Sometimes revolutions start from very small steps.
And the one made by blockbuster documentary Tears of the Arctic (북극의 눈물)
was among the most surprising, and in many ways welcome steps in the history of modern Korean entertainment. For years relegated to prohibitive late night escapades or equally grueling daytime TV slots, fighting off hordes of agitated housewives populating daily dramas and/or morning talk shows where the hottest subject in town is how to make kimchi a little less smelly, Korean documentaries had always struggled to make a mark. It would be rather naive to negate the several trial and error periods which marked the genre's recent history during this transition, but if one thing is for sure is that many Koreans have changed their view regarding documentaries, catapulting this once neglected portion of the Korean Wave to potential show stealer status. To make this revolution possible, what producers and writers did was taking a small step in the opposite direction - certainly incurring risks of collapse, but guided by a feeble glimmer of hope that things could truly change for the better.
When you really get down to it, there were two essential problems: know how and mainstream acceptance. For years the three major stations had tried to compete with big names like National Geographic, BBC, NHK and The History Channel at their own game, but the inevitable lack of experience in this field meant that you always were getting second best, despite noble intentions and creative ideas. Solving that problem, of course, could be feasible down the line, as the industry would eventually mature and learn from its mistakes. Changing the public's prospective was a little more difficult, considering the prevalent view among viewers - the idea that documentaries were low budget and boring tirades about nature and science, themes so seemingly far away from the national psyche and their everyday lives that they made the process seem like science fiction, without the exciting story to back it up. Those two issues are exactly what this resurgence shown by Korean documentaries as of late has addressed, first on the big screen with the shocking success story of Old Partner (워낭소리)
, and now on TV, with Tears in the Arctic
set to become the flagbearer of this new, exciting revolution.
Over the last decade, we've been bombarded by countless films and documentaries dealing with global warming, many heavily drenched in political colors, nuances which always tend to distance people from the real matters at hand. No matter what MBC and its team of veteran producers created, it likely wasn't going to scream louder on the evils of climate change than Al Gore and his An Inconvenient Truth
did, or astound the viewership with technical marvels like BBC's landmark Planet Earth
series. So they took a step back, which might very well lead to the step forward the industry so fervently needed: they kept things simple, largely devoid of politics or sanctimonious Armageddon theories, and focus on what today's documentary scene often forgets to do, in the name of technological advancement and the need to indoctrinate its viewers. They let people and nature speak much louder than words, and added a touch of that sentimentalism which characterizes Korean culture in more ways than one. Or, better yet, sentimental realism.
Realism because Tears of the Arctic
, despite its blockbuster-like production values and immense scope, refuses to sugarcoat the truth: focusing on the difficulties a group of Inuit whale hunters is facing due to the melting North Pole, the show depicts their hunting sessions - as "hardcore" as they might feel - without any hesitation or malice, highlighting their often frustrating journey of adaptation. It follows a group of polar bears and the increasingly harsh conditions they're facing, straits which affect the entire Arctic food chain, from reindeer down to sea lions. Just like life, it has its moments of cruelty, of irony which almost smells of black comedy, and poignant reminders of how frail and helpless life can turn out being, be it that of a grumpy Inuit hunter or an entire ecosystem. By telling it like it is and highlighting the most humane traits of this subject, Tears of the Arctic
does what many much more prestigious colleagues often forget: making us realize that documentaries are not just about multi-million dollar budgets and arguments which feel distant, or fodder for political discourse. Narrated by legendary veteran actor Ahn Sung Gi and his unmistakably suave aplomb, this little gem helped rewrite the books for what concerns Korean documentaries, and jump-started a revolution which has reinvigorated the once dormant local documentary scene.
And, think about it. All it took was taking a step back, and observing what really mattered, tears included.
Watch Tears of the Artic on DramaFever!
Also known as Tears in the Arctic