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Film strikes a resonant chord with millions

Les Miserables: the film that is taking Korea by storm

An engraving of the character Cosette from the novel 'Les Miserables' An engraving of the character Cosette from the novel 'Les Miserables'
  • Joseph Pak, Seoul
  • Korea
  • February 1, 2013
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It has been said that the Bible, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables are at once the most famous and least read books of all time.

Whether that’s true or not, the recent film adaptation of Hugo’s classic tale has engaged the fascination of millions in South Korea since it opened last month.

In the last 30 days, about five million viewers – or one out of every 10 South Koreans – saw the film.

Some see the outpouring of interest in political terms.

The opening of the film did coincide with presidential elections on December 19, and some local commentators have drawn parallels between the revolutionaries in the film and political revolutionaries in South Korea.

In fact, president-elect Park Geun-hye defeated fellow candidate Timothy Moon Jae-in, who was twice imprisoned under the dictatorship of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee.

The unjust imprisonment of one character in the film, Jean Valjean, could easily have stirred memories of past injustice in Korea.

Na Young-mi, 50, was a pro-democracy activist during the 1980s. She says she could not stop crying during the film, particularly over the fate of the character Fantine, who is fired from Valjean’s factory after giving birth to a child as an unmarried woman.

“It made me cry to see how easily a vulnerable and poor person can fall to the bottom of society,” she said.

Cultural critic Ha Jae-keun has tried to analyze what has come to be called the “Les Mis phenomenon” in terms of the broader span of Korean history.

Ha says that while older generations saved their families and the country from poverty through hard work and younger ones fought for the same thing by confronting military dictatorships, both are now enduring the same economic plight.

“With such a long history of broken dreams, young and old alike are overcome with emotion when a classic such as Les Miserables shines a light on unresolved emotional traumas.

And then, there are those who account for the unusual success of the film on the basis of the moral lessons it presents.

Ten-year-old Deborah Park Hye-min said the most moving part was when the priest gave his silver candlesticks to Valjean after he was caught stealing them.

“It was the most generous form of hospitality that a man could offer,” said Park, who saw the film with her father.

Jong Ki-sou, 84, an emeritus professor of French literature at Seoul National University who translated Hugo’s novel into Korean, says that the story of Bishop Myriel is crucial to understanding the overall theme of the novel.

In his opinion, the character of the bishop also explains the poor reception the novel received by the Catholic Church upon publication and in the years that followed.

Hugo was a non-practicing Catholic and wrote the novel during his 20-year exile after opposing Napoleon III, who he charged had destroyed French democracy under the guise of “protecting the Catholic Church.”

The Church included the novel in its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of banned books, until 1959. The list was officially abolished in 1966.

Hugo himself counted 740 attacks on his book in the Catholic press, Jong said.

Some modern Catholics now view the book in a much more favorable light.

In a series of articles last month, the Catholic Times – published weekly by the Archdiocese of Daegu – called it a “supreme classic of Catholic literature.”

Professor Jong sees the Catholic themes in the book, however, as representing general guides to morality, faith and religion rather than more orthodox admonitions.

Hugo, after all, was a humanist, not a theologian, Jong says, and insisted that the poor and ignorant should be given jobs and education instead of empty sermons and pious instruction.

And like the poor and disenfranchised of Hugo’s day, Koreans have seen something of themselves in the story of Jean Valjean’s struggles and ultimate triumph.

"Now Koreans are suffering from unemployment and materialistic corruption, and Les Miserables gives them hope."

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