nots. If Jong-su gives little away until the end, part of the reason is because he feels how little he owns.

Once Hae-mi vanishes shortly after dancing gloriously, high, and topless (the South Korean flag conspicuously included in the shot) one evening at the farm with Ben and Jong-su, Jong-su becomes obsessed with her absence. He focuses on Ben as the potential cause. Stalking Ben in Seoul, Jong-su finds that Ben, exuding an assurance as complete as it is unnatural, seems to stand—like capital—at a right angle to everything in society while still belonging firmly to it. Unlike Jong-su, Ben has a mother, money, status, membership at an expensive church and expensive gym. (We see him managing a treadmill on the upper floors of a skyscraper, looking down at Jong-su looking up at him.) While Jong-su runs after Hae-mi, Ben runs for himself alone. What did Ben mean, on the night he last saw her, when he confessed to a habit for burning down abandoned greenhouses in secret? In Hae-mi’s absence Jong-su discovers how little he was there for her when she was around.

She worked at an unsteady job where she danced in public. She pretended absent things were there by forgetting that they weren’t. She had a lot of credit card debt and openly expressed a wish to disappear. Recounting an African ceremony that she witnessed to Jong-su and Ben, Hae-mi explained the Bushmen’s distinction between “little hunger” and “great hunger”—between material and spiritual longings. Director Lee’s implication, there and throughout his narrative, is that even if capitalism can satisfy the former, the void of the latter remains and engulfs. Where does the reality of a poor woman end? How far can a poor man see beyond his own experience? What can’t a rich man do without suffering consequences? Answering these questions takes subjective action; the viewer’s own participation in constructing meaning is required. Be careful, Burning seems to say: the life projected through abandoned greenhouses in an Asian country, freshly turning underneath the flame of violent acquisition, might just be your own.