Shamrockmom’s Chuseok Weekend Movie Review: “Gosanja” (The Map Against the World)

Only at Shamrockmom’s house will you find 3 calendars-one with the typical US/Christian holidays, one with all the Jewish religious Holidays and another one with the Korean holidays.

Since Chuseok was on September 15 this year, and to reward myself for completing two difficult social tasks–attending my boss’s wedding shower and wedding the following week with my co-workers–I thought it was time to hit the Kmovie theater again. I went looking for movies playing in my area. Unfortunately, one was a show that I could never possibly watch: “Tunnel”. (Great US review here and a blogger review here) There are not enough meds in any local pharmacy to enable severely claustrophobic Shamrockmom to voluntarily enter a theater and watch that one. Just thinking about being trapped in a tunnel is disturbing enough, especially when I had to drive through 3 small tunnels on the freeway this past weekend to attend my Boss’s wedding. I had to take a couple of deep breaths and be thankful it was still daylight so I could see through to the other side. Yes, I went home a different way that night!

I had also seen many positive reviews of “Train to Busan”, but since I am not into zombies and/or horror flicks, that one was off my list too. Then I happened upon a trailer last weekend for a movie that looked like it was right in Shamrockmom’s wheelhouse–“Gosanja” (English Title: The Map Against the World)

Full disclosure and side story: I have always been very interested in geography, maps and globes. When I was in Kindergarten, my Grandparents who were my primary caretakers fell ill. My mother was in and out of the hospital due to complications of her pregnancy with my little sister. After my grandmother had surgery and my grandfather passed away, my Dad had no choice but to ask my Grandparent’s neighbors to take care of me. One of them was a retired professor of Geography at a local university. She had all kinds of geography books and maps at her house. This woman loved to teach, and I was a willing pupil fascinated by the pictures, stories and information she had. With my uncle travelling to places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, I wanted to know more about these faraway places. Since the professor was even older than my grandparents, her kids didn’t start school back then until age 6 (first grade). Her opinion was that Kindergarten was for lazy parents who didn’t want to pay attention to their children or some kind of extended playtime with other neighborhood kids. Why would any decent parent bother to send a child to Kindergarten?!? I missed a ton of school, but learned all kinds of interesting and useful things. I’m sure she wouldn’t have called it Homeschooling, although that’s exactly what it was. When I did go back to Kindergarten, I can assure you I was the only kid in the class who could locate all the places my uncle travelled on a map and tell you some facts about each one.

Map-reading was also a superb life skill back in my teenage years prior to Mapquest, GPS systems and cellphones with Google Maps. If you could find your way around with a Thomas Guide map like I could, you had a guaranteed seat in a car for any adventure you and your buddies could dream up.

I searched the ‘net for a review of “Gosanja” this past week. I thought I might be the only one who was interested in seeing it outside of Korea. Then to my surprise, last Thursday the Dramabeans crew gave it a nice plug on their blog, along with some of the trailers and a whole bunch of stills from the movie. The movie is only playing in 4 (!) theaters in the US. Lucky for me–one of them was a relatively short 50 minute drive away! I had to wait until the week after it was playing in LA to watch, but it was totally worth it.

Here’s the minimal synopsis from Asianwiki.com: “Kim Jeong-Ho’s (Cha Seung-Won) father died due to an erroneous map. Because of this, Kim Jeong-Ho has a strong desire to make his own map. He begins a complete block map of Joseon.”

A better outline of the movie is on the CJ E&M website: “At a time when maps weren’t readily accessible for the public, ‘Gosanja KIM Jeong-ho’ (CHA Seung-won) sets out to walk across the Korean peninsula to make the Daedongyeojido- the Great Map of the East Land, with hopes of providing an accurate and accessible map for the ordinary people.
He has all but forgotten about his daughter KIM Sun-sil, who grew to be 16 years old in his absence, as he focuses on completing his map. People say he is crazy, but driven by his goal, KIM Jeong-ho endeavors to complete the template for woodblock printing of the map. However, Daewongun, the King Father (YU Jun-sang) seeks to take KIM Jeong-ho’s map to gain the upper hand in his power struggle with the house of Kim of Andong.”

It should be noted that Gosanja is Kim Jeong Ho’s ‘pen name’ as the author of the map. The literal translation is “Guy of the Old Mountain”. I had a feeling that similar to “Jang Yeong Shil” being an acting showcase by Song Il Kook, this movie is gonna be all about Cha Seung Won. And that is a good thing! True to form, he carries this movie from start to finish.

I have great memories of watching “Jang Yeong Shil” earlier this year. I was at a bad place in my Kdrama viewing life, coming off 3 horrible shows in a row that made me seriously question what kind of shows I kept choosing. Thankfully, “JYS” seemed to jump start my drama viewing again, and I started making better choices. It was an intellectually stimulating and emotionally uplifting ride, even though the ending was a sad one for the most part. I was ready for another drama reset after the slap-in-the-face WTF ending of “The Good Wife” which I will finish writing about after my anger subsides!  I hoped “Gosanja” would be similar to JYS in a 2 hour movie instead of a 24 episode drama. This movie could have been a 24 episode drama too, IMHO. A bit more detail, some added side characters and historical background on the places KJH visited and mapped through both North and South Korea could have made a compelling TV drama with the bonus of more developed characterization.

I know that in Korea, Chuseok means the end of summer; time for harvest and Thanksgiving, and the weather cools down noticeably. But here in SoCal, mid-to-late September means that summer is not gonna go away without a brutal fight to the end. It was 106 degrees (F) on Sunday afternoon when I drove up to the theater in Fullerton/La Habra Koreatown–the same one I saw  “Veteran” in a few months ago. On the way there, I got a good look at the recent progress made on the construction of the new CGV Cinema complex in Buena Park. I thought it might already be complete, but it’s not quite there yet–the Facebook page for CGV cinemas says cryptically, “toward the end of the year”. It’s got to be close, because this local news article from 6 weeks ago says the parking structure and the theater are finished, and as soon as the restaurants are done, it’s a go. I can’t wait. This will cut another 20 minutes off my drive to see Kmovies in the theater, and hopefully more movie reviews for the blog!

I parked my car in the huge shopping center lot and ran from the air conditioned car to the air conditioned movie theater. I hand the disinterested, gum chomping, blonde college age girl at the ticket booth $10 cash (matinee ticket price), the rewards card for the theater and said, “One ticket for Gosanja at 1 o’clock”

“Huh?”

So I repeated it. Perhaps I might have mumbled. She looks at me blankly. Then I remember–the movie has two titles. This time I say, “Map Against the World” and that gets me the ticket. Oops. My bad.

At first glance, I thought I was the only one in the whole theater. Now that would’ve been a total bummer. Nope, there’s two ahjummas and a middle age couple, and then one more middle age couple comes in during the ensuing half-hour of US movie trailers (yawn) and concession advertisements. No trailers are shown for upcoming Kmovies–I wonder why? Total attendance this afternoon: 7 of us, all over 40. Yes, I am the only non-Korean. I’m used to it by now. I get out my little notebook, my Diet Coke, and the soft chocolate cookies that comprise my current ‘snacking game’ post-dental extraction and jawbone graft. (My bad tooth was fused to my upper jaw, necessitating a much more extensive surgery than anyone expected.) Popcorn is on the forbidden list for a couple more months until things heal up, along with anything else super hard, crunchy or chewy. If you think that being a dental hygienist means exemption from dental drama, you are sadly mistaken!

Before I get into the spoilery aspects of my review, let me say that I really enjoyed this movie. It was a bit slow in the beginning, but the last half was much more interesting. Even though the ending was sad, I thought it was a great finish. However, this movie is not for everyone. Similar to “Jang Yeong Shil”, I’d say that if you like romance, witty banter, hawwt dudes, cute gals, kisses, and great fashion, don’t even bother with “Gosanja”. However, if you like science documentaries, geography, Korean history, awesome views of Korean landscapes, and multiple things to ponder for a while after the show, then you are definitely in the right place. It’s absolutely worth two hours of your time, and all the subsequent hours you will probably spend researching things you heard and saw in the movie, like I did. “Gosanja” is not rated by US standards, but I’d give it a PG-13 rating. It’s not for young children. There are some scenes of beatings and torture, but they are not gratuitous, and the director lets us hear more than we see. (Even so, I had some trouble sleeping that evening. Shamrockmom is notoriously sensitive to that kind of stuff.) The romance factor is zero. The music is very good, and fits well with the fantastic cinematography. How I wish I could make screenshots of the landscapes shown in the movie and put them on a slideshow for my patients at the dental office for something different to look at–other than the pics from my big Boss’s family vacations. Lesson For Today: Any photograph the big Boss or her husband takes is a Work of Art! And if it’s not–refer back to the Lesson For Today!

All “Gosanja” screencaps from the Eng sub trailer by CJ E&M:

“Gosanja” starts a bit slow, but perhaps that is because I don’t have the background in Korean history that someone watching in Korea would have. Kim Jeong Ho nearly gets beheaded at the very start of the movie for following along with the boy King (and his father) who are in a procession. Someone is measuring distance with a sort of pedometer–a series of cogs and wheels, and marking the distance. KJH correctly discerns that there are two distances; one linear, and a longer one that considers going around hills and valleys to get to the destination. He’s mistaken for a spy, and luckily one of the king’s faction knows who he is, and he gets to live for another day. Here is that scene (and some other great movie highlights) in another English subbed trailer I found:

KJH is just an ordinary guy. His family is not in the noble class, although a flashback shows that his father was a leader in their community. KJH’s dad and some village guys go on an expedition ordered by The Powers That Be with a map provided by the government. That map is woefully inaccurate, and the group of villager men that he leads get lost in a snowstorm (bad idea IMHO to start a hike like this in the dead of winter) and tragically they all freeze to death. Interestingly, Dad has a compass–with a magnet that points north. And he knew about the North Star. So what year is this? Movie gives a clue that I have to go home and research. Dad’s expedition was 35 years after (?) the Hong Gyeong Rae rebellion. What and when was that? Here’s the answer–so maybe in the mid 1840’s would be my best guess.

Like any good hero, Kim Jeong Ho has a sidekick/helper/wingman named “Bau” on the movie subs, but translated by AsianWiki to Ba Woo. Heh, typical CJ subbers! KJH also has a teenage daughter named Sun Sil (AsianWiki= Soon Sil) who is not impressed by her father’s map making skills. The daughter lives with a lady who doesn’t seem to be her mom or stepmom. The movie does not explain what happened to Sun Sil’s mom/Jeong Ho’s wife, or exactly who her caretaker is. KJH is certainly not Father of the Year material; after a 4 year absence, he brings his daughter a new hanbok–but it’s the size she was when he left, and now she’s 16. Nevertheless, she wears it around even though it looks ridiculously small. She accuses him at one point of loving his maps more than her–which he denies, but is sadly proven true later in the film.

Back when I watched “Jang Yeong Shil“, I commented that the show seemed to be a big poke at those in power, and an indictment against the Confucian beliefs in Korean society and the rigid class system. I believe “Gosanja” is the next chapter in that story. Kim Jeong Ho is an extraordinary individual like JYS. I think it’s nothing short of amazing that he basically walked all over both North and South Korea creating maps that even today are considered quite detailed and accurate. KJH didn’t have the benefit of loading up on freeze-dried food or any sort of modern camping gear from REI either; no down jackets or waterproof hiking boots to make his travels more comfortable. He made painstakingly accurate woodcuts of his pen and ink maps so he could print copies of his work for anyone who needed it.

gosanjamovie2

He’s independent, creative, and an outside-the-box thinker. JYS believed that everyone should be able to look at the stars and figure out their location. Kim Jeong Ho wonders why should maps only belong to those in power? Why shouldn’t everyone have access to the information? After all….

gosanjamovie1

This statement is as relevant today as it was back then….whether you are in SK or the US.

Of course, the powerful ruling class finds ideas like this dangerous because it puts the kibosh on their power and control game over the common people. KJH gets threatened and attacked; his maps and woodcuts burned and destroyed. This movie makes a strong statement for democracy, liberty, and individual freedom.

There’s a fun scene where Kim Jeong Ho tells Bau that he realizes his maps are limited because of his perspective of being on the ground. If he could get the perspective from the stars in the sky, then he could make the maps even more accurate. Bau then expands on that idea with his own–Why couldn’t someone invent a device that you could take with you on a journey that would give you verbal directions like go 4 km north then 2 km west…and have it narrate the way in a cute female voice?! Bau suggests that Sun Sil’s voice would be a good one and Jeong Ho gets that Bau is kinda-sorta romantically interested in his daughter. He’s not a great catch for sure, and KJH lets his wingman know in no uncertain terms that Sun Sil is completely off limits!

The persecution of Catholics is also difficult to watch. The Catholic church had made inroads into Korea through Chinese Missionaries, and was seen by TPTB as a huge threat to the ruling class deeply steeped in Confucian tradition. Thousands of Korean believers were martyred during the 1800’s–including KJH’s daughter and the ahjumma she lived with. Interestingly, South Korea today has a sizeable percentage of the population who identify as Catholic or Protestant Christian. I wondered for years why there was a Catholic church in my old ‘Sillimdong-hood’ named after the Korean Martyrs; now I know.

 

A sequence I want to particularly highlight is Kim Jeong Ho’s desire to map out the Dokdo islands. Weather, ocean currents, and (enemy) Japanese fishing vessels make this a perilous journey on a good day. I’d heard about the centuries long dispute with Japan over ownership of these islands a while ago. “Gosanja” makes no secret which side it is on. KHJ has his maps stolen by Japanese ‘pirates’ who are in turn envious at the accuracy and detail of the Korean maps. When the young King’s father finds out that the Japanese had obtained the maps from KJH, he’s accused of high treason, captured and subsequently tortured. The legendary sea lions (Gangchi) that lived around the islands are CG’d into the film–at first I thought they were dolphins, but then I got a better look the second time around. Fascinated, I did some reading/research about the sea lions when I got home. From what I can gather, the Japanese hunted down the Dokdo sea lions until they became extinct. How sad is that? Here is a little informational English-subbed animated vignette on the Gangchi of Dokdo Islands that gives a strongly Korean-centric perspective on the issue:

 

Don’t leave before the credits roll, or you will miss a gem. At the very end of the movie, it narrates that no one knows how Kim Jeong Ho dies, or what happened to all the maps he made. The master wood cuts were thought to be lost as well, but then someone found a few of them in a SK warehouse in 1995! Whoa–I know I am a disorganized person, but this beats any level of disarray at my house. I immediately pictured the ending to the 1981 movie: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and the warehousing of the Ark of the Covenant that Indiana Jones found:

indyfilingsystemgosanja

Historical Korean map woodcuts, Ark of the Covenant…anything else you might have misplaced?! It’s probably here.

I wish I would have written down the location names of the woodcuts they found (there’s only about 12 left out of what was surely many hundreds of woodcuts) but I do remember that one of them was Daegu–Yoo Ah In’s hometown. Heh, and I bet you thought I could go a whole blog post without mentioning Secret Love Affair, Yoo Ah In or Kim Hee Ae!

I would not mind seeing this movie again, so I hope it shows up subbed on OnDemand Korea or one of the streaming sites like hdfree.se or dramacool.io sooner rather than later so that everyone can enjoy it, and not just lucky persons like me who happen to live within a reasonable distance to a Kmovie theater. I hope the decent English subtitles show up too. When you need a break from the usual fare on TV, give “Gosanja” a watch. It’s a visual and intellectual Thanksgiving banquet for your mind.

 

 

 

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