kaigou: sometimes it's better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness. (2 flamethrowers)
[personal profile] kaigou
I don't even know why I snagged a copy of this movie in the first place (except that I snagged the Korean version because the J-version has no English subtitles), but in some ways, it worked well, because I'm still thinking about it, a few weeks later.

The film, Fly Daddy Fly, is ostensibly about a middle-aged salaryman's attempt to find justice for his daughter. When the story starts, we get a litany of the salaryman's life: he still smokes (despite promising his wife and daughter he'd quit, repeatedly), he has seven years left until his condo is paid off, and he's middle-management. A rather fuddy-duddy, if good-natured, existence, but hardly anything to write home about. Anyway, the salaryman introduces himself as once having the nickname "Jjang," which I seem to recall is also a mafia term adopted by high schoolers to indicate who's basically Big Man on Campus (but with gang/boss overtones). No one calls him that now, though, he admits.

Then he's called to the emergency room: his daughter has been beaten brutally.

It shouldn't be a surprise that of course the explanation becomes -- in the mouth of the school principal who attends in lieu of the "too busy, highly-ranked state-related parents" -- something along the lines of what kind of girl would go for karaoke with a guy she'd just met? What eventually comes out, though, is that the high school senior in question, Kang Tae Shik, is also a boxing champion, and he apparently had no qualms using her as a punching bag. Because, as the principal implies with a shrug, she probably caused a fuss, and, well, things got out of hand.

Too subtle for a wink, but the nod is there: of course the boy would get angry. No mention is made of the fact that as a trained fighter, he'd have weight and muscle to spare, yet he took it all out on a girl who couldn't possibly defend herself. Jjang is just plain in shock; the principal is only marginally apologetic, and most of his apologies seem to amount to, "I'm sorry you had to discover you have such a bad daughter."

When you finally get to see the girl... well, they didn't cut any corners on showing that a lot of the damage she took was to the face. (Also a quiet visual implication that the anger was very personal, too.) What the k-version doesn't say was whether there was sexual assault, but I'm not sure whether this is because the Korean film industry is too squeamish to mention such explicitly, or if culturally it's supposed to be obvious whether "things were done", or if lack of explicit mention really means she was only beaten. Or maybe it's to side-step audience members who might judge the daughter unfairly (as in, "she deserved it") too quickly, if the explanation was too concrete.

(In hindsight, I don't think it matters. That's not to trivialize rape, but because I think the lack of mention equalizes all the possible outcomes, and leaves you with only the visual: that a girl who looks maybe fourteen or fifteen was beaten viciously by a guy who's taller, heavier, stronger, and trained to beat the shit out of people. In light of that, it's very hard to argue that she asked for it... and maybe the film's side-step is meant to keep the focus on the "no one would ask for this", perhaps -- and let you draw your own conclusions about how far to take that awareness.)

[Note: the movie info says the daughter is 17, but she's a teeny thing. She doesn't look much over 15, to me.]

By the time Jjang joins his family in the emergency room, he's effectively been primed and humiliated to see his daughter as bearing equal (if not more) responsibility. The actor is good enough that you can see this reaction battling with his own instincts, as he flails through what -- to be honest, I think -- any parent would flail through. Facing your child's own injuries and pain is... it's possibly one of the hardest things any parent can face. In that moment, Jjang screws up, and repeats the sexist propaganda he'd just been handed, wanting to know how he ended up with a daughter who'd go off with a guy she'd just met.

To the script's credit (and keeping in mind, it's based on a Japanese novel*, where there seems to be more space for girls to be angry, unlike home-grown Korean live-action) -- the daughter does get mad. Angry, and hurt -- and Jjang realizes his mistake almost immediately. It's too late, though; his daughter sees his words as the final betrayal, and refuses to have anything to do with him. (Good for her.) The wife isn't much more sympathetic, pretty much telling Jjang that he's done major wrong.

[* what's curious, on a cultural level, is that the author is also a Zainichi: he's of Korean descent, born and raised in Japan, but only gained Japanese citizenship at some point after entering adulthood. Given Kazuki Kaneshiro's interest in Marxist-Leninist theory, one character's reading material is probably an authorial nod, but it also makes me wonder what kind of social critiques might be buried in the original Japanese-language version. It makes one wonder how Kazuki felt to have his Japanese-language work made into a hit Korean film.]

What evolves out of this moment is Jjang's decision -- after the principal, and his cop-sidekick, has made clear that no one would believe that a boy of an upstanding family would've done that without provocation, etc, etc -- to gain justice for his daughter. His objective is pretty simple, really: if he gains justice for her, then it'll be demonstrating to her that he does believe she's the innocent/wronged party.

Unfortunately, we're also talking about a guy who's sat behind a desk for probably the past seventeen years. He's short, he's kind of round, he's got a broad grin... and a broad belly. He's really not the most impressive specimen you can imagine; he's probably the quintessential salaryman. But when he takes a kitchen knife to the boxer's high school, he instead meets up with a laconic young man, Go Seung Suk. The kid's a rebel, a fierce fighter (and a near-constant reader of authors like Che Guevera)... and the only person who's ever beaten Kang Tae Shik.

Thus begins the middle bulk of the story, wherein Dumpy Salaryman becomes someone tougher, stronger, and ready to take on a kid a third his age and easily double his strength. Seung Suks' two sidekicks immediately start a betting pool on how long Jjang can keep this up (as well as on how long he'll stay standing in the ring against Kang Tae Shik). But even as that builds, right in the middle of the story, it also breaks, when Jjang discovers the boys are making money off his endeavor, and the planned fight. This is for my daughter, he yells at them, in a heart-breaking raw scene that both shames the boys as it reveals his own agonies over the distance between he and his daughter.

At first, when I was watching, up to this point, I was starting to feel almost... annoyed. The daughter is described as suffering what's effectively a type of PTSD -- she gets panic attacks when she tries to leave the hospital. Basically, she's terrified at the sense of being unprotected, out in the open air. You could even say she's feeling the psychological terror of having no one watching her back, now that she's been reminded so cruelly of her own vulnerability.

Part of me wanted a film where the girl finds Seung Suk and learns to fight, and learns to defend herself, challenges Tae Shik, and takes him down. I think I'd still like to see that film, too, but after thinking about it, I think this is also a good film, if I look at it in light of what I know now, after ten years with a man who has a daughter. I mean, I have a father, too, but I never understood but remotely what he might've gone through, all the times I pulled any kind of stunt or just didn't call home, or came home looking much worse for wear. If there is any time in which impotence burns the worst, it's for a parent unable to protect a child. And maybe due to the social constraints becoming more burdensome during teenage years, but father-daughter relationships get particularly sticky, then, too.

But beyond that, I also realized that I was overlaying my own expectations of "how to get better" on the character. Although I may have certain expectations (cultural and personal) that, say, it's okay to get freaking mad and want to hit back... not everyone would heal the same way. Sometimes, that wouldn't be the path at all, or maybe that path just won't be walked until much later. Maybe it wasn't my place to watch the movie with a critical eye, as though I could judge whether this healing-process for the daughter, by the father, was "right", or wrong.

And then I started thinking about CP and his relationship with his daughter, and my relationship at that age with my own father. Even at the age of seventeen -- when, no doubt, I'd say I probably still had a hell of a lot more experience with relationships than I get would be the case for the average Korean girl of the same age -- I was still in high school, and my father was still my greatest and longest-held relationship with a man. And if I couldn't be my own champion, maybe that's one thing fathers are for. Not because they're male, but because they're a parent, and if there's one place I don't think I can see as cause for blame, it's a parent's wish to protect, defend, and get justice for his (or her) child.

Plus, there's the overlayment of the pop culture stereotype of the salaryman. Henpecked and generally ridiculed by his spouse and children, he's the family ATM and the family object of ridicule. Dumpy, frumpy, and somewhat spineless. When we first meet Jjang, that pretty much covers his characterization. Well-meaning, but clueless, and easily cowed by a self-righteous principal who mutters underhanded implications about Jjang's daugther.

In that sense, it's not just defending his daughter as a one-time thing... I think it's also because if there's any time in our lives when it's okay to have someone protect us, it's when we're still under our parents' wings. That, by being a parent, Jjang may even have the duty, perhaps even the obligation, to be strong enough to protect his child, when his child is vulnerable and needs that protection. She's afraid to step outside, after all; and I realized it's not right of me to blame a person (or even a fictional character) for needing someone else's help and protection. Sometimes, that's what a person needs.

If the daughter hadn't been such a skinny little young-looking actress, or if she'd been clearly stated to be adult-age, I might've been less forgiving. And maybe if we blow this up into a grand cultural scale, then the argument becomes counterproductive because there are so few -- if any -- representations of girls getting their own revenge, in Korean film/television, and it doesn't help that the society is frequently represented as being highly paternalistic. But if I take this within the scope of a father-daughter dynamic, though, and see the daughter as still being quite protected/young, then... yes. I do see the film as positive. As it affirms the father's need to protect his child, it also affirms for the child that the father is willing to go to incredible lengths because she's that important to him.

That particular message is driven home via Seung Sok, the young rebel who promises to coach Jjang into a good fighter. After some jockeying between the younger man and Jjang -- because Seung Sok refuses to use formal speech with his own 'student' -- the turn-around comes when Seung Sok is picked up for fighting. (And another scene in which Lee Jun Ki shows that he can really do that lethal stare, unlike many actors who look either pained or outright constipated when they try.) Lacking a legal guardian, Seung Sok tells the police that Jjang is his guardian, instead.

The flip in their relationship -- where now Jjang is the acknowledged elder -- allows Jjang to demand rights that he hasn't previously held. Such as the right of a (pseudo)father to insist his son speak to him about what's going on. In a wonderful scene that really underlines the parental dynamic of needing to protect a child, Seung Sok admits that his father left the family when Seung Sok was very young, and many years later, after getting knifed badly in a fight with the town drunk, Seung Sok had waited in desperate hope that his hero -- his father -- would come to bring him home from the hospital. No matter how well a child can defend himself, Seung Sok is saying, all children wish for their fathers to be their heroes, their champions.

The end comes as you would expect, but it doesn't go down easy. (Though the ongoing joke about the out-of-shape Jjang trying to race the bus comes to an awesome head the night before the fight, and is a scene priceless for its own humor in the victory of the little man, and almost feels like a raised fist for all mid-forties salarymen everywhere.) What does matter is that Jjang achieves his true goal, which is to be able to walk his daughter out of the hospital, able to assure her that her justice has been served.

I think one of the things that saves the film from bordering on paternalistic is that at no point is there talk of Jjang's actions being to restore his daughter's honor. In fact, after his first and only flailing question in the emergency room, he never again questions that his daughter was in the right. For that matter, neither does Seung Sok or his two friends, who also go to incredible lengths to involve the daughter. That keeps her character from being only a distant bystander, even if her self-seclusion in the hospital keeps her distanced physically.

(I do take issue with the direction/editing during the fight scene, when the film jumps from the mid-fight to showing the wife and daughter waiting for word. I would've rather have seen them active, in some way, such as packing up the daughter's belongings. The incredible stillness of them in the hospital room may be intended as visual counterpoint to the brutality of the fight-ring, but it also creates a parallel of "guys do, girls wait." It would've been so easy to work against that, by showing that the female characters are also active, if in a different manner, but that's possibly one of the few major quibbles I have with the film's direction.)

I'm still not entirely sure what I think of the film. Is it a message to fathers (and daughters) that it's the father's job to protect a child? Or is the message that when a man beats a woman, that the only one with the right or ability to return the injury is another man? Or is it that women are too weak to defend, thus a man should -- which has the positive of parent-protection, but the negative of women-are-too-weak? Or is it just the story of a man who's failed his daughter -- not by not protecting her at all times, but by being part of a world in which a boy could beat her and expect to get away with it -- and his need to redeem himself by becoming her champion?

It's one of those films where I think, in one light, I could see it as potentially damaging... but in another light, I can also see it as incredibly affirming. Because if there is anything parents are obligated to do, in my opinion, it's to protect and defend their children, in whatever way the child needs. And having a parent willing to do that also teaches the child that she's worth that kind of protection, a worth seriously damaged by the father's original doubt in her.

Any way I look at it, though, the race against the bus in the third-quarter of the film is still an awesome thing.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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