Midnight Runners, an action comedy which has attracted more than 5 million moviegoers, is receiving back lash over perpetuating stereotypes against Korean-Chinese people and their Seoul neighborhood.
These people are Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity, often known as “Joseon-jok”, who came to Korea to work and reside in their country of ancestry. Many settled in Seoul’s Daerim-dong, creating a Chinatown near Daerim station.
Midnight Runners portrays Daerim-dong as a crime-ridden district. The main characters, two male students at the Korean National Police University, fight Korean-Chinese human traffickers in a Chinese restaurant in the area. Their taxi driver says, “Only Joseon-joks live here. Many don’t even have passports, and they fight with knives at night. Even the police don’t come here.”
“(The movie) excessively smeared Chinese compatriots and depicted the neighborhood of Daerim as a hotbed of crime, thwarting the efforts of 700,000 Korean-Chinese compatriots and South Korean society to coexist and revamp the community’s image as safe and lively,” said Park Ok-sun, chairwoman of Daerimdong Countermeasure Committee, in a press conference on Aug. 31.
Movie Rock, the producer of Midnight Runners, apologized to the Korean-Chinese activist group. According to the committee, they met with a representative of Movie Rock that said producers did not realize the negative effect the film would have on Korean-Chinese citizens and Daerim residents. However, the group plans to continue to rally and is considering taking legal measures against the production company as it failed to meet their demands of banning the movie and making a punlic apology. In protest over the company’s inaction, the group held another rally on Sept. 10. As means of saying “media is killing their community,” participants held white chrysanthemums, a flower symbolizing condolence in Korea, in front of Daerim station.
Many movie critics denounced Midnight Runners’ insensitive treatment of minorities when it was first released on Aug. 9. KoreanChinese groups’ protests then prompted a mixed reaction from the wider public. According to a Joongang Daily survey, 57 percent of respondents (785 people) thought that the filmmaker was merely exercising its freedom of speech, while 43 percent (594 people) said producers should not have demonized a certain group.
“They call themselves Koreans for their own interest, but they’re not. They’re Chinese people,” read a comment on the survey website. “Most are illegal immigrants, and they have committed crimes and kidnapped people, so it does carry some truth.”
However, another comment read: “If an American movie named an exact Korean district and described it as a town even police officers gave up on, you would be angry as well.”
This is not the first time that Korean media has portrayed the Korean-Chinese community negatively. In 2013, TV show Gag Concert was criticized of stereotyping them in a skit that showed a poorly-dressed couple with Joseon-jok accents attempting a voice phishing scam. Movies Coinlocker Girl (2015) and Confidential Assignment (2017) sparked similar online debates for their negative depiction of Joseonjok people.
There are just under 670,000 Joseon-jok residents in the country, according to Statistics Korea. If added unrecorded population, that number is expected to increase. When Korea established diplomatic ties with China in 1992, many of these people worked in so-called “3D” (difficult, dangerous, dirty) jobs as factory workers, waiters, and cleaners. However, a growing number of next-generation KoreanChinese immigrants now work in schools, financial firms, trading, and cultural businesses.
Recent crime statistics also indicate that Midnight Runners’ portrayal of Daerim-dong as a dangerous neighborhood may be inaccurate.
“The number of crimes in Daerim-dong area have declined about 60 percent compared in the last two years,” said Na Byeungnam, head of Daerim police station, in an interview with Chosun Ilbo.
The Yeongdeungpo-gu district police office received the highest ratings for public security in the first half of 2017 based on the reduced crime rate in Daerim area. The district only had the seventh highest crime rates among Seoul districts in 2016, according to Ministry of Interior and Safety. Media’s depiction of this population as economically unstable and crime-ridden is not only misleading but also fails to represent the entire ethnic group.
Professor Sharon Yoon of Ewha Graduate School of International Studies stressed how movies such as Midnight Runners painted an overly simplistic image of a group. “Movies should show the diversity within the community. Second, they should contextualize, they should shed more light into the situation and explain why the Korean-Chinese came here. Good movies allow you to see that these people are just ‘people’ like you and me, it’s not like they have an innate tendency towards violence or crime.”
“One powerful way of breaking a stereotype is by creating intimate relationships, you’ll start to realize that this person is more than ‘just a Korean Chinese person.’ But you can’t break it when the stereotype is already in the way,” Professor Yoon said. “To change this cycle, the first thing to do is to create more positive images of Joseonjoks through media.”