"Mini-Dragons" is big-league, national programming from Maryland Public Television.
The four-part series about four economic powers in Southeast Asia premieres at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) with a smart and sensitive look at South Korea. Photographed with eloquence and edited with intelligence, tonight's show is a sleek and shiny locomotive of cultural insights, history and sociology that streaks along a smooth track of people stories.
The stories about people are key to the success of what could easily have been very dry television.
The goal of the series is to explain Asia's rising dominance of global markets through an examination of four economic powers. In addition to South Korea, they are Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (which will be featured on successive Mondays).
But to explain the history, culture, sociology and economics of a country like South Korea in an hour is a tall order -- especially to an American audience whose knowledge of the country might not go beyond the "M*A*S*H" version of its 1950s civil war and the Olympic games recently held there.
MPT's Leo Eaton, the executive of the series, made the very smart call of introducing the viewer quickly to a few South Koreans who represent various social classes or economic forces in the country. As our natural curiosity about how other people live leads us deeper and deeper into their lives, we come to understand volumes about where South Korea is today, where it's likely to be headed and what that might mean to our lives.
Some of the people viewers will meet tonight are: Kim Suk Won, chairman of SsangYong, one of 30 conglomerates that virtually run South Korea; Kwon In Sook, a labor organizer who was arrested and tortured for her activities; and Kim Hak Yong, a young man from a dirt-poor rural family who gains entrance to the prestigious Korea University Law School in Seoul.
The point-counterpoint story lines of the male CEO and the female labor organizer are smart stuff. In one scene, we see the graduates of the SsangYong training program in their business suits, singing, "It's dazzling! It's dazzling! Our future. Let's work! Let's work even harder! Let's work forever!" In another scene, the labor organizers trained by Kwon In Sook sing with equal enthusiasm, "Let's go forward. Let's destroy sex discrimination and laborexploitation." You start to understand the protests in the streets of South Korea that seem only like disjointed, unexplained images of confrontation when shown on the nightly news here.
It is the story of Kim Hak Yong, the student, that best suggests the dreams, spirit and potential disillusionment in store for thousands of young South Koreans. The camera shows him and his parents going to the rural bus stop as he starts his journey to Seoul and the university, which offers his only way up the social ladder. We can literally see the heartbreak and excitement in his face as he looks out a rain-streaked bus window at the life and people he's leaving behind.
"Mini-Dragons" starts with the old, stereotyped images of Southeast Asia -- peasants stumbling along behind oxen -- and then takes us to the new reality of Dallas-like glass skyscrapers ,, and corporate jets.
It offers us the chance to be better citizens of the world.