I sought out Paju knowing nothing about it other than that it was directed by Park Chan-ok, the only woman out of eight Korean directors that Martin Scorsese praises in this video. I found, neither to my pleasure nor disappointment, that the movie is not centered on themes of gender or womanhood, not in any strict sense, and Park is more a social director than feminist director. Set in the young, eponymous city of Paju—located northwest of Seoul, near the North Korean border, Paju became a city only in 1997—the movie is about South Korea itself, represented in one city, and the conditions that made its rapid development possible.
For those who know little of South Korea’s history, it is helpful to know that the country has risen rapidly, from an occupied Japanese colony in the first half of the twentieth century, to an impoverished nation in the years after World War II, to the economic giant it is today. In Paju, Park addresses the means her country has taken to arrive at this end, the social forces behind its growth, and the ways these unsavory forces are still manifested today.
Within the first couple minutes of the movie, Park makes it explicit that that the organizations responsible for Paju’s development are corrupt. (“Know why nightlife spots go up before any development takes off?” a cab driver asks. “Development’s all about bribery and backdoor dealings.”) In Paju, criminal operations push forward with no resistance from law enforcement, the state either being too weak to oppose them or ceding power for the sake of the greater good. The threat of the criminal operation in Paju is not felt in its immorality, in the pain or destruction it causes—though it does cause pain and destruction—but in its amorality and mystery, in its ubiquitous, unknowable, and overwhelming power.
This type of power is personified in a nameless, silent crime boss (played by the prolific actor Lee Geung-young), who repeatedly pops up, ghostlike, around our protagonist, Eun-mo (Seo Woo). Given his position and the menacing air that surrounds him, it’s easy to assume he is a force for bad, but Park keeps her distance and never makes clear whether he, and what he represents, damages Korea. Indeed, the Paju he is tearing down, shot in drab colors, does not look like the kind of place Park would want to preserve. He even at one moment acts as Eun-mo’s protector, when he calls off his underlings from beating her after she sneaks into his night club and buys drinks she cannot pay for.
It’s clear though that the forces this man controls tear apart communities and blithely put people’s lives at risk. This point is most vivid in the movie’s protest scenes, in which a scrappy band of common people face off against the demolition crew set on razing their apartment complex. These scenes offer the movie’s most visually striking moments—with riot shields, hurled objects, bursts of flames, and demolition equipment used like a military weapon, they would look more in place in a dystopian sci-fi movie than a movie set in a contemporary democracy.
The violence is jarring, but the scenes are filmed coldly, with the director’s moral stance absent. The movie’s two main characters are involved in the protests, but we don’t know what’s motivating their involvement (how much do they care about this apartment complex?), and we know almost nothing about the band as a whole. We’re naturally inclined to side with the underdogs, but Park doesn’t give us the resources to invest compassion in their plight. Who are these people? we ask. Is their cause really so important? We don’t know, and morally thorny questions are left open. Could this ruthless approach to building up a more modern Paju be defensible? Are these protesters stubbornly clinging to the past? Would Paju as a whole be better off with them out of the way?
These kinds of questions are apt considering the questions South Koreans have to address when they reflect on their recent history. From 1961 until his assassination, in 1979, Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea as a military dictator. He is not commonly viewed as malevolent however, and many even South Koreans credit him for bringing about South Korea’s economic rise. Indeed, in a 1995 survey, more than two-thirds of the South Korean respondent’s said that he was the country’s greatest president,* and today, his daughter sits as the democratically elected president. Park Chung-hee was no Kim Jong-un, and Lee Geung-young’s crime boss is not evil, not in a way we can see with moral clarity. We see the damage this character inflicts on individuals and communities, but the movie, not grounded in assumptions—about the value of the individual, the duty to the nation—and absent of narrative details—what exactly does he do?—doesn’t let us have an easy time evaluating him.
For all of Paju’s concerns with big, societal ideas, it also has a human story, about Eun-mo and her older brother-in-law, Joong-shik (Lee Sun-kyun). The story is disjointed however and deliberately difficult to follow (I needed to watch it twice and recommend the same to you). Like Hong Sang-soo’s Woman Is the Future of Man, the narrative jumps in time, and seemingly key details from the past or the time passed over are omitted. Hong and Park share a boldness in their experimentation with form, but to greatly different effect: Woman Is the Future is tightly constructed and executed with playful wit, and Paju is sprawling, grim, humorless, and heavy. (Also, Hong Sang-soo is known for shooting his movies quickly—as quickly as a couple of days—while the filming of Paju was a slog, taking over seven years to complete.)
With the shifts in time come shifts in character. Joong-shik is, at different times, living in hiding from the police; doing his best to live a normal life, as a Christian and married man; playing a paternal role for Eun-mo, who is an orphan; and leading a criminal group of dissidents. As for Eun-mo, she, at different times, is trying to push Joong-shik out of her life; running away away from him; loving him as something like a father, uncle, or older brother; and even fearing him.
Park withholds details from the past and doesn’t let us know what motivates these behaviors. Joong-shik in particular is a mystery. We, like Eun-mo, can’t see what kind of man he is. Is he a criminal or a man redeemed? Were his past crimes noble or repugnant? Later, is he a loving, self-sacrificing, righteous man or is he better understood as a dark figure? In Paju, on the individual level or societal, we can’t make out what’s good or bad, whether the people that care for us do so out of compassion or something perverse, whether ugliness and destruction are incompatible with love and growth. Eun-mo is not so lucky that she can access the resources she needs to see her circumstances clearly. We don’t know the larger implications of the events in the movie, on Paju or South Korea as a whole, but we see the effect on Eun-mo, this one woman: her freedom is limited, her past pushed aside, her spirit dulled.
* Oberdorfer, Don, and Robert Carlin. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Third ed. New York, NY: Basic, 2014.