by Jason Suzuki
Unlike No Money, No Future, another recent Korean documentary that centers on an underground hardcore band, Jung Yoon-suk's film benefits from the humor and irreverence of its subject: the punk duo Bamseom Pirates. Consisting of drums and bass, think something closer to Ruins than other instrumentally similar acts, their songs are brief and ridiculous. Powerpoints are utilized as ways for people to read their lyrics, but the cheesy Microsoft slide templates are just another way bassist Jang Sung-geon (aged 29) and drummer Kwon Yong-man (aged 31) resist from appearing like they take themselves too seriously. One of their signature tunes "All Hail Kim Jung-il!" gives brief biographies on other people throughout history that happen to share the name with the famous leader to the North. Their shows also consist of rest periods to smash up junk and banter between the two musicians and the audience. Jung's film is a music documentary that has found the perfect group to explore contemporary Korean concerns, all within an area of music rarely seen.
Most of their performances are part of larger anti-establishment events whether in protest of military bases or the privatization of a college campus. In one instance a performance is disrupted by paid rioters courtesy of the construction company they are demonstrating against. The fact they are truly not in it for money or fame is what makes these two and their process an easy way to pass the two hour running time. At one of their shows they tell the crowd where they can go to pirate their music.
The film finds multiple ways to showcase the music without distraction. It's Jang and Kwon's form of expression therefore important in understanding them as artists but the music, specifically the lyrics, provide important context to the second half of the film when their friend/producer Park Jung-geun is arrested for violating the National Security Law after ironically retweeting posts from a North Korean account. The film is broken up by visually busy "music videos" for the songs. Explosions, portraits of politicians, and footage of military exploits. These are useful moments to become acquainted with Kwon's lyrics. In regards to his lyrics we get a brief interview with a college professor discussing the lyrics, taking them more seriously than the band would ever be caught dead doing. It might seem an unnecessary inclusion as their should be no doubt that there is wit and strong political conscious to the Pirates.
Once Park's trial is underway the Bamseom Pirates' music gets scrutinized. It's unfortunate to see a political climate where there is no room for sarcasm and satire. Arguably there is no intelligence for it. This section of the film recalls Kim Ki-duk's most recent: The Net where tactics and behaviors most associate with the North Korean regime are also to be found in the South, and from here a tragicomedy is born out of the irony of the situation. Nonetheless it is interesting to see confrontational music get confronted. We see how careful Kwon is in making sure it is clear to the audience what they are lampooning and in protest of, all without ever losing the entertainment value. The biggest miscommunication they faced is ostensibly with the man.
There's a sense of responsibility the band has when their friend is arrested for an act of humor that's in a similar vein to what they try to do with their shows. We see that what they're doing is actually edgy, these two are not just taking on easy targets. It takes a toll on the band but it doesn't feel like a typical rock-doc. They are a rare breed; musically adventurous, concerned with the social ills of their time, and use humor to their advantage, something that has always hurt musicians from being taken seriously.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.