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Hither and Yon

"Whiplash": Is backlash due to the secret sauce of cultural and Korean excellence?

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
A crew member on the flight from London to Washington was quite emphatic when I asked his advice about what movie to choose. He said he’d seen a lot of people watching “Whiplash.”
Often, I don’t watch much of anything on planes. I’m either too tired or too easily bored by much of the junk on the screen. I resolved to sit through “Whiplash,” though, if I could manage to stay awake. I must say I found the movie simultaneously compelling and repulsive.
Compelling, yes, because the acting performance of the conductor teacher Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, was a masterpiece of bullying interrupted by moments of softness and understanding.
Repulsive, also yes, because one of the bullied young musicians at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music committed suicide and the protagonist in the film, first-year drummer Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, got in a serious car accident racing to a performance and attacked the teacher. Oh, before all that, Fletcher had thrown a chair at him, had him banging away on the drums until his fingers bled, insulted him and other students, browbeaten them like a military drill sergeant, vilified them, shouted obscenities — you get the idea.
I might have let the movie slip out of mind as just a weird foray into the cinema until getting back to Seoul and discovering the movie had climbed last month to number one in the Korean box office sweepstakes. That’s right — it had beaten hefty competition, Korean and foreign, including “Cinderella,” the antithesis of “Whiplash” in term of the gentility of the heroine and the message.
You see, in “Whiplash,” by the time it’s over, we discover that evil is triumphant, the student absorbs his lessons with fanatical zeal and, of course, we forget about the other student who was bullied to death, that is, into taking his own life.
“Whiplash” did well in the U.S. for an extremely low-budget effort — it cost a little more than $3 million to make and was honored with three Oscars, including one for Simmons as best supporting actor. Simmons had such a central role, was on screen so much of the time, I would have called him the star along with Miles Teller, the kid drummer, the student who learned his lesson the hard way. Ok, Simmons deserved the accolade, but the real mystery about the film is why Koreans love it so much. What chord does it twang in the Korean psyche?
The answer, sorry to say, is there was something in the sheer fanaticism of the teacher, the accepting diligence of the students and, most of all, the denouement that justified such suffering. If the suicide was a tragedy, you wouldn’t know it from the film. Instead, school officials come through as self-righteous bureaucrats. Imagine — wanting to build a case against the teacher bully — forcing him out of his job! Casting him into the outer darkness of the smoky depth of an obscure nightclub where he’s found playing the piano to survive in a tough world!
I’m afraid Korean audiences may empathize with the fanaticism of the teacher. Physical bullying in schools may be against the law, but it hasn’t been long since slaps and knuckle-rapping and beatings with whips were part of the dark history of Korean education. In fact, we hear stories today of bullying teachers, of fanatics who demand unswerving adherence to rules, of learning by rote, as the musicians in the conservatory band were trained to do.
You can imagine a Korean teacher angrily confronting a student for failing to do his lesson. We hear stories of Korean army officers and sergeants striking recruits as did the music teacher. I must say, though, that I hadn’t thought that orchestras trained or rehearsed with such brutality. In that sense, the film was an eye-opener for me. Next time I go to a concert, I’m going to wonder if the conductor shouts and curses and maybe punches any musician who hits a wrong note or falls slightly off the pace.
In “Whiplash,” might makes right. Drummer Andrew catches on, drumming his heart out in a concert as teacher Fletcher smiles approvingly. He has learned his lesson, but what a lesson: shout, scream, strike, maim, injure, maybe kill. From that ordeal, presto, brilliance and perfection.
Koreans often give an impression of believing in such extremes. Bosses, salaried men, women too, fight for the sake of their companies, for their reputation, for their country. No wonder “Whiplash” is a hit in Korea.
Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we might find a backlash to “Whiplash.” In a semi-civilized world, this film is propaganda for cruelty and slaughter. That’s a message the creators of the “Whiplash,” and the critics who admire it, might have missed.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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