Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Q. What is more funny than a national tragedy that has cost thousands of lives and still sunders a once-proud nation? A. Why nothing, of course

Ah, Korea, Korea, Korea... what a demented country.

I shall begin with the oddest part, which really does deserve its own blog, and then I'll try and sum up the numerous other 'my beautiful sanity, it appears to be ruined' moments in a second.

So as even the most apathetic of you are doubtless aware (and lord knows an apathy-off between my nearest and dearest would be a grizzly thing), Korea is a divided country, with South Korea basically doing a very strange impersonation of America and North Korea no doubt being EXACTLY how they portray it in Team America. I dunno, I didn't go, it costs an absurd sum of money and requires one to take a quite breathtakingly circuitous route in. Y'see, you're not allowed to cross the North-South border, aka the DMZ.
This is not necessarily something somebody unaware of the political situation would necessarily glean from a tour of the DMZ and surrounds, as the whole area is essentially fine-tuned to give off what I believe they call 'mixed signals'.
The first place one visits is Gyeongui station, aka Reunification Station. It is a big, glistening, metallic, very well kept railway station that marks the building of a train line between North and South some ten years ago. The two principle reasons why it is a massively stupid idea are that one, no trains go along it because the North Korea and South Korea really, really hate each other, have done so for the last 50 years, probably will do so for at least the next 20, and two, THE STATION IS IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AND THUS WERE ANY REUNIFICATION TO HAPPEN IT'D BE ENTIRELY USELESS TO EVERYONE.
This does not stop it from having a ticket desk (presumably the most work the guy there has ever done is say 'no' to a few over enthusiastic tourists), souvenir passport stamps inferring that you'd been to Pyongyang without a visa (you're sternly told you should definitely, definitely stamp anything other than your passport with them), a sign by the solitary platform saying 'To Pyongyang' (no 'To Seoul', obviously, because that wouldn't be MAKING A POINT), and with tragicomic (but mostly comic) emphasis, a large sign saying 'Not The Last Station From The South, But The First Station Towards The North'. Um. Sure.
Then we went to an observatory, where we could look at North Korea from afar. North Korea looks like some scrubland in which nothing much is happening. Oh, besides the flags of the two countries: for years North and South were engaged in a dick-measuring contest of epic proportions, in which every so often one would build a bigger and higher flag than the other. The net result was that the South finally got bored, and the North have the biggest flag in the world. So big it needs an absolute shitload of wind to get it to do anything, and thus hangs there, enormous but utterly flaccid. Oh yeah, so the North. It looks like some dry scrubland with a big flag in it. Weirdly you're not allowed to take photos within two metres of the edge of the observation platform, though further back is fine. I took some photos anyway. They are not exciting.
Finally, we went to the third tunnel, so named because it is the third of four infiltration tunnels the North built into the South for some sort of hypothetical invasion. The actual tunnel itself was not that exciting if you're generally familiar with the concept of tunnels, but amusingly the North's attempt to pretend the MASSIVE TUNNEL running from their country into that of their sworn enemies' was entirely innocuous was to paint sections of the wall black and say it was coal, and that the tunnel was a coalmine. That takes a special kind of genius.
The best, however, was saved 'til last. Above the tunnel there was a cinema showing a film purporting to explain the war. It had every sign of being a propaganda film, though propaganda for whom or saying what I cannot answer. Anyway, this is loosely the plot.
1. 24-style cameras flicker and flash, predominantly focusing on a little Korean girl, who is crying. Why are you crying, little girl?
2. Massively butch American voice over answers question: she is crying because of the Korean War. Cue archive footage of tanks, troops, shit blowing up. Sad music is playing.
3. We are treated to a summary of everything bad that happened following the war. It is a bit The Day Today. Families are sundered. This makes them cry a lot. Unfortunately a Rick Astley song appears to be playing as the backing bed.
4. The voice over thunders on to the 21st century. Oh, this sounds promising... apparently there is some sort of train line between North and South Korea, but simultaneously the fact nobody goes to the DMZ means there is loads of wildlife there now... that's nice.
5. A badly CGI'd butterfly is now touching down on the various fences, military positions and landmines of the DMZ and turning them into badly CGI'd woodland. Oooh, that's wonderful. And Van Halen's 'Jump' is playing in the background. Excellent!
6. Ah, it's the little girl again. And she's happy! Happy because, according to heavy inference of this film, the entire conflict has been resolved. Um. Um. Um.
Yeah. And that's not even getting into the Man U shirt signed by Bobby Charlton that somehow has pride of place just outside the screening room. Not getting into it because for the life of me I can't work out why the fuck it's there.
The ridiculous thing about the whole situation is that if you actually speak to a South Korean about it, they're pretty sussed, and are happy to ruefully point out the comic elements of both the DMZ tour and the conflict itself. The sense of denial is not a national one, it may not even be anything more than a slightly optimistic governmental PR campaign, but all it's really succeeded in doing is make a national tragedy more of a joke than Trey Parker and Mat Stone ever could. Should I feel bad for my hysterical laughter during the film? Um. Maybe. But seriously... you gotta see this film.

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