March 27, 2008

A Book, a Movie and Korean Mothers

I recently read a new release called The Commoner by Jonathan Burnham Schwartz. It was a quick read, in two late night sittings, the kind that kept me up when I really should have been sleeping so I wouldn't be grumpy and snappish all the next day. But I get starved for literature and I'd heard about the book on a random radio station where the author was being interviewed. It's a fictionalized account of the first non-royal Japanese girl to marry into the Imperial family of Japan, Empress Michiko.

I was especially drawn to the rare opportunity to imagine life inside those palace walls where the Emperor until Japan's defeat by the Americans in WWII was considered a god. Not 'as' a god, but actually a god whom you could not look at directly like the sun. When the Americans defeated Japan, they forced the emperor to announce over the radio his humanity, and published widely photos of the Japanese emperor in everyday clothes while standing next to the much taller (therefore superior) American general. It was also known that the Imperial family spoke an archaic form of royal Japanese, such that if left on the streets, the prince would not know the names of some ordinary objects. Intriguing, no?

But I bet if you took a moment you could guess what the book would be about ultimately, especially if you knew the author was a white American guy (who'd spent a good number of years in Japan in his youth)... It'd be about a woman who loses herself, to the point of near destruction, because of a culture that valued the good of the group (in this case, Japan) over the individual.

The novel in general had technical issues, the rhythm/pacing/narrative believability – all solidly average – but the sticking point for me was the almost foregone conclusion that a woman in Japanese culture would be destroyed by putting the needs of a group before her own. Very Western, very individualistic point of view.

And it reminds me of the time when I discovered the truly great Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo (the first real contemporary Korean auteur in my opinion) in a New York Film Festival screening of Woman is the Future of Man. During the Q + A afterward, a very angry white woman stood up shaking while asking Mr. Hong whether a feminist revolution was not long overdue. She asked this because this like most of his films explored sexuality in contemporary Korean society without apologizing for it — including a scene where a woman is raped by her former boyfriend and her current boyfriend has sex with her to 'clean' her. Excruciating subject matter to present without judgment but that's what the filmmaker does. And it leaves the viewer with an unflinching look at Korean relationships, the dynamics,and the nature of it's attraction.

Which finally brings me to my point: While I agree with most everything that can go wrong with denying oneself for the sake of the group, westerners have never really learned what Asians know — that there is also great pleasure and abundance in living one's life for the good of the group. Korean mothers are especially gifted at this because even in what should be the most oppressive Confucian society like ours, it is mostly driven I believe, by its mothers. Mothers who I swear love better than all other mothers, because it is boundless (and therefore crazy-making in many cases) and yes, it is selfless. It is, or can be, much like the Buddhist way of finding oneself by losing oneself, or like the Christian understanding of dying to oneself to save yourself.

Westerners have a hard time with this for obvious reasons, and it is at the heart of what ails our society I believe, why families fall apart so easily, why marriage is devalued, why women are so much at war with themselves and their men so often lost. And not to say Koreans or Asian cultures don't experience these things as well but they are experienced differently, and to a lesser degree.

In the movie there is another stunning one minute scene where out of nowhere, almost incidentally, the main character goes to a play. We see the audience then the stage where a mother starves trying to keep her son fed during war times, and all we hear is a piercing wail: "Ommmmaaa!" And in that minute we understand almost everything Koreans feel about their mothers and what Korean mothers do for their children. That is, they give away everything, and so become everything. And that is what should have been the starting point of Mr. Burnham's book.

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