Documentaries tend to do well at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and each year several manage to get into the audience top-10. The 2017 edition has proven to be no exception, as there are three documentaries in the top-5 alone. One of these is Jung Joonsuk's Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno, which shows some of the exploits and motivations of a controversial duo of South Korean musicians.
Consisting of drummer "mastermind" Kwon Yong-man and bass player "informant minion" Jang Sung-geon, the Bamseom Pirates are a band whose music is not easy to peg. What they do is, in their own words, "just garbage and noise", but they're always selling themselves short. You can call their act punk, or black metal, or experimental, or performance art, or the official name "grind core", though you can debate about each of these. But whatever it is, the guys infuse it with lots of intelligence, humor, wit, and social commentary. With their tongue-in-cheek approach and propensity for playing it loud, they're almost like a less glamorous (no-budget) Rammstein.
Take for instance the song in the trailer below, called "All Hail Kim Jong-il!". While at first glance it would seem to be an ode to the leader of North Korea, it actually hails several other Kim Jong-ils in Korean history, as the name Kim Jong-il isn't exactly a rare one in that region. And in a song about outsourcing of labor, Kwon and Jang invite two audience members to switch places with them so the music will become "better and more efficient", to the hilarity of the crowd. Also, as both artists acknowledge that the loud music and grunty vocals prevent people from hearing the lyrics properly, each song is accompanied by power-point presentations, which are often laugh-out-loud funny.
The clown act hides a lot of talent and national criticism though. The Bamseom Pirates play gigs which are often linked to anti-establishment demonstrations, whether it's students protesting the privatization of a college, the re-development of an old neighbourhood, the building of a new army base or general corruption. Indeed, the band actively invites discussion and controversy in equal doses.
In his film, Jung Joonsuk follows the Bamseom Pirates from 2010 onward, just as the guys are becoming more and more notorious, and the footage is often both hilarious and surprising. Things even turn grim during one performance when construction companies send paid rioters and armed thugs to break up a peaceful anti-eviction demonstration, with police not intervening. Jung doesn't show his two leads as heroic supertalents though, and instead of banking on a perceived air of awesomeness, he keeps asking them for the motives behind the band's behaviour. Kwon and Jang both keep saying they're not in it for money and fame, and indeed even tell the audience where their music can be downloaded (or pirated) for free.
At two hours long, Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno isn't a short documentary, but it's never a boring one, and is interspersed with some very inventive videoclips. Just when you start to wonder what Jung Joonsuk will fill the second half with, the Bamseom Pirates get involved in an incident which chillingly makes clear just how dangerously close to the edge of the law they get with their act. The fun quickly leaves the film, and you can only watch with incredulity as "National Security" gets invoked to start an almost farcical trial.
All in all, Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno is great, and kept with me until long after the screening ended. I would definitely appreciate a second viewing to check for things I missed, now that I know how it ends.
Audiences in Rotterdam also loved the film, and awarded it a fantastic 4.5 out of 5, making it indeed end up in the festival's top 5.