I thought I was okay at decoding K-drama, but the 12-episode drama Hometown is the most enigmatic Korean TV product I’ve encountered.
Far from the most enjoyable. Far from the most engaging. But the most baffling, the one that kept me guessing – frustrated, barely hanging in there, but anxious (neurotically, physiologically) to see where it headed.
At first I thought its primary real-life referencing was to the 30 August 1987 cult mass suicide-murder in Yongjin, 30 miles south of Seoul, morphed with the Matsumoto sarin gas attack perpetrated in Japan 27 June 1994.
On Facebook I summarised the first two episodes of Hometown this way:
‘A nerve gas attack at a train station on the eve of the nation’s biggest family holiday. A cult. Killings. Madness. A disappearance.’
I noted the aesthetic of cinematic realism. I noted the serious actors. I noted there was nothing funny, cute or glamorous here (most K-drama serves it up).
As the drama unfolded, increasingly I was concerned by the presentation of the cult leader, “the Guru”. The degree of mind control he wielded went well beyond anything realist, well into the supernatural, demonic.
I worried why what I took to be his murderous instigations were mediated via technologies: videotapes, cassette tapes. (I thought it was the influence of the Japanese hit horror movie The Ring.)
I worried why the timeframes were opaque: sometimes we were in 1999 (the apocalyptic Y2K moment), sometimes in 1987, sometimes earlier, at an orphanage.
I noted that characters implied or claimed intimacy with other characters who did not seem to recall them.
I worried why the hallucinations some characters experienced shared common elements – notably, the traditional Korean vengeful ghost-maiden, the dead woman with tangled long black hair, sometimes hanging upside down, wearing white.
It all moved slowly and at some point fairly late in the drama I declared it irredeemable tosh.
I marvelled to my sister that everyone concerned – the actors, the cinematographer, the director – were working so hard to sell something so fundamentally nonsensical. Then I worried, why would they do that?
I think the last two episodes are key.
I reported back to Facebook:
‘Turns out to be about memory, forgetting and accountability. I think it’s a parable about the years of the dictatorship, the disappearances, tortures and deaths, and cultural amnesia.
‘[It’s] the bargain with the Devil where you sell your soul in exchange for having the memory of your sins erased. Moral: if you reject that bargain and face up to your sins, you might live through the pain of that knowledge and, eventually, atone.
‘I’m wrestling with the allegory in this drama (Hometown). The cult leader is wholly allegorical. He’s the Monster of repressed trauma, palliative amnesia. He’s the collective pact, the pact to not remember. The cop participated in torture and extra-judicial execution. The politician is a serial child molester who murders his daughter rather than have her denounce him. Parents who sold their children into exploitation. Loan sharks who take the ignorant and desperate for everything they’ve got.
‘What is “the memory of your sins” if not conscience? The allegory is also about secondary victims: the traumatised survivors, and how the pact to forget leaves them unseen and unheard, living dead. The drama says: for them to live, their pain must be acknowledged, their loss recognised.’
What I call “the traumatised survivors” are seen here often as the next generation(s), the scarred children of sins that pre-date their existence.
As I thought more about it, I came to see the anchoring references as being about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, a student protest that turned into a massacre. That’s almost certainly not all that’s going on here. This is a drama made not for the international market but for those in South Korea who remember, even when they might wish to forget. Media are channels for reactivation (“triggering”) and also obfuscation.
The Monster of repressed trauma, the cult leader, is the embodiment of intergenerational trauma. He has taken on the name of his murdered father. He experiences past/present/future as a compressed unity. Nothing can end. In his cosmos, there are only two options: Kill the one you love most, then kill yourself; or, Accept the illusionary balm of amnesia, and give yourself over to the Monster.
The Monster is beautiful, and charismatic. Can a demon also be an innocent? His counterpart (opposite) is surely the gangster loan shark, who resists killing what he loves, the pure core at the heart of his being: the sinner as saint.
Hometown uses the metaphor of children shut inside a small, pitch-black room. It ends exhorting words to the effect, ‘If you have a small, dark room inside you, open it to the light. Choose life [with its pain, don’t choose to numb].’