South Korea

Koreans embrace reelpolitik

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am

In the hold of a battered freighter foundering in the midst of a raging typhoon, a bloodied North Korean terrorist faces off against the South Korean commando tasked with liquidating him. As the two tear into each other in a fight to the death, the violent action is poignantly offset by the men's tragic empathy for one another.

This is the climax to the latest South Korean blockbuster Typhoon. While the theme of empathy with the enemy is common in war films, this sympathetic portrayal of a North Korean killer illustrates how much South Korean film - and wider society - has changed since the nation democratised in 1987.

'I only ever cried in two movies: Schindler's List and this one,' said Kang Cheol-hwan, a defector whose autobiographical account of North Korea's gulags, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was last year read by US President George W. Bush, who invited him to visit the White House to discuss his experiences.

Kang, who attended a recent screening of the film for foreign journalists, added: 'I think this is the first movie that dealt with North Korea that really touched the heart of fellow defectors.'

The plot is standard action fare: an embittered North Korean plans to devastate South Korea with radioactive waste; Seoul dispatches an operative to track him down in exotic locales including Thailand, South Korea and the Russian far east.

Its subplot - dealing with the issues facing North Korean escapees with unrelenting grimness - is not.

The North Korean anti-hero, portrayed with searing intensity by heartthrob Jang Dong-gun, turns against the South when, in a cynical piece of realpolitik, Southern diplomats return his defecting family to North Korea. All except him and his sister are massacred by border guards. The sister is forced into prostitution and drug addiction - a not uncommon fate of the females among the estimated 100,000-300,000 North Korean refugees hiding out in China and elsewhere.

While the actors and director said they did not consider North-South themes the representative genre of Korean film, praising instead the diversity of local cinema, Kang said: 'Lots of great films deal with war and extreme human conditions, and you only have to look to North Korea to find that kind of situation.'

Indeed, Typhoon is just the latest in a series of hit South Korean movies that have dealt with the ongoing tragedy of war and national division.

The first was 1999's Shiri, an action film dealing with South Korean counter espionage agents hunting down North Korean saboteurs in Seoul. Featuring Hollywood-style production values, it was credited with starting the Hallyu (Korean Wave) - a renaissance of Korean film.

Others followed. JSA (2000) was a tense thriller set in the Joint Security Area between the Koreas. Silmido (2004) told the story of a Dirty Dozen-type unit recruited from prisons to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il-sung - a true, but covered-up story. Taegukgi (Korean Flag, 2004) was a tragedy about two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides in the Korean war; it shocked some by showing South Korean as well as North Korean atrocities.

The two latter movies both sold more than 10 million tickets - huge numbers in a nation of 48 million. Analysts say the two films attracted members of both the old and young generations to cinemas. However, works portraying North Koreans as three-dimensional human beings were impossible in the South Korea of the 1950s, '60s, '70s and early '80s.

'There were severe restraints on what could be represented then: filmmakers who did not follow guidelines could get into trouble,' said Darcy Paquet, an expert on Korean film and the Seoul correspondent of Variety. 'One director, Lee Man-hee, was arrested for his portrayal of North Koreans who have a change of heart in Seven Women Prisoners.

Basically, North Koreans were evil. With Korea's democratisation, things changed. A screenplay censorship body, part of the powerful Public Ethics Committee, was phased out in the 1980s, granting filmmakers greater freedoms.

The breakthrough film was 1990's The Southern Guerillas. Although they meet a nasty fate, the film featured partisans in Korean war-era South Korea. The main characters with whom the audience identified were all North Korean. The second landmark was Shiri. Unlike The Southern Guerillas, it portrayed modern-day North Koreans. They were shown with not just humanity, but sympathy - even glamour.

The film received the co-operation of the South's National Intelligence Agency. Noted film buff Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, reportedly acquired a pirate copy.

The changing portrayal of North Koreans on screen reflects changing perceptions of their brother nation among South Koreans.

As late as the 1970s, North Koreans were depicted in school textbooks as horned devils. Propaganda was eased after democratisation; further major changes took place after long-time opposition leader Kim Dae-jung won the presidency in 1997.

Seoul toned down its confrontational policies against North Korea, opting instead for engagement.

'Since Korea democratised, the true facts about North Korea have become known. We know that their economy is on the verge of collapse, and we have overcome the haunting fear of the Korean war,' said Kim Geun-tae, a parliamentarian with the ruling Uri Party.

'I cannot emphasise too much the importance of transparency in South Korea,' Mr Kim, a contender for the party's leadership and a future presidential hopeful, continued. 'North Korea is no longer our competitor. We have out-competed them, and now it is time to move forward.'

The South is the North's second-largest trade partner, and a major investor in two multibillion-dollar inter-Korean projects: the Mount Kumgang Tourist Resort and the Kaesong Industrial Zone, both in North Korea, but funded with Southern capital.

At the same time, a younger generation who do not remember the apocalyptic Korean war - the mean age of South Koreans is 34.5 years - is taking power.

Holding a more critical view of the United States, this generation is also more sympathetic towards their bankrupt and hungry Northern neighbours. This combination of factors has led to policy friction between the liberal Kim and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, and the strongly neo-conservative Bush administration.

Back in the cinema, two controversial films last year reflected these changes.

In Heaven's Soldiers, North and South Korean soldiers travel in time to assist their nation's greatest hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, as he repels the Japanese invasions of the 1590s. In Welcome to Dongmakol, North and South Korean troops meet in an idyllic village to recover a crashed American pilot. In both movies, North Koreans are shown as brothers, while, respectively, Japanese and Americans appear in a more sinister light.

Despite its A-list stars, Typhoon has not ignited younger South Koreans who make up the bulk of the movie-going population. Since its mid-December release, the film, which cost US$20 million, has pulled in only US$25 million at the local box office. 'I think young Koreans do not know the background to this film, so do not appreciate it,' said director Kwak Kyung-taek, whose own father escaped North Korea as a 17-year-old, leaving behind his entire family.

Despite their tiny numbers - fewer than 7,000 have successfully defected to the South in more than 50 years - North Koreans here face social prejudice, and many South Koreans fear a flood of refugees. Meanwhile, Seoul, wary of antagonising Pyongyang, with whom it is engaged in a delicate engagement process, no longer actively encourages defection.

'The North Korean human rights issue has drawn more interest overseas than in South Korea, and domestic interest in refugees is not high,' said Kang. 'Young people in Korea are less touched by this movie than I would like.'

The production company, CJ Entertainment, hopes to leverage that interest abroad. It will be distributing Typhoon in the United States and Canada with Dreamworks, sometime after March, representatives of CJ said.