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Where Is Ronny . . . (Ronnie rŭl ch’ajasŏ) by Sim Sang-guk. (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 147-150 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0010

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In recent years, tamunhwa (multi- or plural culture) has become a buzzword in South Korean society, thanks partly to government campaigns to raise awareness regarding multicultural families (tamunhwa kajŏng). In fact, it is customary today for corporations and private schools to offer preferential treatment to multicultural families, in terms of the slots available for schoolchildren and employment. According to official statistics, as of January 2012, 1.5 million foreigners (2.8 percent of the total population) reside in South Korea.2 Excluded from this statistical assessment are illegal immigrants, whose population is estimated to be as much as 280,000.3 In contrast to their policies toward upwardly mobile mixed families, however, public and private sectors alike have done little to protect the basic rights of economically deprived, undocumented migrant workers and their non-Korean children. Between 2008 and 2010, 33,000 illegal immigrants were deported from South Korea, and those who are fortunate enough to linger as liminal subjects of the state (with no official status) are routinely denied their basic human rights such as minimum wage earnings, medical care for work-related injuries, and education for their children.4

Given the ambivalent state of Korean multiculturalism (tamunnhwajuŭi), which celebrates mixed (half-Korean) families on the principle of assimilation while excluding migrant workers forced to take undesirable “3-D” (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) jobs at meager wages, the increased presence of the latter group in recent South Korean films is an unexpected yet welcome—if not unproblematic—trend. Core media texts in the latest cycle of tamunhwa yŏnghwa (multicultural films) include Where Is Ronny . . . (Ronnie rŭl ch’ajasŏ); Bandhobi (Bandubi, directed by Sin Tongil, 2009); Haunters (Ch’onŭngnŏkcha, directed by Kim Minsŏk, 2010); He’s on Duty (Banga banga, directed by Yuk Sanghyo, 2010); and Punch (Wandŭgi, directed by Cho Yonggyu, 2011).5 Despite the seemingly progressive message of inclusion and tolerance shared by all of these films, only one film, Punch, centrally positions the tamunhwa (multicultural) hero as an agent of narrative change—a rebellious half-Korean, half-Filipino high school student who trains to become a kick boxer thanks to the support of his homeroom teacher (who, as it turns out, moonlights as an advocate for migrant workers). The other films comprising this well-meaning tamunhwa yŏnghwa cycle tell stories of soul-searching Korean heroes or heroines who forge deep friendships or romantic relationships with foreign characters from Bangladesh (Where Is Ronny . . . ; Bandhobi); Ghana and Turkey (Haunters); and Vietnam (He’s on Duty). While sympathetically oriented against discriminatory attitudes and the oppression faced by migrant laborers, these films ultimately privilege the Korean subject position and foreground positive changes experienced by that central character, facilitated by his or her acceptance of multiculturalism and alterity as opportunities for personal growth and edification.

Out of the aforementioned films, Where Is Ronny . . . is the most understated yet effective drama of multiculturalism, one that has received surprisingly little critical attention in and outside South Korea. From its outset, the film cinematically connects Bangladesh (whose exotic landscape is featured in a series of traveling shots in the pre-credit sequence) and Ansan, a multicultural industrial city on the outskirts of Seoul, where an estimated 70,000 foreigners reside (approximately half of them remain undocumented).6 The film’s protagonist Kim Inho (Yu Chunsang) is seen arriving in Ansan Station toward the end of the seamless, border-crossing montage that segues from the overcrowded Bangladesh train to the Metro system connecting Seoul to its satellite cities. Inho is introduced as the owner and coach of a provincial Taekwondo school (symbolically named Han’guk Ch’eyukkwan, or the “Korean Gym”), which is apparently struggling to stay afloat. In order to publicize his business and attract new recruits, Coach Kim prepares for the school’s 10th year anniversary Taekwondo tournament. In the midst of mustering all his energy for the upcoming event, Inho is offered a voluntary post as the captain of a new neighborhood watch (the “crime prevention watch,” or pangbŏmdae), which purports to preempt the crimes that will be committed by migrant workers.

In a neighborhood meeting at the local Chinese restaurant, several residents vocalize...

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