Saturday, May 5, 2007

Living in a Culture of Fear

Last night I watched the film The Coast Guard, which I recorded from the Sundance Channel for no other reason than the satisfaction I was getting from the films in their "Asia Extreme" series. I had absolutely no expectations going into this film and had not read any background material. This morning I learned that there was a fair amount of controversy over the film (at least in Korea, where it was made); and I can see the origins of that controversy, particularly if the film is meant to be a commentary on the nature of life in South Korea. However, if we think in terms broader than that of South Korea, concerned more with the nature of that culture of fear that I have previously accused the White House of cultivating, the film provides a valuable lesson in the consequences of the culture, so to speak.

The context in the which narrative is embedded is simple enough: South Korea is surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by enemy territory. It is therefore extremely concerned about the safety of its coast, living with the daily threat of military invasion or infiltration by spies. The greatest concern is with the south coast and the spy threat. The entire south coast is off-limits at night (apparently available for fishing during the day); and the Coast Guard is responsible for a nightly watch for spies. Spies are to be shot without warning, and killing a spy can get you an early discharge from your military service obligations.

The narrative of the film is about the uneasy relationship between the Coast Guard and one fishing village on the south coast. The civilians do not like the military intruding on "their" coast and are giving to provoking the soldiers, who try to ignore the provocations and "act" under orders. The critical element of the plot involves two locals making love on a stretch of beach that is off limits to civilians and one particular soldier fixated on finding a shooting a spy. He sees the two bodies on the beach through his night-vision goggles, opens fire, and then throws a grenade. He kills the man, blowing off his limbs; but the woman survives.

At this point the director (Ki-duk Kim) has to deal with a whole net of consequences; and I tend to agree with the comments I have now read (apparently written by a South Korean) that he does not always do that good a job. Most important is that both the soldier and the woman go mad. The soldier is discharged but continues to wear his uniform and try to go on patrol. The woman, among her other acts, starts making love indiscriminately with the soldiers and eventually gets pregnant. The viewer is thus dragged down into "one damned thing after another," eventually coming away with the feeling that the madness is far from confined to these two characters.

The comment I read about this film referred to the "troglodytic" existence of South Korean military conscripts; and I think that the adjective is definitely appropriate. However, my own take-away had less to do with that existence and more to do with its origins in that culture of fear that had induced a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude in the guarding of that coast. Is this where our own culture of fear is leading us? Is this the reason behind the depressing results of the "battlefield ethics" survey (concerned with attitudes by troops in Iraq towards torture and the civilian population) reported in this morning's news? To the extent that narrative has the ability to tap into our personal belief systems with far more impact than the "facts and figures" of any survey, The Coast Guard provides an excellent (even if flawed) opportunity to confront questions such as these before our own culture of fear drags us down into "one damned thing after another."

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