The opening scene of "Papa Oranghutan" features Korean pastor Park Cheol-yeon and several of his congregants decked out in traditional Malaysian hunting gear (think blowguns and foliage) hunting monkeys. Eh, I never liked monkeys anyway. The purpose of this sequence is to show off the extent to which Park Cheol-yeon is embedded with his congregation. Park Cheol-yeon is a guy who lives, thinks, and breathes the Malaysian jungle. His mission? To bring them the loving words of our savior Jesus Christ.
That's right, "Papa Oranghutan" is a missionary film. So if proselytization isn't your thing, you can check out now. Be warned, though, that you'll be missing out on some pretty insightful footage of life in the Malaysian jungle. I'm not totally sure...where in the Malaysian jungle Park Cheol-yeon's congregation is, but that's sort of the point. So far as we can tell the guy just picked an obscure location at random. How Park Cheol-yeon got there and learned to speak the native language is not explained.
We do get to see a lot of Park Cheol-yeon getting bullied by local tough guy Kasim, who is now Park Cheol-yeon's fellow pastor. Those scenes are all portrayed with sepia shading via younger actors who recreate past events. That story's about what you'd expect. Ambitious pastor eagerly works to convert local population with kind words and high quality Korean soap. But he's never sure when the local drunkard is going to come after him with a machete.
The later arc where Park Cheol-yeon gets sick and has to go back to Korea, reflecting on his faith all the awhile, is also pretty standard for these kinds of religious narratives. Well, what do you want, it's a standard for a reason. Which is why the main reason "Papa Oranghutan" to watch is for the local village footage. Because writer/director Lee Sung-gwan is so obviously focused on the missionary narrative, the background flavor is quite authentic.
We see the monkey hunt, the children playing, the women washing clothes, guys climbing trees for fruit, even the fusion tribal dance turned Christian worship ritual as these totally mundane things that these people do all the time and consider unremarkable. The lack of context and explanation for these everyday activities normalizes them quite a bit. So what we see is a missionary story about Malaysia that's for Malaysians, even if the target audience of "Papa Oranghutan" is obviously Korean.
This does put the documentary's appeal in a bit of an odd place. The story's only really much good for serious fans of missionary stories, and if you really want to know about life in the Malaysian jungle, a documentary dedicated to that explicit purpose would probably be a better source of information. But for me personally, I like learning about foreign places via inference rather than being explicitly told what to think, and I have enough tolerance for missionary stories to not find them particularly offensive or anything. So "Papa Oranghutan" is an easy enough movie for me to recommend.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Papa Oranghutan""
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