“Not Success but Service”: Shamrockmom’s review of the documentary “Seo Seo Pyeong, Slowly and Peacefully”

Now that the crew over at Dramabeans have dramatically (pun intended) expanded their recapping capabilities with additional staff members and a new website, almost every prime time Kdrama is being recapped. That’s so awesome! I am all in favor of more coverage for Kdramas. However, there are still a few nooks and crannies of the Kdrama/Kmovie world the usual blogs don’t cover–weekend dramas get minor coverage, and dailies get even less.

It’s understandable given the typical bad acting, OTT antics, plothole-ridden storylines and rushed endings of the dailies. Many bloggers also review Kmovies, although, given the limited theater release locations, there’s often a significant delay in being able to see the film, both for the reviewer and the reader. This is where I luck out–the Kmovie theater is only a half-hour away from my home.

Here’s a movie/documentary that I am sure will not be on anyone’s radar but mine: “Seo Seo Pyeong, Slowly and Peacefully”. It’s an independently produced documentary on the life of Elisabeth Johanna Shepping, a German-American Christian missionary who came to Korea in the early part of the 20th century. She set up schools, nursed the sick and provided much-needed care for abandoned children, widows and orphans. Unlike other missionaries who lived well in large homes behind gates in early 20th century Joseon, Seo Seo Pyeong learned Hangul, dressed in a simple hanbok, and lived among the desperately poor women and children she helped. Here’s a trailer from the CGV website–it’s not on YouTube, so I can’t vouch that it will be online for a long time. Alternative link to HanCinema.net and the trailer here.

I happened to see the trailer while I was recently laid up at home due to another car accident. This time I was hit by a driver who ran a red light and crashed into my car as I was turning off the freeway to go home last week. My cute little compact hatchback did its job and kept me safe, but at a steep price–it’s at the auto body shop now and they are trying to decide whether to fix it or declare it a total loss. Fortunately, the other driver walked away as well–and at least he had insurance, took responsibility for his actions and admitted guilt.

I have a rental car now, and although I begged them for a small car (because that is what I am used to driving) I got a Jeep Patriot. I call it the Little Red Schoolbus!

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My piano teacher Miss Nzuji howled with laughter when she saw this giant SUV! It’s at the opposite end of the car size spectrum from what I usually drive.

I seriously can’t believe people drive humungous vehicles like this. I can understand the need if you live in a rural area and have to tow a horse trailer, or if you have a large family with kids and all their sports gear, but for one person?!? I feel so strange driving it. Do other people think I am some kind of entitled ‘first-world’ brat? I can barely park it–I look for a place way out in a parking lot with plenty of room. Of course, it guzzles gas. Also, it’s an automatic transmission which means that every time I go to start it my foot looks for the clutch pedal and I can’t keep my hand off the shifter because mentally I want to override the wimpy automatic transmission and accelerate, but this thing moves like….well, a school bus. Slowly…and carefully!

After days spent dealing with the insurance companies, the auto repair shop, going to the doctor for my back pain, and fuming about the unfairness of my life, I desperately needed to take my mind off my own problems. The day before I went to the movie theater, I was so stressed out I had a full-blown panic attack–the first one I’ve had in months. Something had to give…

I drove very slowly and carefully up to The Source in Buena Park which is pretty much the only place now in The OC to find Kmovies. I am pleased to report that since my venture up there a few months ago to see “Fabricated City“, many more restaurants and stores have opened, although there are still a few vacancies. There is a bingsoo (traditional red bean shaved ice) place on the way, as well as a restaurant/retail store destination from YG Entertainment. That ought to be “da bomb”! The center itself was much busier, and I was happy to see a more ethnically diverse group of people walking around and checking things out. The Source is branching out this summer with things like free performances from local rock bands and artisan craft fairs. The theater complex was busy for a Saturday evening but not insanely so. I was able to get my long awaited CGV rewards card which took a dollar off my ticket:

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#Woot!

Interestingly, the self-serve ticket kiosks that weren’t working when “Fabricated City” opened are still non-functional. The showing of “Seo Seo Pyeong” that I attended was nearly full–amazing for a Saturday evening showing of a Christian documentary. The audience was a mix of Korean families with well-behaved school age children, a few young adults, and more ahjussi/ahjumma age folks like myself. I was surprised to see the older folks in front of me put their feet up on the (unsold) seats in front of them like a bunch of teenagers! The theater is still as spotlessly clean as it was on my first visit. I got an aisle seat near the door (yay!) but forgot my notebook so I couldn’t take notes, and because I didn’t have my car with me, I didn’t have my spare notebook either. I still feel a little mentally foggy after the accident.

This time the concession stand had the dried squid snacks and seaweed snacks I had heard about. I had previously bought some dried squid on one of my forays to H-mart and they weren’t too bad, but nothing awesome. Now the seaweed crisps the theater sells–that’s another matter! I’m warning you now, these are totally addictive! They are not sold in the US just yet: Bibigo is negotiating with Costco and Walmart to bring them here. My guess is the theater must import them straight from South Korea. At a measly 87 calories in a pack, there’s no guilt either. I had the honey corn flavor, and they were absolutely delicious. Here’s a pic:

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Okay, on to the movie!

Here are the movie posters:

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I can’t get a strong translation of the words on the right, other than it refers to Seo Pyeong as a poor blue-eyed woman of Joseon. I’m still 100% dependent on my translator app. Credit to HanCinema.net

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Credit to HanCinema.net

Plenty of spoilers here….

In a strange twist, the documentary starts with a scene of the death and autopsy of Seo Pyeong (don’t worry–nothing too graphic for the queasy folks). Then her background story is revealed. Elisabeth Johanna Shepping was born in 1880 in Wiesbaden, Germany. Her mother was a maid who lived in a small town nearby and worked for one of the wealthy families who had a vacation home in Wiesbaden. The movie’s conclusion was that she became pregnant out of wedlock probably from one of the rich dudes she was working for; it was quite common back in those days. It was unclear if the relationship was by mutual consent or if it was rape. Since the father was not listed on the birth certificate; either way, it was obvious he wasn’t taking responsibility. My first thought was, “Gosh, just like a Kdrama!” With no father, young Elisabeth faced severe discrimination (sound familiar?) and her mother left her with her grandmother and took off for the US. Elisabeth was portrayed as a deeply introverted child who derived enjoyment from simple pleasures like dancing and playing in the rain outside by herself.

When Elisabeth was 12, her grandmother in Germany died and she was sent to the US to live with her mom and new stepfather. However, Mom was a hardline Roman Catholic, and severely rejected Elisabeth when she became a Protestant during her nursing school days.

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Nursing school grad photo. Credit to HanCinema.com

Elisabeth managed to graduate from nursing school at NY University and that’s when she heard about the need in Korea for skilled medical professionals. She left for Korea in 1912.

Elisabeth settled in the southwest part of Korea in the Jeolla province area. This area was particularly impoverished, having been exploited by the Japanese for some time. Women who were widows and orphans were in the worst shape, along with those suffering from Hansen’s disease aka leprosy. Elisabeth changed her name to Seo Seo Pyeong; the Chinese (Hanja) characters mean “slowly and calmly” which was the kind of life that she wanted to lead. She learned and spoke only Hangul, dressed in a simple hanbok and lived a spartan existence. Her motto was “Not Success, but Service” which was written near her bed.

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I liked this photo because her hair is up in braids as if she were in Germany….but she’s in Korea. It’s like I’m seeing a bridge between cultures here:

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Credit to HanCinema.net

Once she was in Korea, her health became problematic. The movie said she suffered from Sprue (?) and she eventually died from malnutrition in 1934 at the age of 54. It was not clear whether they meant Celiac sprue as in gluten sensitivity or Tropical Sprue. My guess would be the tropical sprue; although it usually occurs in more southern regions, it accounted for many deaths during WW2 among troops stationed in SE Asia. Today it’s easily treatable with antibiotics and folic acid/Vitamin B12 supplements, but in the early part of the 20th century, those were simply not available.

Even in declining health, she managed to adopt and care for 14 orphaned and/or abandoned girls.

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A photo of an older Seo Pyeong carrying one of her adopted children. Credit to HanCinema.net

Being rejected by her own mother must have given Seo Pyeong a keen understanding of the loneliness and pain of being abandoned. She started schools and established a silkworm farm, planting over 400 mulberry trees for the silkworms to nest in. This enabled the widows and girls to have a skill and earn money. I admit to getting a good chuckle out of persons who bash Christianity as exploiting women when missionaries like Seo Pyeong empowered women to become educated, literate, and have a legit profession so they could take care of themselves and their children–yunno, so they wouldn’t be exploited by men.

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From the movie: A younger Seo Pyeong teaching the girls Bible verses. Credit to HanCinema.net

The documentary emphasized that at that time in Korean society women were basically slaves; they could be bought and sold at their families’ discretion and were treated horribly. Seo Pyeong also traveled to Jeju Island and established schools and medical clinics there as well.

My feeling was that the entire production was meticulously researched by the Christian Global Network group who bankrolled this documentary. Interviews with the few persons still alive who remember her in Korea, plus all kinds of genealogical records are reviewed and there are interviews with scholars and church officials in Korean, English, and German. The subtitles are in English, and it’s narrated in Korean, but the movie switches languages many times.

The point was strongly made that unlike other missionaries who came to evangelize the Korean people and plant churches while living in fine homes with servants, Seo Pyeong and those that followed her came to care for the poverty-stricken, the ill and the downtrodden of Korean society while living among the people they served. I like that. One of my favorite sayings is: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

The biggest flaw of the documentary is that it’s somewhat disorganized; it can’t seem to decide if it’s gonna be a straight-up documentary or a movie that is going to tell a story. The cinematography is first rate and the film looks pretty good considering it probably was produced with a limited budget.

The German actress that plays Seo Seo Pyeong is Anna Rihlmann. She visited Korea as a teen and felt so connected to the culture that she learned the language and went back as the first foreign-born student to be accepted to study acting at the Korean National University of the Arts in 2015. How impressive is that?! Her English, German and Korean language skills are amazing, and she even looks a little like the photos of Seo Pyeong. She is the centerpiece of this documentary, and she brings the right vibe as a godly young woman who has the heart to help other women and children.

This reviewer (who I don’t usually agree with anyway!) felt that the movie exaggerated Seo Pyeong’s ‘angelic’ qualities, but I’d have to disagree on the grounds that her example led many others to dedicate their lives to also care for the poor and the sick. If she wasn’t “all that and a bag of chips“, her legacy would not have been emulated by others. This pastor of a DTLA Koreatown church who also reviewed the documentary felt that the message of the documentary was to ‘bounce back’. Even though Seo Pyeong’s health was not the best, she still strived to achieve what she felt God wanted her to do in Korea. I would like to quote this part of the review because it is relevant no matter what your religious viewpoint is: “It is not a problem to fall, but it is a problem to not stand up again. The person who can rise again every time he falls is an excellent person. Excellent people are not those who did not fail. They are those who rise again from the failure.”

Considering the two Kdramas I am watching right now: “The Best Hit” and “Fight for My Way” deal with major issues of failure and success, and the definition of those terms, this movie seemed particularly relevant. BTW, I highly recommend both of these shows; I am caught up to Episode 13 of “The Best Hit” and slightly behind at Episode 6 of “Fight for My Way”. So far, they are both daebak! I could certainly use hearing this message of “bounce back” too. I’ve had a couple of setbacks–and now I need to get back up again.

At about an hour and twenty minutes, the documentary is neither too long or too short. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, it’s a fascinating look into another part of Korean history during the “Chicago Typewriter” and “Bridal Mask” era of the 1920’s and 30’s. I had never heard of Elisabeth Shepping before seeing the trailer, and as a Christian, my interest in learning about her was probably greater than the average Kdrama viewer. If you have an interest in learning more about Korea in the early part of the 20th century or want to find out more about this remarkable woman and what she did for other women in Korea, I hope that the documentary is available soon on one of the streaming channels like DramaFever or Viki. I will update this post if/when I find out if it’s available online.

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