Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 18, 2011

Korkoro; Korean American Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Korea,Roma — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Despite some problems, Tony Gatlif’s “Korkoro” (Roma for freedom) is one of the most important films scheduled for release in 2011 (it opens at the Cinema Village in New York on March 25th) since it is the first film to deal with the Nazi slaughter of the Roma people. In the closing credits, it states that perhaps as many as 500,000 of Europe’s two million “gypsies” died in concentration camps or on the killing fields.

To my knowledge, Tony Gatlif is the only director of Roma descent. Two of his movies are favorites of mine. The 1993 documentary Latcho Drom shows Roma musicians from every corner of the world performing their own music but with the influences of the country they are living in. The 1997 Gadjo Dilo (crazy outsider)  is a fictional study of a love affair between a gadjo and a Roma woman that is fraught with the expected cultural clashes.

“Korkoro” is set in rural France on the eve of WWII and begins with a small horse-drawn caravan traveling down a dirt road in a forest. When they stop for a rest, one of the men spots something in the distance and begins running after it. It turns out to be a young French orphan named Claude who prefers homelessness to the prison-like conditions of a French orphanage. After debating what to do with this gadjo, the elders decide to take him as one of their own.

They set up camp outside a small village in wine country, looking to get seasonal work as grape pickers or to sell their wares on the street. The village is divided between those who would welcome the nomads and those—who like today—would support their removal, or even their extermination. Two of the friendlier townspeople are the mayor Théodore Rosier (Marc Lavoine) a veterinarian by trade, and a schoolteacher named Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze) who also works as a clerk in city hall. In an early scene, she processes the tribe’s passports, a reminder that such papers were originally intended to control movements within a country. (I examined this history in a Swans article.)

One day in the course of his work as a veterinarian Rosier is injured by a horse on a road outside the village and lies helpless in deep pain, where he is discovered by members of the Roma band who perform first-aid using potent folk medicine. This binds him to the group, even to the point of selling them his father’s house for five francs. The fascists have made a nomadic existence punishable by imprisonment or worse and having a house protects you. The problem, however, is that the Roma view such a stationary existence as barely more tolerable than the jail Rosier rescued them from.

Lundi develops affection for the Roma children who are enrolled in her school. But like Rosier she discovers that they resent the discipline of traditional learning, a fetter that is in its own way as constraining as the house he bestowed upon them.

This is the central dramatic conflict in the film that serves as a counterpoint to the more deadly conflict between the fascists and the nomads. As members of bourgeois society, Rosier’s offer of a permanent location and Lundi’s of classroom discipline appear far preferable to the Nazis and their Vichy cohorts. As it turns out, the two are not exactly bourgeois. They are members of the French Resistance and are in as much danger as their devil-may-care wards.

Gatlif made a calculated decision not to develop his Roma characters with as much depth as the French couple or Claude, the young boy. Perhaps this was a function of any minority’s director and screenwriter’s belief that the majority audience member needs someone to identify with. However, this leaves one with the feeling that more had to be said about the Roma characters whose main role in the film is to play music (exceedingly well) and to serve as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the dilo (crazy) ways of the French villagers who hate them.

Despite the Zionist establishment’s harping on a new holocaust, the only people who have reasons to worry about such a thing are Europe’s Roma who are facing the same threats as depicted in this movie—short of extermination, at least at this point. In an interview with the director in the press notes, Gatlif is asked “Do you think this film resonates with current times or is it just a historical recreation of the past?” His reply:

Writing it, I wanted it to echo what’s happening today. We’re living through the same thing today, only there’s no death in the end. There’s no more political extermination, but from a psychological and political point of view nothing has really changed. In Italy under Berlusconi, the Roma are still subjected to discriminatory laws. Same thing in Romania and Hungary. Even in France the Roma are often parked in unhygienic places, from which they are driven away and expelled. French law only authorizes Traveling People to stay in one place for 24 hours. The number of authorizations they need to be able to stop somewhere is incredible, which by the way enables them to be constantly tracked.

Long-time readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of Korean film. The good news for New Yorkers is that you will be able to see some recent work at a Korean American film festival (http://www.kaffny.com/) that began yesterday. I had the opportunity to see two of its scheduled full-length films that are confirmations, if any was needed, that this country is miles ahead cinematically even if its economy is sputtering. (Perhaps the two trends are related.)

The House of Suh” is a documentary that reminds one of Tolstoy’s epigraph in “Anna Karenina”: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This is a family tale that has the dimensions of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. A Korean military man decides to leave his native land after his young son accidentally falls off a roof and kills himself. He brings with him his wife and two other young children, a boy named Andrew and his older sister Catherine.

They move to the Chicago suburbs and begin the kind of life that appears conventional, at least on the surface. They are church-going and hard-working, a profile that matches practically any Korean dry cleaner in New York. But the father soon develops a conflict with Catherine, who develops an unruly streak in high school. She runs with a fast crowd and resents authority. Eventually the clash between father and daughter leads to bloody altercations at home. When he dies of cancer, she doesn’t even bother to pay her respects.

Eventually Catherine leaves home and becomes romantically involved with a man named Robert O’Dubaine who is as amoral as her. Both live for the moment and appear to be fairly representative of the kind of cocaine/disco culture that made the 80s so memorable. Her younger brother Andrew chooses another path and stays loyal to his mother who opens a dry cleaning business.

When Catherine and Robert clash over money and more intimate matters, she decides to kill him. Using her obvious power over her sibling, she persuades Andrew to shoot Robert. He is arrested shortly after the incident and found guilty of murder. Eventually Catherine is arrested as well.

Most of the film consists of Andrew speaking from behind bars, where he sizes up his family’s tortured tale and reflects on Korean immigrant values in general. While Korean Americans obviously do not have an Arthur Miller in their midst (and which ethnic group does, for that matter?), director Iris Shim does a very good job of transforming the raw material into a totally compelling tale.

Toru and Hyung Gu

Although “The Boat is nominally a gangster film, it has much more in common with the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 50s and early 60s, especially “Jules and Jim” or “Breathless”.

The main characters are two young men named Toru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who is Japanese, and Hyung Gu (Jung-woo Ha), who is Korean. They work on a small boat that smuggles goods back and forth between Korea and Japan.

Their boss is a Korean who seems pleasant on the surface but is given to bouts of rage. Early in the film, Toru tells his boss that he would like to serve him as a dog serves his master. To drive his point home, he begins barking to the amusement of his boss—at least initially. After a minute or so, the boss glares at him and growls, “Do you think this is a joke?” It is a bit like the scene in “Goodfellas” where Joe Pesci intimidates Henry Hill at one of their first meetings: “Do you think I am funny?”

When the boss has Toru and Hyung Gu kidnap the daughter of an enemy and bring her to Japan, their loyalty to each other and to the boss is severely tested. While someone operating on more conventional grounds would emphasize the gangster elements of the plot, director Young-nam Kim is far more interested in how the two men, who barely understand each other’s language, begin to bond with each other. In one of the more memorable scenes, the two perform an off-kilter Karaoke number that is truly inspired.

Go to http://www.kaffny.com for scheduling information on these two films and what I am sure will be other top-notch offerings.



  1. Louis Proyect, what do you think is the best overview/explication of Marxist theory for beginners. I’m looking for something more in-depth and comprehensive than say, this:


    Something, perhaps, not including cartoons.

    Also, are there any books of Marxist film criticism you’d recommend?

    Comment by Reynold — March 19, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

  2. I’d recommend “Man’s Worldly Goods” from Monthly Review. For Marxist film criticism, I honestly can’t think of any. There are all sorts of academic film studies type books that are “Marxish” but I can’t recommend any. I do enjoy reading David Walsh’s film reviews on wsws.org even if they tend to be dogmatic.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 20, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  3. Last question, I promise. I was accused of being a “moralist” on a Marxist message board recently, and the word was spit out as if it was a capital offense. Can you point me in the direction of some readings which might explain what this word means, and why it’s so awful, in a Marxist context?

    Comment by Reynold — March 22, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

  4. This might be useful:


    Comment by louisproyect — March 22, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

  5. thank you

    Comment by Reynold — March 23, 2011 @ 3:06 am

  6. Reynold: Don’t pass up the “Marx For Beginners” book by Rius just because it has cartoonish illustrations. It was required reading for my Sociolgy 101 students when I T.A’d back in the early 90’s. You can probably get a good used copy for a buck on eBay or Amazon and it’s quite good at reducing Marx’s complex ideas to an easily understandable format. There’s some really funny parts too!

    As mentioned before a number of times on this site, when it comes to questions of Morality & Marxism (albeit not quite the same subject as being called a “moralist”) there’s no better resource than: “Their Morals and Ours — Marxist Vs. Liberal Views On Morality” by Leon Trotsky which you can read for free in its entirety by doing a Google search.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 27, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  7. […] been the exclusive creation of the very gifted Roma director Tony Gatlif. Even in the case of “Korkoro” (the Roma word for freedom), a fictional tale about a Roma band exterminated by the Nazis, […]

    Pingback by Barbershop Punk; A People Uncounted « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 13, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

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