007 Movie Provides Bond Between the Two Koreas

Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- It's a travesty, an insult to Korean dignity and further evidence of America's bid to destroy Korea. The latest war of words in the 3-month-old North Korean nuclear crisis? No, just local reaction to the new James Bond movie, "Die Another Day," whose depiction of the peninsula and its people has many North and South Koreans in rare agreement.

The Koreas are not the first to decry how they are portrayed in a Bond movie, but the timing of the new film's release -- in the middle of a nuclear standoff and a flare-up of anti-Americanism in the South -- is unfortunate.

The protests and an attempted boycott of the movie are expected to expand pressure on Hollywood to better vet movies for overseas markets, film critics say, given the growing share of its revenue from abroad.

Buddhist monks here are aghast that the movie uses a temple as the backdrop for a love scene. The Internet pulsates with criticism. South Korean students and activists are planning more pickets today in front of many of the estimated 140 theaters nationwide showing "Die Another Day."

"Hollywood takes it for granted that 'good and mighty' America destroys 'evil and savage' Korea," said Chung Hai Gyu, a boycott organizer.

Particularly galling to many here is the image of seemingly dumbfounded South Korean farmers tending water buffalo -- an animal found in struggling Southeast Asian countries, not in this high-tech nation -- as pieces of modern technology drop from the sky.

Critics also complain that South Korea is made to look like a U.S. vassal state as a CIA agent orders the Asian nation's military to mobilize for war. Others grouse that the temple appears to be in the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas and that its architecture looks distinctly Japanese.

"I haven't seen the movie, and I'm not interested," Son Kyong Min, a 20-year-old electronics student, said in front of a Seoul multiplex. "I hear it's derogatory toward Korea."

North Korea, ruled by film buff Kim Jong Il, has its own gripes. Last month, it called "Die Another Day" the latest example of America's "corrupt sex culture" and further proof that the U.S. is bent on destroying the North.

More recent condemnation by the North emphasizes that the alleged insult is aimed at both Koreas. This reflects a broader political strategy by the communist regime to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, observers say.

"The film represents the real intention of the U.S., keen on war," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said this month. "If the U.S. continues showing the movie despising the Korean nation, all the people will turn out in a fiercer anti-U.S. struggle."

The plot of "Die Another Day" revolves around a rogue North Korean communist bent on destroying South Korea -- and ultimately the world -- by using a space-based laser in a race for profit and control. Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, is tortured by North Korean agents but gets away to foil the plot with the help of Halle Berry, playing an American agent.

In many countries, studios welcome controversy, given the boost it provides to ticket sales.

"In Korea, if it's about sex, it's good for publicity. But that's not the case with nationalism," said Lee Si Hyung, a psychiatrist and sociologist with Samsung Medical Center in Seoul.

Box-office receipts for "Die Another Day" in South Korea, the U.S. film industry's 10th largest overseas market, are running around 20% below expectations, according to Fox Korea Inc., the movie's distributor.

"We're very nationalistic," Lee added. "We're so sensitive because we have a history of being invaded. We have a complex about being small and vulnerable."

Fox Korea considered postponing the release until the end of the nuclear standoff and an easing of anti-American feelings that rose after the accidental death in June of two teenagers hit by a U.S. military vehicle. Fox Korea concluded that any delay would only embolden the movie's opponents, said company President Lee Joo Sung.

South Korean chat rooms offer quizzes on the movie's cultural inaccuracies, derisively renaming the film "007 Die Today."

Fox Korea has tried to counter critics by arguing that they're taking the film too seriously. "It's just a movie," said Lee, the company president. "It's meant to be entertaining and fun."

But film critic and Dongguk University professor Yu Gina said it isn't even that.

"I found it kind of boring," she said, citing fight scenes that she deemed inferior imitations of Hong Kong action films.

The producers latched on to North Korea as a backdrop, she said, because they're having trouble creating convincing enemies for Bond films with the end of the Cold War. That said, they have a responsibility to portray places accurately and intelligently and to do their homework, she added.

Other Bond movies have rocked viewers' boats amid charges of racism and cultural insensitivity, said Toby Miller, professor of cinema studies at New York University.

"Tomorrow Never Dies" was set in Vietnam but shot in Thailand, upsetting Vietnamese. The Bond series was banned in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it became popular after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Blacks slammed their portrayal in "Live and Let Die," which featured white actors in black face makeup. And Japanese were miffed that Bond mastered the ancient Ninja arts in a week of training in "You Only Live Twice."

As foreign markets become more important, studios are taking greater care to edit out American references and avoid offending foreign viewers, said Dana Polan, a professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television. "My guess in this case is they didn't think it out."

The North Korea subject dovetails with a Bond-movie tradition of using current events and latent foreign fears to provide backdrops and adversaries, film critics say.

Despite the protests, many Koreans are planning to see "Die Another Day."

"The younger generation gets too emotional about these things," said Hwang Bong Koo, 69, an accountant. "I love the 007 films and will see this one as soon as I find time."

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