SPOILER ALERT: Not only will what I've written here spoil Oh, Soojung and Monster's Ball if you haven't seen them yet, but you won't be able to understand what I've written if you haven't seen them yet. This essay is merely some thoughts I had after viewing Monster's Ball.

Soojung! Attends the Monster's Ball

By Adam Hartzell

  Sometimes we can't see things until we see other things.

This maxim goes beyond right place, right time. To me, that maxim has always implied an epiphany. Out of nothing, the understanding of some construct or complexity is seen with clarity. It speaks of a metaphysical moment, per se, when we see the wonders of the world for why they're called wonders.

Sometimes we can't see things until we see other things privileges process over the miraculous. One travels to many places prior to getting to that right place; it takes time to get the right time. I don't mean to imply linearity here, nor that one thing always leads to another. I mean to argue that we may peripherally pass by Rothkos or Pollacks until we are forced to see solid hues or controlled chaos in our own lives.

A recent example of what I'm stumbling towards is how I read the visual text of Monster's Ball (Mark Forster, 2001). At the end of the film, when Billy Bob Thornton's character, Hank, says to Leticia, played by Halle Berry, that "I think we're going to be alright," we know, from what we've witnessed in the film, that is, from what we know, that this is not "true", nor need it be. I can accept the moment as is, the ambiguity and ambivalence of it all, without needing to lay some idea of truth upon it.

Conditioned by Romance film after Romance film to find True Love on the screen, and, thus, never in our real lives, to seek celluloid soulmates rather than ambivalent partners, we may see this film as confusing. (Or worse, we may try to force an argument of True Love upon the film as if to continue our genre of denial.) Monster's Ball's ending doesn't fit within our tropes, especially in the tropes of Romance films that deal with interracial relationships. Love is supposed to conquer all. Love sees no color. Monster's Ball knows love isn't all there is. No, Hank and Leticia's love is not true in the sense of perfect union, it is ambivalent and that is OK for now because, well, what else we got? Or, as Tina Turner crooned, "What's Love Got to Do with It?"

Oh! Soojung Had it not been for HONG Sang-Soo's Oh, Soojung! (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, 2000), which I had first seen almost a full year prior, I may have been stuck, upon viewing Monster's Ball, in the confusion caused by the ropes of tropes past. Hong's choice to black and white Oh, Soojung did its job, keeping from us the distractions caused by technicolored hues, that is, the extraneous. Black-and-white-ing this film provided a filter of grey to help us see the complexity rather than impose simplicity on the days we witness twice.

The hearty center of Oh, Soojung's doubletakes of the courtship between Jae Hoon, an older, independently wealthy man, played by JUNG Bo-Seok, and Soojung, played by LEE Eun-Ju, a young struggling female video producer, are bookended by Jae Hoon traveling to a love motel reservation with Soojung and the actual consummation of that encounter later. The encyclopedic detail of the middle shows us how each party has interpreted their relationship. Hong has expertly laid out each character's details and manifestations to place equal doubt as to the truth of what really happened. Scenes from Jae Hoon's interpretation are revisited in Soojung's interpretation but with completely different dialogue. And verbatim, repeating dialogue occurs in each character's details, but in completely different environs.

All this prepares us to see the ambivalence in JaeHoon and Soojung's I-Love-You's after the loss of Soojung's virginity. The muddy middles of the film are to be seen as he-said-AND-she-saids rather than the he-said/she-said mono-views of the meat of the film. Sex for the first time, and after a long absence for that matter, can be, more often than not, painful for one partner and less than pleasurable for the other. Soojung's agony is apparent to all of us, except Jae Hoon, whose promises of "I'll be gentle" twist quickly into political lies. The fact that they revel in their "love" for each other after such a moment is disturbing. It saddens me that Soojung and Jae Hoon would see this as love, but unlike David Bowie, Hong doesn't show us Heroes for even one day. Here, we see two people settling for something lesser, which is what's so unsettling about the scene.

Jae Hoon and Soojung's is not True Love, and perhaps misnamed "love." (Oh, if only we had the gradations in our lexicon for "love" that Eskimos are claimed to have for "snow".) In his orchestration, Hong has helped us sift through their fantasies, our fantasies, to see the ambivalence of the real.

This lesson from Hong helps me see the real ambivalence that is the focus of Monster's Ball. And it is yet another sex scene that exemplifies this. When Leticia and Hank get nasty, we are forced to deal with all the conflicting emotions this scene arouses for them and us. First off, for many of us, the sex is hella HOT! However, we know they are drunk when it begins and there may be some of us in the audience who aren't comfortable with such inebriated beginnings of carnal knowledge. Also, we know both are in pain from the loss of their respective children. Thus, they are full of all the self-blame that parents feel when their children die. Plus, we know the lie of the secret about which only a few moments ago Hank became aware. That is, that he tied Leticia's husband to the electric chair. Top all this off with the absence of prophylactics after we know that Hank frequents the towns local prostitute, also un-protected, thus increasing his chances of already having an STD and thus passing one on to Leticia. We have to hold all the conflicting emotions generated by our knowledge during this scene. Not only was this a tough scene to watch, to stay with all those emotions while not suppressing a single one, it must have been a difficult scene to do.

Monster's Ball Surrounding this scene is the acknowledgement of the White Privileges of Hank and the limitations of Leticia's life due to the tangled weave of race/gender/class. (Hong addresses the unequal power relations of gender and class with Soojung's financial struggle and Jae Hoon's class-privileged obliviousness to as common a Korean experience as taking the subway. Jae Hoon, forever chauffeured around, is as unfamiliar with a train map as he is with a circuit schematic.) We are aware of their limited choices and that Hank has more options available than Leticia. And we are also aware that they are human. And many of us humans need touch and, every so often, it's nice to have another's tongue in our mouths or on our genitals. Some of us enjoy this more than others. As some of us need more or less carbohydrates in our diets, we each need varying degrees of carnality to maintain emotional health. Sometimes we make more of the relationships with benefits than they really justify, maintaining at times relationships that are less than the best for us. In this relationship between Leticia and Hank, no one says "I Love You." Their actions simply say "I Need You." I need you to better get through these desolate days.

We don't know what the future will bring. Leticia, after discovering the sketches her executed husband drew for Hank and his son, reacts to the conflicting emotions that her discovery stirs up. Her shaky response when Hank returns is ambiguous. We don't know how to read her at this moment because Leticia doesn't know how to read herself. She sits down on the stoop with her emotional turbulence, asking us to do the same thing. We don't really know if Leticia is OK, so Hank's testament that all is going to be OK is left indiscernible, as unfathomable as the vast space they look out into towards the credits of the film. We are left holding the ambivalence that is more often what life gives us rather than certainty.

It's easier for me to see this now since I've been to the movies.

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Koreanfilm.org, posted July 27, 2003.