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Another shade of blue: so strange, so familiar

by Kaori Shoji
Chong
Rating: * * * Director: Lee Sang Il Running time: 54 minutes Language: JapaneseOpens April 21 as the morning and late show at Box Higashi Nakano Theater

“Chong” is a derogatory term for the zainichi — descendants of Koreans brought to Japan. But “Chong” the movie tells you that it’s also the Korean word for “blue.” How strange that this word, so spiked with political gunpowder and consequently banned from public airwaves, should turn out to have another, altogether innocent meaning.

Hidekazu Majima in Lee San Il’s “Chong”

“Chong,” a stunning film debut by 26-year-old Lee Sang Il, explores the world of young zainichi teens in urban Japan, a subject which, like the title, is loaded with the kind of thorny political connotations that could cause a theater full of Japanese audiences to break out in eczema. But scratch the surface and the story underneath is bright, funny and surprisingly familiar.

“Chong” is somewhat autobiographical since Lee himself was schooled at a chosen gakko (Korean school) until college. To the average Japanese, these schools are shrouded in mystery and off-limits to non-zainichi. But this much they do hear: Classes are held in Korean, and framed portraits of Kim Il-Sung adorn the walls in every classroom. Girls come to school in traditional Korean dress and boys are renowned for being hot-tempered and violent. One does not mess with a chosen kid and one does not ask a chosen girl out.

“Chong” doesn’t really do anything to convince us otherwise; after the movie, you still don’t want to mess with a chosen kid. The opening scene shows two Japanese thugs facing a pair from a chosen gakko in a dark alley.

“Don’t act so tough,” says the Japanese. “Do you have any proof that you’re genuine Chong?” Upon hearing this, one of the pair pulls out an I.D. “See this?” The thug takes it and reads: “Alien Registration Card.”

He pales. He bows. “Oh, we had no idea. We are soooo sorry!”

The incident reminds us how zainichi kids are forced to carry registration cards, even if their family settled here generations ago and there is nothing to tell them apart from the rest of the populace. They watch the same TV, go in for Ayu and Morning Musume, have the same sort of conversations and share the same adolescent problems. So why should one group be called “foreign” and not the other?

To say that national identity is the dividing factor is a cop-out: The Koreans in this film (and the young Japanese in the real world) are genuinely confused about national identity. One scene, in which a Korean school student talks about seeing a soccer match between Japan and South Korea, neatly depicts this: “The South Korean team was so cool, singing the national anthem and looking like they meant it, you know? But I realized that I didn’t know any of those guys, you know? But the Japanese team . . . I knew them, I knew their moves, I wanted to support them! So I was like, torn up and it was so weird, you know?”

For actors, Lee used young Japanese with little or no experience. The story revolves around Tesong (Hidekazu Majima) and Hyongi (Takashi Yamamoto), good friends at a chosen gakko where they both play baseball. The team, however, has no chance of competing in the national tournaments unless okayed by a slew of government ministries. Tesong wants to be able to compete in the “real, outside world” against the Japanese, but at the same time he feels an uneasiness for wanting to do so. His desire to be accepted is constantly locking horns with his desire to isolate and differentiate himself from the Japanese — the zainichi dilemma.

Lee matches the story to simple, stark visuals. He always makes sure the landscape is uncluttered. The sky is a pale blue and elsewhere there’s very little color. For all the emotions and confusion festering in the characters, “Chong” moves slowly and quietly, each frame pensive, contemplative. This is certainly unlike any of the recent Korean imports, nor does it recall any of the Japanese hits. Not a Korean thing, not a Japanese thing, this must be a new genre called the Zainichi Thing. And to this, we bow.