Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Social exclusion and the 'Journals of Musan'.

Sometimes I get the feeling that events over several days converge onto one point, presumably, to drive it home. Or maybe it's just that I tend to view life with the lens of the latest theory in my head (: Yesterday in class we talked about social exclusion, a concept that has recently become more useful when talking about issues such as poverty and unemployment.

Originating in Europe (like many other things!) where it was used to analyse high levels of unemployment in the 1980s, the concept of social exclusion is now 'popular' since we have started to see how problems are interlinked and often reinforce each other - poverty, housing, education, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, healthcare access, etc. The reason why it's so difficult to get out of such a 'dysfunctional' situation (like what we call a 'vicious cycle of poverty') is because these factors reinforce each other to create a situation of persistent advantage. Because of this, intervening upon one factor doesn't help - interventions are needed on several fronts.

We had to give some examples of socially-excluded groups in class, and I thought about the video I had just watched on Youtube about the homeless in Singapore. Just by a rough recollection of all the people I've seen begging, collecting recyclable materials, or selling small things like tissue paper, it seems that there's a group of elderly, less-educated (perhaps primary school education?) Chinese that seem to have fallen through the cracks. Clearly, they are shut out from the formal labour market, working as cleaners or street peddlers. If you have talked to any of them, what is their life story like?

Last night I saw 'The Journals of Musan', a film directed by Park Jung Bum, which chronicles the problems faced by Jeon Seung-Chul, a North Korean defector in South Korea. Because his ID card number starts with 125, a textile factory employer knows where he is from and doesn't want the risk of employing him. Thus we can see that the basis of entitlements or rights in South Korea (as in many other countries) is based on citizenship. If you have the right documents, you can access employment, healthcare, education, etc.

Seung-Chul thus does all kinds of informal, temporary (and sometimes dangerous) jobs, such as putting up posters. There is some sort of mafia of poster-pasting groups who guard their territory jealously, and he is repeatedly chased and beaten up by 2 mean-looking guys for putting up posters in their area. Since he has hardly any money, he can't get any medical attention for his injuries, buy new clothes, or get a haircut, which his helper (a detective) thinks would help him get a better job.

He goes to church, and he finds a job in the same karaoke bar as one of the women in his church. Towards the end of the movie he is brought to one of the prayer meetings by the detective in order to 'make some friends', but he ends up telling the prayer group about how he accidentally killed a man in North Korea out of desperation of having no food to eat.

Even though we talk about South Korea as a developed country, the film decides to tell the story of a socially-excluded group - defectors from North Korea. It seems that they are quietly accepted in the South, but nowhere near being included. The very basis for their inclusion is something out of their control - an ID number that does not start with 125. It's the same as people who are excluded because of their ethnic appearance, because it's not something that can be controlled either, and no amount of language fluency or cultural assimilation can help.

The film also shows seemingly neglected areas near Seoul - Seung-Chul lives near a demolished village, and there are many shots of him walking across hills of sand and broken concrete slabs on his way home. My fellow film-watcher also commented that Seoul does not seem 'as clean as it sounds', as the film shows littered streets and dirty streams under expressways.

While Seung-Chul tries his best to act according to his Christian beliefs, eventually he ends up stealing the savings of his roommate, whom he thought to be a 'thief and a crook'. But perhaps he deserved the money after all the terrifically bad luck he had been through. I guess this could also warn us of judging people based on one visible action, like stealing or killing, since there could be an entire story behind it.

Seung-Chul hides from his friend after promising to meet him at a bus-stop

I think it's a great film about the underside of modernity. While a city carries on with a capitalist throb and a mass consumption facade, there are groups of people like Seung-Chul who cannot fully participate in society due to circumstances out of their control, and there's not always a simple solution.

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