What Movie Caricatures Say About South Korea & Christianity

When I was young my dad was enthusiastic for Japanese movies, an enthusiasm which I inherited. I think it would be accurate to say that the most respected actor in our house during my teenage years was Toshiro Mifune. To this day I have a fondness for the aesthetic of Japanese movies, regardless of their pretensions; I enjoy the cotton candy films as much as the filet mignon flicks.

One of the most impressive things about Japanese movies is their utter heathenism. They are cleanly and stoically pagan. One of the most memorable movie scenes of my teenage years, and jarring to this day when I watch it, is the scene in Kurosawa's medievally-set Kagemusha in which Roman Catholic priests are seen. The world in Japanese films is utterly heathen, and anything that breaks that spell is noticeable.

Japan has between one and two million Christians. That's 1% of the population.

In 1950 South Korea was already an amazing 5% Christian according to censuses. Today, even more amazingly, it is 30% Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic). And the fastest-declining "religion" there is not Buddhism. It's people who respond "no religion". In the 70s that was 57%, well over half the country. Today that number sits at 47%, and should continue to trend down, although not as precipitously.

Only 23% of South Koreans are Buddhists. Christianity is the largest religion in South Korea. Since half of South Koreans claim to have no faith at all, Christian churches and Christian faith and culture by no means dominate the nation. Nonetheless, a third of the nation becoming Christian over a fifty-year period can't help but have an impact.

One of the places you see this is in Korean films. It's normal behavior in movies to be seen praying, or for women to wear little gold crosses, like many American women do. What's most amazing about this is that it's simply a part of the background, of the fabric of life as portrayed in secular South Korean films. When I noticed this I was impressed by this evidence of how truly pervasive Christianity has become in South Korea. One hears stories, reads articles, etc., but seeing Christianity casually and naturally portrayed on screen in an Eastern setting is jarring.

Actually, it would be jarring on Western screens too.

Anyone familiar with South Korean art and pop culture will know that I'm not saying that South Korean art is Christian or God-honoring, but that when it portrays South Korean people it has to portray lots of Christians and Christianity.

So, like I said, I've been impressed by this. But last week, while watching a Japanese show on Netflix, I was really struck by the profundity of the change that must have come over South Korea in this historical blink of an eye. The show is Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. It's a sort of floating sequel to previous Japanese seasons of Midnight Diner (which I haven't seen), and a movie of the same name (which I have). It's reminiscent of movies like The Ramen Girl or Tampopo, all about lonely people connecting over food (I like modern Japanese movies because they're all lonely). If you love Waffle House or late night diners, you'll dig this. Each episode is a vignette with a resolution, which makes for pleasant, relaxed viewing.

The show is full of the usual Japanese tropes, Mysterious Master, Wise Clown Transvestite, Restless Ghost, Buxom Ingenue, and Porn Addict. But the caricature used in portraying one particular character, a South Korean escort who wants to return to her family in Korea, I found absolutely fascinating.

Since the show works in distinct vignettes, the feature characters of each episode have to be sketched out using symbols, so we can get to know them more quickly. The regulars we know, but the episodes are never about the regulars.

Apparently, when the Japanese writers of the show got together and said, "Let's have a young lower-middle-class South Korean woman in the next episode", they thought that making her a Christian would communicate Koreanness.

So not only do South Koreans portray themselves wearing crosses and praying, but foreigners portray them wearing crosses and praying.

This is the sort of thing that makes me believe that the Gospel will triumph.

The Japanese man is praying with Buddhist beads, the Korean woman with
Roman Catholic. They're burying her pet fish.