Given its long and turbulent political history, Korea has become good at the art of the peaceful protest. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, beomseom Haejeok-dan seoul bulbada) arrives just after another political storm has passed, but trouble once again hovers on the horizon courtesy of noisy neighbours. Yet it’s not so much the literal threat of the Kims in the North that’s the problem, but the way that fear is used and abused to serve certain needs – this is where avant-garde punk duo Bamseom Pirates aim their carefully crafted arrows. Unfortunately for them, they are too clever for their own good and their reliance on sarcasm leaves them frequently misunderstood.
The Bamseom Pirates are drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon – two young men living the life of starving artists in Korea’s underground music scene. As Jang points out, other bands smash expensive guitars but Bamseom Pirates smash rubbish picked up from around the derelict buildings where they play their shows to small crowds of likeminded youngsters. Though violence is often an integral part of many “punk” scenes, the clashes here are not born of over exuberance or warring factions of bands and their followers but of hired thugs deliberately sent in to make trouble, limiting freedoms of assembly and expression.
Kwon’s lyrics are deliberately incendiary but violence is not in the band’s agenda. Filmed over several years, Jung Yoon-suk’s documentary finds the pair performing at several protests and rallies usually in support of progressive causes including opposing privatisation, and labour reform. Though he is repeatedly pressed to explain himself, Kwon refuses to pin his convictions to the mast of any recognisable political faction, nervously aligning himself with the defunct Progressive Party and then only vaguely in citing an agreement with their progressive causes. This refusal is key to Kwon’s artistic statement as he finds himself attacked from all sides – the left, who might be assumed to be his allies, tear him down for his bourgeois upbringing and education at an elite university, but on the other hand one can’t say anything that sounds too lefty lest one be accused of being a “communist” and therefore North Korean sympathiser.
Bamseom Pirates rely heavily on irony and so they can’t resist pushing this central dichotomy to its natural limit. Thus Kwon’s signature song is called “All Hail Kim Jong-il!”, but as it turns out the song isn’t about that Kim Jong-il at all, but all the other unfortunate people throughout history who share his not particularly uncommon name and are now tainted by association. North Korea being the most taboo issue of the day, it comes up frequently in the band’s songs in which they often point out the uncomfortable truths about their neighbour – in particular, the theoretical benefits of socialism such as workers rights and a welfare state that should be (but aren’t) in place in North Korea but can’t be adopted into the South because of persistent fear of “Communism”. The fear of “Communism” has become a stick with which to beat the progressive cause or really any cause the conservative society does not want to engage with, shutting down all debate and undermining the “democracy” the previous generation fought so hard to win.
This all comes to a head when the band’s manager finds himself falling foul of Korea’s longstanding censorship laws regarding North Korea designed to prevent “acts which benefit the enemy”. Park, a high school friend of Kwon, and a jack of all trades who runs a small indie record label printing CDs for underground bands, is just as acerbic as the boys and frequently makes ironic comments about North Korea on his Twitter account, even once asking the Dear Leader to buy him some chocolate. Nevertheless, when he retweets a North Korean account he’s immediately arrested and brought in for questioning as a possible North Korean sympathiser. His brand of sarcasm is just too subtle for the censor, and he finds himself on the receiving end of an extremely harsh punishment which is in no way helped by Kwon’s honest testimony clarifying their stance on the North.
Park faces prison for making a stupid joke on Twitter while his lawyer sensibly points out that if he had said the same thing in North Korea, he’d already be dead. He would not last five seconds on North Korean soil and clearly has no desire to go there. Rather than simply capture events, Jung leans in on the central irony of the situation in its suggestion that perhaps there’s not as much difference between the democratic South and the despotic North as might be hoped when it comes to encouraging a full and frank freedom of expression.
Yet despite the satirical content of their music, Bamseom Pirates remain refreshingly unpretentious and keen to make fun of themselves as well the current political crisis of the day. There’s no posturing or claim of a great masterplan to change society through the power of punk. The boys just want to play their music to likeminded people and have fun while doing it. This self effacing charm makes their extremely loud and energetic performances a joy to watch, though Jung also captures their anarchic spirit in several music videos accompanied by garish onscreen captions featuring the lyrics plus the explanation that the sound balance has been “deliberately” miscaptured to represent the “imbalances” in modern Korean society and that the band’s various musical mistakes have also been left in in testament to their artistic integrity. Bamseom Pirates do not claim to speak for their generation, but they do all the same as the young fight back against the “mainstream” of a conservative society, refusing to accept the gradual erosions of the freedoms the preceding generation fought so hard for but have failed to protect.
Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.
Also screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 on 5th November at Close-up Film Centre.
Original trailer (English subtitles)