A new film about Banseom Pirates goes inside the lives of the punk band who scream about Kim Jong-Il and whose producer’s retweets got him imprisoned
“We’re holding this protest to really violate the National Security Laws,” goes some pre-song banter from Korean grindcore band Bamseom Pirates. The punk outfit – consisting of frontman Jang Sung-gun and drummer Kwon Yong-man – specialise in provocative performances, political activism and thrashing against the trends of K-pop. If the controversial duo have a fan anthem, it’s “All Hail Kim Jong-il”; instead of celebrating the notorious dictator, the verses – screamed indecipherably, of course – praise other citizens, including a composer and a small businessman, who share the former leader’s name.
Bamseom Pirates are the kind of group whose repertoire includes titles like “Order from the Northern Puppet Regime”, “A Slap on the Wrist” and “Kim Jong-il is Car Sex”. Many of their songs last around a minute, some merely a few seconds. Due to Jang’s incomprehensible vocals, the pair occasionally perform in front of a PowerPoint presentation. It’s how the crowd can fully appreciate lyrics like: “Grandma, the roof of our house is leaking / Don’t worry, boy, Twitter will save us / Grandma, our house has collapsed / Don’t worry, boy, Google will save us.”
“It doesn’t sound good because your ears are shitty… but our ears are even shittier, so we like it” – Kwon Yong-man
The band, currently on hiatus, may not be touring the UK any time soon, but they’re the headline act of Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno, a feature-length documentary by Jung Yoon-suk which played at this year’s London Korean Film Festival. “We make shitty music that is cheap to make,” Kwon insists in the movie, later adding, “It doesn’t sound good because your ears are shitty… but our ears are even shittier, so we like it.”
When I meet Jung at Shoreditch’s Close-Up Cinema, he’s possibly a bit hungover. As part of the festival, the director did a Q&A the previous evening for his 2013 film, Non-Fiction Diary, and went for post-screening drinks with attendees. In a few hours’ time, he’ll be presenting Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno. Right now, he’s sipping coffee and, via a translator, telling me how he crossed paths with such an anarchic band.
“I first saw Bamseom in 2010,” Jung recalls. “The venue was a desolate, demolished place. It sounded like noise and I forgot about them.” After some online research, he gave them a second chance. “Then I saw a PowerPoint show, and the lyrics really touched me and got me connected. Bamseom’s music deals with the problems of capitalism and problems that the youth are facing. It felt symbolic that audience members were turning their backs and walking out in the middle of concerts.”
“Other bands smash expensive guitars. We smash trash” – Jang Sung-gun
In the film, Bamseom Pirates perform in an abandoned building the day before it’s scheduled to be knocked down. They collect discarded objects from dusty rooms that can be destroyed onstage. “Other bands smash expensive guitars,” Jang notes. “We smash trash.”
At another show, the band express solidarity with underpaid workers by inviting two audience members to take their place on guitar and drums. “That’s the power of privatisation,” Kwon deadpans into the mic afterwards. “That song was much better and far more efficient.”
Though the group claim to be apolitical, their venue choices – usually at public protests – suggest otherwise. “During the past 10 years,” Jung says, “a lot of tragedies have happened in Korea and taken away the lives of many people. People come out into the streets to make their voices heard, but no one really pays attention to what they’re saying. It’s like how some people dismiss Bamseom as just noise. I wanted to translate their music into a film.”
Moreover, Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno captures how the band’s rise in popularity was met with violent opposition. At one gig, 150 hired thugs in yellow jackets disrupt proceedings and leave members of the audience beaten and bruised.
“The band’s rise in popularity was met with violent opposition. At one gig, 150 hired thugs in yellow jackets disrupt proceedings and leave members of the audience beaten and bruised”
“Bamseom play in a lot of places where evictees are doing sit-ins,” Jung explains. “These sit-ins would go on for a long time and they’d invite punk bands on a daily basis. Bamseom was the most famous. Big companies would want to tear down the building and do redevelopment plans and chase all the evictees out. They would hire people to trash the show.” How do these firms get away with it? “The police don’t think it’s a problem. The police aren’t interested in the proletariat.”
Jung initially planned to end the film with one of Bamseom Pirates’ regular trips to Japan, perhaps at an anti-nuclear rally in Fukushima. Then, in 2012, the band’s producer and manager, Park Jung-geun, was arrested by South Korean authorities for supposedly “praising North Korea” and violating National Security Law. What Park actually did was tweet dumb jokes and ironically retweet a North Korean propaganda account, @uriminzok.
Park’s offending tweets, translated into English, include: “Democratic K-Pop Republic of Korea”; “Kim Jong-Il is car sex”; “Let’s eat noodles in Pyongyang together”; “Everyday Kim Jong-Il”; “The Juche Philosophy is full of protein”; “My love. Your love. Kim Jong-Il.” For this bit of silliness, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Are these social media-related incidents common in South Korea? “No,” Jung replies. “Park was called the first ‘Twitter spy’. After his arrest, people started a movement called ‘I am Park Jung-geun too!’ and they tweeted the same tweets as him, and retweeted each other. They were also called to the police for investigation.”
During the trial, a lawyer uses Bamseom’s lyrics as evidence of Park’s prankster personality; Park ends up dryly explaining the tongue-in-cheek nature of songs like “All Hail Kim Jong-Il”. Kwon, appearing as a character witness, informs the court, “If Park made the same jokes in North Korea, for example, he would have been executed. But since we’re in the South, we thought we’d joke about it. But after his arrest, I’m quite confused by it.”
Since then, the band have split for reasons left unexplained in the film. “Jang wanted to continue doing Bamseom,” Jung clarifies, “but Kwon is the type of person who can’t be bothered to do a lot of things. In interviews, they’ve been calling it ‘creative differences’ because it sounds funny.” Still, he says, it would be “the Bamseom style” for the duo to eventually reunite. “They’re a band who will break up and get back together and break up and get back together.”
Jang and especially Kwon shrink with discomfort in the doc when questioned about their musical and political philosophies. Do they regret participating in the film? Jung laughs. “It’s inevitable they all like it. They’re portrayed more glamorously than they are in their everyday lives. They don’t have much money. They don’t have much of a life. They just go on Twitter and type, ‘I want to die.’”
As for Jung’s cinematic influences, he points to YouTube. “I’m the best in Korea for documentary-making,” the director says. “Literally. There are no good references for music films in Korea. Also, music documentaries tend to be narrative-based, but this is a punk film. It seeks to be punk, and that’s a conceptual attitude.” OK, if he’s the best documentarian in Korea, how does he compare with filmmakers around the world? For this response, he answers without his translator’s help: “I don’t know. I’m not interested. I don’t care. I just follow my story.”
“Some people dismiss Bamseom as just noise. I wanted to translate their music into a film”
Is there anything Jung particularly wants viewers to take away from Bamseom Pirates Soul Inferno? “I want the audience to watch it like it’s The Avengers and have a good time,” he says. “I don’t want to force any message upon them.” But surely it’s important for raising awareness? “In terms of representation, it’s a global problem. Even in Korea, there’s a very distorted representation of the States and the UK. But the Western world don’t really know about North Korea. And this film is about the North Korea inside South Korea.
“The West wouldn’t know about that, because they don’t know about North Korea to begin with. The film ultimately tries to say that North Korea and South Korea are basically the same. They both claim to be democratic. North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but they’re definitely not democratic. And seeing as how Park can be arrested through a Twitter account, South Korea is not what you’d call democratic.”
In hindsight, there’s a deeper meaning behind Bamseom Pirates’ mischievous music. The noisecore band may detest explaining their songs, but there’s one lyric referenced both by Jung in our interview and Kwon in the film. “I might say I dislike the North more than the South, but it’s complicated,” the drummer says to the camera. “Like we mention on our first album: ‘If South Korea is piss, North Korea is shit.’”