“The Avengers” won’t transform Korea’s image – but it’s part of the process

The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek Korea. — John.

By John Power

The Korean media has been desperate to get the inside scoop on the sequel to “The Avengers” ever since it was announced that a portion of the film would be shot in Seoul. The excitement no doubt partly stems from Seoul having been overlooked by Hollywood for so long in comparison to Asian cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong. In fact, apart from fleeting scenes in a handful of films, Seoul has gone virtually unrepresented by the world’s entertainment capital.  That is a shame. Seoul is one of the most significant and vibrant cities in Asia and is long past due the Hollywood treatment.

That the sequel to the third-highest grossing film of all time is filming in Korea is obviously news. But the anticipation from media and citizens alike is undoubtedly also a function of Korea’s seemingly insatiable desire for international recognition. Much of the media coverage has framed the production in terms of how it will promote the Korean brand. The government has duly made impressive predictions of the film’s positive impact on tourism and investment. At minimum, it will give many Western audiences a concrete image of modern Seoul for the first time.

But already it appears as if expectations may be inflated beyond all reasonable levels. The desperate need of Korean officialdom for foreign approval means that the film must not merely depict Seoul, but transform its image around the world. At times, one has gotten the sense that officials interested in the production see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” less as a profit-seeking slice of entertainment about superheroes than an advertisement for Korea itself.

In the most obvious example of this mindset, the KTO and several film and investment-related agencies signed a memorandum of understanding  with Marvel Studios last month in which the film studio agreed to “portray Korea as a high-tech, modern country and shall avoid portraying the Republic of Korea in any negative manner.”

That Seoul would be depicted negatively was apparently more than an abstract concern for government officials. One Culture Ministry official, quoted in The Korea Herald, recently complained that, “In foreign movies, Korea is either shown as a backward place or given a negative portrayal.”

He also said that the prospect of how Seoul would be portrayed in such an explosion-heavy action film had initially worried him.

With such sensitivities in play, it is worth asking just what is meant by “any negative manner” as stipulated in the agreement.  Would that include the destruction of landmarks, practically obligatory in such films, or the fleeting inclusion of a homeless person?

In reality, Seoul is powerless to control how it is perceived in a Hollywood blockbuster. An MOU is little more than a formalized gentleman’s agreement; it is not legally binding. There is no way to seek recourse should Seoul feel slighted by the eventual product.

Moreover, it strains credulity that Seoul would have denied Marvel without such an agreement, or that that the studio would alter the plot of a multi-hundred-million-dollar production to placate local concerns.

In effect, it was a very public sop to the national inferiority complex.

There have been many other examples of the high hopes being placed on the impact of the film. Park Young-gyu, the head of public relations at the Korea Tourism Organization, was recently quoted in The Korea Herald as saying the film could make Seoul as recognizable to foreigners as Tokyo and Shanghai. This would be an astounding accomplishment for a single work of cinema, most of which is to be set outside of Korea.

Of course, it is in the DNA of public officials to set lofty targets and make grand pronouncements. That is a function of their nature, elsewhere as well as in Korea. But projecting a country’s hopes for international recognition onto a single film is bound to end in disappointment.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is not likely to utterly transform Korea’s image abroad. The average Briton will continue to first think of Tokyo rather than Seoul at the sound of “Asia.” The average Spaniard will remain more acquainted with chow mein than jjim ddak.

But so what?

Korea is nothing like the small, insignificant country many Koreans imagine it to be. It is the 13th largest economy in the world, with an ever-growing cultural clout to match its considerable political and economic status.

Korea will continue to expand its influence overseas and seize the interest of foreigners. But it will do so primarily through the natural interactions of people in an ever more globalized world, not by government diktats and campaigns that betray deep insecurity.

The sequel to “The Avengers” will be just one more part of that inevitable process. And a whole lot of fun, too.

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