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Essay

The Forgotten War

MY MOTHER INHERITED her father’s war letters before immigrating to America, and by the time she passed them on to me, after my daughter was born, much of the text was illegible, a language lost to a fragile medium, pencil marks on paper the weight of ash. The disintegration had begun at the folds, where the treasures—opened, read, and returned to envelopes in silence—bore the grief of the ritual that survived him. My mother must have searched the blurry margins, wondering if the corrupt characters held a secret, final end to the matter.

With your life of caring for my family, I think of the suffering and pain that befell you. Please give your family my greetings also. It goes without saying that I know the honor you bear on my behalf. My greatest curiosity is if the delivery went well! That is a question! Owing to your worries and prayers, the battle progresses each day. Don’t have the slightest worry for me, for I’m content with life. Suffer just a little longer, and we will have a good life together.

This, the final letter, endures on a better quality of paper, in careful penmanship, a letter to his wife who could hardly read; the heft and clarity of Korean script reveals a sympathy for her illiteracy, and the effort he made to accommodate it has helped it outlast the others. The other letters, to his father and brothers, are in a state of rapid decay that matches the haste with which they were written. The crossings-out and scribbled inscriptions suggest the thoughts of a soldier forming words during momentary lulls in a furious movement across the peninsula. The brothers, a family of bookish scholars, in turn wrote in the margins, circling fragments and joining them athwart to uncover any meaning lost in his last words. Here is the Chinese character for courage; there, the Korean word for dream. I wonder what the brothers deciphered when they reached the passage:

Often I must [?]
in this night’s still moon,
become like that young man who hears [?]
as the old song goes.

The letter to my grandmother is simple enough that an American-born fool, illiterate in Korean by circumstance, can read it; I know to admire its clarity and precision, to see that it was written from a draft and completed with care; after all, this is a love letter. In it, the twenty-four year old breaks from formality into a passage resembling the irrational, secret talk between couples who burst into song:

My greatest curiosity is if the delivery went well!

But my grandmother’s response failed to reach him in time:

The delivery went well! Your daughter,
healthy and spirited, arrived in March!

Decades later, the National Archives of Korea expressed interest in acquiring these letters, but my mother refused, for they contained the only physical evidence that her father thought of her. I marvel at the weight of these few words, a question asked in the middle of war by a soldier eager for a child’s arrival. After my daughter was born, my mother told me it was time I take care of the letters. I didn’t need to ask why.

 

Thirty-Eighth Parallel

An armistice was signed in 1953, but the Korean War didn’t end. The agreement was simply meant to pause it. My father spoke of the distinction from his days as a soldier on the border when he’d wake to find some hapless soldier dead by gunfire from the other side, and it happened all the time, he said. One night you peer into that chasmic darkness to the north and think about your double peering back, identical in every way save for a star on his helmet and a serge of green instead of gray, and you’re possessed with an itch to fire a bullet against the farce, but you fall asleep instead—to learn in the morning that the devil had coaxed your double, for you have to bury a friend. Can you believe it? he said. You’re the age I was then. Nineteen. That’s how the story ended, one summer evening on our way home from Saving Private Ryan.

Many of his life stories have surfaced from our moviegoing, owing to the undue significance movies have had in our lives; I could even say they have a way of meddling in our family history, a tendency I confronted just before I was born when my father dragged my heavy-laden mother to see Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. I wasn’t due for a month, but the reverberations of the stoner comedy stirred me to life and interrupted their viewing. Hours later, a quiet art-house filmmaker was born. Life can be strange. At times I wonder if Up in Smoke hides a special insight, a key to my existence, but there is nothing to unravel, my mother says, aside from the mysterious depths of my father’s film addiction; he was upset that her water broke because he wanted to see how the movie ended.

My father’s devotion to cinema began as postwar renewal reached his childhood village an hour outside of Seoul. Surveyors arrived from the city to measure the road, calculating the width and camber needed to replace Japanese macadam with American bedrock and tar in a construction project that lasted for weeks. An army of village boys, including my father, assembled as spectators, watching the procession of front-loaders and graders until the final signs of reconstruction and growing wealth in Seoul concluded in a denouement of automobiles sailing the tarmac to find the coast. Fearing that their show had ended, my father led the boys to manufacture a twist, a second rise in action, by forming magnificent speed bumps out of dirt, low enough that drivers couldn’t see them, but high enough to send cars flying. “It gave us hours of entertainment,” my father said, “to hear the metal crunch, to see grown men get out and curse!” It’s no wonder he came to love the movies.

His first encounter came in 1956, when the new road carried a traveling cinema from Seoul that set up a 35mm projector inside a canvas big top tent near the village center. Unable to purchase a ticket, my father waited for nightfall, then crept along the outer wall, where a simple lift of the curtain let him peek inside. Lying on the ground, he heard the clamor of foreign tongues and saw the impossible images of cowboys. My father was so astonished that he failed to see the candy butcher approach, cross his arms, and plant his boot upon my father’s head.

In later months, he found safer ways to watch the screen; he peeked through vents or tears in the canvas until one day he learned to duplicate movie tickets from discarded stubs. The counterfeit tickets allowed him an unencumbered view of the world beyond the garden, a clarity that roused a growing frustration that history had advanced with carnivals of progress, while here he remained in the village, held behind by dirt. After he had seen enough, he asked my grandfather for a chance to escape, to study and work in Seoul, but my grandfather, having provided my eldest uncle a college education, told my father to remain on the farm, for the family couldn’t risk selling more land. My father clung to him anyway and begged, until, as he recalled, the two of them sat in the rows of crops and cried. Weeks later, my father had his first legitimate ticket, a bus voucher for Seoul, received in exchange for a vow that he would become a rich man—one who, like a hero of the Old West, rescues his little brothers and sisters from the wilderness.

When he arrived, he found a city caught up in the same spirit of capitalism that had brought him. Every good was risked and tendered upon a bet of riches. Western credit stockpiled steel and brick to festoon residential blocks with factories, the grid-glass structures rising like anthills, hiding a fury of work inside. My father graduated from high school, spent time in the military along the DMZ, and then found work in a sock factory, joining laborers in seven-day workweeks, five-year plans, and twelve-o’-clock curfews, their bodies wrecking balls making way for the construction of a new nation, one that promised fortune and a lack of shame.

Even then, my father remained faithful to cinema, skipping meals to afford occasional tickets at dollar theaters where a single entry fee granted a double or triple feature of Hollywood films. Lower-class cinemas like these were junkyards for film prints, the final stop after months-long theatrical runs at upscale theaters. The prints arrived so scratched that in every movie, it looked like it was pouring rain. Sometimes it fell sideways, he said, other times up instead of down. He remembered a time he saved enough money to watch three features in a row—mobsters, lovers, and chariots, all soaked with rain in a glorious night. What did you eat? I asked. I ate movies, he said.

Cinema meant more to his generation than any film has meant to mine. Some watched five or six films a day, he said. The 1960s and ’70s, the decades of South Korea’s rapid development, corresponded with an insatiable hunger for Hollywood pictures, and to meet demand, developers turned the city’s oldest district into a center for moviedom, erecting theaters near the palaces of the ancient Joseon kings, where young people stood in lines to survey mythic figures like Rock Hudson and Cary Grant. A nation of scrap-wage laborers huddled under faded prints and studied Hollywood’s dim mirrors, imagining what South Korea could become: the country of han, fateful sadness, transfigured by the discovery of a hero’s journey, a call to adventure, the triumph of good over evil.

Perhaps this is why my father speaks of the screenings in hallowed terms. To him the films were parables, fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. He claims that Charlton Heston led him to receive the Word and be baptized, and often asks me to make a God-fearing film like Ben-Hur.

But after he married my mother, when my older sister was about to be born, a new thought intruded upon him. Under the cloud of fatherhood, each movie suggested a growing chasm between who he was and what he had vowed to be. He began to suspect that no amount of work in Korea could attain the perfection he saw on screen, and that if he wanted to fulfill his promise to my grandfather, he had better pursue the source of the images. One fateful night he saw a late screening of Giant, the George Stevens film about a Texas rancher who refuses to drill his land for oil because there’s too much of it—because wealth might disrupt his contented life herding cattle. In the film, my father discerned the peculiar dilemma of America’s progress, that money had become too abundant and people didn’t know what to do with it. As the theater emptied, he decided he’d better move to America and experience the problem himself.

I tried to watch Giant again this year after I learned of the role it had played in our family story. My three-year-old daughter kept closing my laptop screen, and the film is over three hours long, so I didn’t gather much from it other than a reminder of why I watch few films these days. In any case, I concluded that the life my father encountered in America was very different from the Technicolor happiness playing on my computer screen.

He left Korea in the spring, his first airplane flight, having waited for my sister to be born, not so she could make the trip, but so he could say goodbye. He spent the next two years in the Rocky Mountains alone, starting with two hundred dollars in his pocket and working double shifts as a janitor and busboy to save enough money for his wife and daughter to join him. He wrote them love letters: Suffer just a little longer, and we will have a good life together. When they finally arrived, mother and daughter fell into bed, exhausted from their journey, but my father couldn’t sleep, astir with excitement like shepherds drawn to see a child. My sister awoke and asked my mother, Why is this man in our bed?

After I was born, my father attempted the dream of Giant again. He tried to move us to a ranch in Texas but had to settle for Arkansas instead; he searched for valleys seeping with oil but found backwoods overrun with chickens. My parents were part of a generation of Korean migrants who were recruited all over the world to take jobs that others scorned, from coalmining in Bavaria to laying sewage lines in Saudi Arabia. In northwest Arkansas, Koreans were sought to sex chickens, which, to dispel any unnatural ideas, means they were asked to identify the genders of two thousand hatchlings a day, to thumb with precise yet gentle perusal tiny genital bumps that distinguish cockerel from pullet.

They took me to see the workplace when I was a boy. Korean workers sat amidst dust and heat at plywood tables arranged in circular stations, individual work lamps illuminating, with searing halation, the concentrated spaces before each sorter. Attired like doctors in masks and white coats, they appeared to have fallen for the ruse of pulling a feathery rope that had no end. Each worker had two hatchlings flowing through his or her hands at a time. Given the speed of the work, the details were easy to miss: one hand took up a chick, directing a mustard squeeze of bowel into a coffee tin as the opposite hand drew a freshly emptied anus to the eye. As that hand placed the chick in its proper bin, the other hand began the cycle anew.

Outside, a towering machine roared like a grain combine, funneling a stream of chicks to a grinder where they were shredded for disposal. A little bird managed to tumble from a bin and gather its wits before a mustached worker lobbed the wet critter back into the funnel. The worker saw me watching and nodded politely. They don’t want the males, my father said; the females lay eggs, and their meat tastes good; males have no use, so this is what happens. The machine dripped with sluice at its far end, and I suppose I took the warning to heart. It was quite a thing to encounter as a boy.

And now I am my father’s double, thirty-eight, the age he was then. I wonder about the itch we feel, the discontent that begins to possess a man in his mid-life at slow progress and work left undone, the limits one couldn’t overcome, the sacrifices that were made. As father and son stood before the machine of reckoning, did he have the picture shows in mind? Men lost to fantasy were gathered together in theaters like eggs under mechanical warmers. This one saw Giant and had come to America expecting to rule the roost, but here he spent his days shuffling his hands through manic clutches of chickens and finger-staining shit, steps away from a terrible machine where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. He thought the fourteen-hour shifts and secluded Ozark life would be a transitory measure, a way to save for a business he could fund in two or three years. How could he have known it would take fifteen, that he would have to find the strength to struggle against fate, resentments, humiliations, and the artificial borders that poverty can build within a family? The movies hadn’t prepared him, because Hollywood doesn’t know what work is.

 

American Dream

A dream sequence stands at the midpoint of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times that reveals, to me, its difference from the films of today. At this break in the narrative, the two tramps, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (their characters don’t have names) sit on the lawn of a suburban home and imagine life inside the modest one-story house behind them. This is no sunken-face moment meant to elicit our pity; the two seem happier daydreaming on the lawn as vagrants than they are when we cut to the fantasy that follows: Chaplin and Goddard walk about the house with indifferent expressions like fashion models. They have their pick of everything they desire. Fruit hangs from the doorway; a cow dispenses milk at the back door. Their calm demeanor gives way at the dinner table when they tear apart Texas-sized steaks with violent gestures of animal hunger. The fantasy ends with Charlie on the lawn matching the action, smiling and aping a fork and knife with empty hands, his grace restored. He appears to be human again. “I’ll do it!” he says, offering a precise articulation of the American dream: “We’ll get a home even if I have to work for it!”

I have seen uncanny echoes of the scene in other movies, but they fail to approach the insight of Chaplin’s version. In Far and Away, also at the exact midpoint, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise play two vagrants who break into a rich man’s home; they sit at the dining table and fantasize about the life they could have as its owners. “Let’s pretend this house is ours,” Nicole Kidman says. Her fantasy isn’t about food but love itself: “that you are my husband and I am your wife. Pretend you love me.” Their role-playing leads them to kiss, and the camerawork employs a soft filter to capture the moment in a close-up, a contrast to the gritty camerawork that has, up until now, focused on the actors’ bodies, groped or beaten as new immigrants to America. In a reversal of Chaplin’s vision, fantasy gives the two vagrants their humanity; it avails them love.

David Fincher adheres to this spirit in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, when Benjamin Button and his love interest, both vagrants of time, find their lives aligning within a picture of the ideal, much like a fantasy, also at the midpoint of the narrative. Benjamin Button sells his immense inheritance and buys a suburban home with his lover: “It was the happiest time of my life. We didn’t have a stick of furniture. We would have picnics in the living room. We ate when we felt like it. Stayed up all night if we wanted. We vowed never to fall into routine, to go to bed or wake up at the same time. We lived on that mattress.” Their love blooms within fantasy, amid surplus that fulfills every desire, represented by happy images of boating, painting walls, and buying furniture, a montage that resembles an advertisement’s depiction of love and its insistence that consumption, unburdened by struggle or labor, allows love to thrive.

The comic genius of Chaplin’s fantasy is that it unveils no such secrets, no mystical meaning; the American dream yields nothing more than food. Only when the Tramp awakens does his gaze return to his lover.

In the final scenes of Modern Times, the plot leaves the two companions with nothing, befitting a story that offers one of cinema’s truest depictions of poverty. Yet few films approach the image of abundance that follows. The two tramps sit on the side of a barren road, pausing to reflect upon despair, but they determine to smile instead, to continue onwards with a life that—over and against fantasy’s obligation to desire—is given to the fullness of the other.

They repeat the gesture that has carried them through their travails: clinging together in their suffering, they depart into the unknown. Modern Times offers an image of love as the beginning of our humanity, immanent in the dust that forms it, not a magic elixir to be attained. We have it without fantasy, without obstacles. It persists in streets, in factories, in dirty shoes that are much too large, in my father who scarred his hands to give his children all he could. “Buck up—never say die. We’ll get along,” the Tramp says. Suffer just a little longer, for we venture together to a possible world.

 

1988

In the summer of 1988, the Holy Spirit slayed my mother and father somewhere near Springfield, Missouri. Whereupon I heard the story of a boy whose one leg was shorter than the other, and whose leg, after a prayer from a prophet, grew before him like a magic vine. And now here she was, knocking on our door, a prophet I didn’t expect to be so small, decorated with cheekbones and glasses, with the gruff movements of one who doesn’t give a damn about grace and tenderness, because she has the Holy Spirit instead. “You know the story about the leg,” my mother said. “Now she’s come to pray for your heart.”

On the second floor, I sat in a circle with my two friends, the one who became a lawyer and the other who became a professor, and the prophet sat to my right with her hand on my chest, atop the blood that seeped and caused each rib to hum. The prophet told me that nothing could be done if I didn’t open my heart to pray a muddled repetition of hallelujahs for God and his counsel to loosen my tongue and alight upon me like a flame—for I must come to know God. The two others said, well, let’s give it a try. That afternoon, each of us fell backward in the commotion of heat and noise, and once we had recovered I felt my buzzing heart, wondering why the fluttering dove had not mended the hole. “That was weird,” the future professor said.

The adults ended the evening in the living room, in front of a television that kept vigil on the Olympics in Seoul, for that summer we let the channel play without ceasing. Airship cutaways of city skyline and pillow shots of plazas gave us our daily glimpses of new wealth, the signs and wonders of South Korean democracy, which, through protests and martyrdom, had arrived a year earlier. My father said a great battle had ended and our people had changed forever, but now I wonder if he was talking about himself, because that summer he put away his cups of wrath, and a new man, fettered and possessed by prayer, was born and remains with us today.

By October, the Ozark Mountain Korean Church, founded on the holy whims of chicken sexers, drew up sides for a war about the Pentecostal matter, fighting each other with talk of the occult and secret meetings, until the rift had grown too large and the smallest Korean congregation in the country split into two flocks of equal and painfully miniscule size. I am certain you haven’t read the history, so I will try to tell it. In Arkansas, Korean children of incompatible ages and hobbies were forced to play together because their parents either spoke in tongues or did not.

This was still the state of affairs the following winter, when my parents attended a meeting in town and sent me upstairs to play with children I didn’t know. How unprepared I was when my mother called me downstairs to tell me that another prophet had come, from Oklahoma, one who at a mere twelve years old had overcome whatever was deficient in age and experience with childlike purity. She was the first Korean girl I had ever met, aside from my sister, and I didn’t know that my nature was to fall in love with them. I was so flustered I couldn’t speak. “She has a gift for prophecy. She knows what’s in your heart,” a woman said. How unprepared I was—I had better hide my feelings, I thought, and Movies! Movies!—while the girl prayed for healing in the tongues of angels.

Then she prophesied, “You have a hole in your heart where the Holy Spirit can come and go.” Her discernment awed me and changed my infatuation to reverence, that is, until three years ago when my daughter was born and I began to wonder if my mother hadn’t told the prophet everything before calling me downstairs. I can hear her begging the little prophet, telling her that her son was sick and needed prayer more than prophesy. Now that I held my child, I knew I would have done the same.

When we left the house, my father knelt on the concrete and put his head against my heart, his ear to the whir that murmured nothing’s changed. He walked around the beaten car, his demeanor threatening—the vacant glance down the block, the slump into his driver’s chair—an inevitable return from religious fervor to futility. Then I longed for what the prophet had said before we prayed, that I might see a vision from God because young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams. As we began our drive, I told them I had seen an image while we prayed. “Did you,” said my mother, not as a question but to fill the silence. My father watched the road. “It was an angel over our home,” I said. No one said anything else after that.

At times I try to imagine the vision. When I told my lie, born from a wild idea that an invented picture could overcome the dark, the image I chose must have come from a movie. I have since forgotten the film but have set out to make my own. I have learned the differences between eighteen and twenty-four frames a second, incident light and reflective light, shutter speed and shutter angle, the vision growing all the while more elaborate in my mind, yet with each attempt, it retreats a step beyond my ability to capture it.

I have worked for fourteen years, the length of Jacob’s labor, searching for an image that could echo the first love letter, the words that commanded: light. Could an image find the timbre that filled the vast night; could it overtake the darkness that keeps us from each other? Or are we doomed to chase the illumination more than its source, to love a picture more than the absent lover it renders?

It’s white and dirty, throwing off flecks and streaks of light that stain the dark, fouling everything like a dying moth. Wings beat the air with an incandescence sometimes flickering, sometimes embering, carrying the arriving angel. It hovers over our wooden home that took too many years to build, sending tremors through the beams and joists, stirring us awake. We gather together, my father, mother, sister, and I, and it bids us to keep watch as the night turns blue, the color of advent. Then it enters the upstairs room, to rest beside my grandmother, a Korean War widow who sold her home and bid farewell to clan and country, arriving in Arkansas to raise two children while their parents worked, who surrendered her strength in the last days of 1988 to a second stroke, but not before teaching me how to read a love letter.

Often I must [where two or three are gathered together]
in this night’s still moon,
become like that young man who hears [the spirit of God arrive]
as the old song goes.


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