Friday, January 1, 2010

The Rule 4 - GoGo 70

Today I watched GoGo 70, a 2008 Korean film about the Devils, a Korean soul band of the 60s and 70s. I should probably say "based on" them, because according to the author of a book on Korean rock of that period, the filmmakers consulted him on the historical background and then largely ignored it; the band in the film is "fictional." I'd already suspected that, since when I found a list of the real-life band's lineup, the names were completely different from the names of their movie counterparts.

(N.B. I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of Korean, but it was easy to find the band's names in that article because the names of their instruments are printed in English. Any interested reader who can read Korean ought to look at the article: it apparently consists largely of interviews with surviving members of the Devils.)

The movie Devils started their career playing in bars servicing US Army bases in Daegu, while the real-life band began in Itaewon, the shopping and entertainment district of Seoul that also caters to US servicemen. The film alludes to the black/white segregation of those bars, in the music they supplied and the girls who "went with" the soldiers. Their music, according to this blogger, seems to have been much less soul-oriented than what we hear in the movie, though they recorded covers of "Proud Mary" -- presumably Credence Clearwater Revival's version instead of Ike and Tina Turner's -- and the "Theme from Shaft." (Some of the sites I link to here have links to samples of the Devils' music, but all seem to be broken.)

But that's par for the course in biopics. I'd like to know more about the real band (they're not mentioned in Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave [Global Oriental, 2006], edited by Keith Howard, a great but incomplete source of information on the history of Korean pop), but GoGo 70 is still quite a good movie -- not great, but solid, well put together, and entertaining. I'm not sure why the online reviews I've read mostly disagree with me, but I think it may be because of the political and historical context of the Devils' history.

In the 1970s South Korea was ruled by a harsh military dictatorship, and GoGo 70 shows that very clearly, to a young South Korean audience of today that may be almost as ignorant about the period as Americans of any age. The film begins with archival footage of parades and period patriotic songs that may lead many viewers to believe that the film is set in North, not South Korea. South Korea in those days had a curfew from midnight to 4 a.m., which in the movie is used by promoters and bands to their advantage for a while. As in numerous countries, the Park regime cracked down periodically on "decadence," shutting down clubs, forcibly cutting the hair of young men too influenced by Western pop trends, jailing musicians, banning songs, and the usual beatings, torture, and murder. One commenter at Internet Movie Database declared that "In fact the entire setting is unnecessary, and could have easily taken place in modern day." Well, no it couldn't: the dictatorship ended in 1987, and as far as I know South Korean musicians are no longer jailed for decadence, nor are nightclubs raided by club-wielding storm troopers who lob in tear gas to drive the crowd into their clutches. (Which doesn't mean police violence in Korea is a thing of the past, of course.) Interestingly, the trailer (embedded above) puts the political context, and the police violence, squarely in the foreground.

One reviewer, who mostly liked the movie, complained that he "was less than taken by the ensemble cast of whom none seemed to really shine through as a charismatic lead ... [O]n the whole the film could have used a more clearly defined protagonist." I think that the band itself is the protagonist, but then I'm partial to ensemble films where there is no clear lead, and different characters take turns at the center. One of the things I like about Korean films is the political awareness and sensibility so many of them have, the integration of social and political factors with individual ones. Which doesn't mean that there aren't Korean movie stars who often dominate the films in which they appear, or for whom films may be constructed as vehicles to show off their talents and please their fans -- only that there's a wider range of possibility in Korean commercial cinema.

That being said, it's true that GoGo 70 is a very conventional biopic even by American standards. You have the story of the band's rise from obscurity to fame, you have the conflicts of egos among its leaders, the tension between commercial success and artistic exploration, the climactic show that almost ends prematurely but is saved by someone's determination and quick thinking. But these conventional elements are treated quite competently, aided by the large amount of performance footage -- more, I think than in most such movies. The cast handle their performing duties very well, and one of the leads, Cho Seung-woo, is a musician who's also performed in stage musicals. (He broke into movies in 2000 as a romantic lead in Im Kwon-taek's Chunhyang, which had a limited US release.) He sings his own parts, often in English, and does a good job on the 60s Stax-Volt material.

Korean rock was as much a boys' club in those days as Western rock was, but the presence of only one real female character in GoGo 70 is a bit noticeable I think. Shin Min-a (also of Kitchen) plays a young woman who prefers to be called Mimi, who still manages to strain the limits of the stereotype for such a character. Though she follows the band devotedly from the sticks to Seoul, and we learn she had a one-night stand with the leader Sang-gyu (Cho) and got him to try to teach her to sing, she is more of a would-be impressario. She makes the Devils' often elaborate costumes, nags the music journalist who opens the Seoul music scene to them, and finally rescues the band's faltering career by becoming their go-go dancer, training two more young women to join her in that role, and finally taking an exuberant vocal solo in the climactic show of the movie. Korean women are expected to be entrepreneurs, which is at odds with the shared Western and Asian masculist belief in female subservience, but there you are. If you want a clearly-defined protagonist, Mimi's it.
This photo is the only one from here that shows a girl with the band. Mimi, is that you?

But that in itself doesn't make for conformance with the Rule, which requires that a movie have at least two women characters, who talk to each other about something besides a man. GoGo 70s manages to squeeze in even that, a scene in which Mimi and one of the women who'll join her as a dancer are working on costumes and talking about music. The other young woman is the daughter of the motel where the band squatted when they first arrived in Seoul; she connived with her brother to sneak them in past her father. It's not much, but even in the canonical statement of the Rule, a single conversation in Alien does the trick. That's a reminder that the Rule is not meant to be a guarantee of high feminist consciousness, but only a minimum requirement for watchability. On other fronts, though, GoGo 70 is fun, well-made, and worth your time -- another Korean movie that American audiences should have seen, but didn't.