In a time of tyranny, in a land of lies, one man has the courage to stand up and say you know what, fuck you.
The movie starts with some newsreel footage of President Chun Doo-hwan awarding medals to police officers who apprehended North Korean spies in the midst of…erm…violent anti-state movements by radical left subversives, and he emphasized the need for protecting social order and national security. Ahem.
It is the 14th of January, 1987. An ambulance rushes through the city. Inside are a doctor and a nurse from Chung-ang hospital, as well as two law enforcement officers. There are curtains drawn so that the doctor and nurse don’t know where they are going, and one of the cops scolds the doctor for attempting to take a peek. They arrive at the Namyeong-dong Anti-communist Division Facility at 12:30 PM.
The doctor and nurse are rushed inside to find a young man in dire condition. Doctor Oh Yun-sang checks for a heartbeat and…he’s dead. This is not what the officers want to hear; one of them even orders the doctor to revive him. So…Doctor Oh makes a desperate effort and…well…no. So, the officers move the body.
Commissioner Park Cheo-won was born in North Korea, but crossed into the South. Now he is Head of Anti-communist Investigations. And he has arrived at the facility to deal with this mess.
What is the mess? Well, first, it seems like four underlings in the facility beat a guy to death. They didn’t mean to kill him, but he is dead. Second, they brought in witnesses in the form of a doctor and a nurse who could not revive the dead guy. Third, they did not report any of this up the chain and wait for instructions until it was too late. Surprisingly, Commissioner Park’s response is milder than anticipated. He says that there is no need to fuss over nothing and tells the underlings to go have lunch. After the underlings leave, Section Chief Yoo Seung-mok asks Park what they should do with the body. Burn it.
Commissioner Park has a dinner meeting with Lieutenant General Jang Se-dong, right hand man to President Chun. He gives Jang a file on Kim Jeong-nam, the man behind a series of “communist activities” as of late and an associate of politicians challenging Chun’s reinstatement. Park says that, if he can prove that they are all supporters of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, then he can wipe out all of the serious opposition in a single blow. General Jang is happy to hear this, and says that this Kim Jeong-nam should be apprehended before the new university semester.
Prosecutor Choi Hwan is the…uh…Prosecutor…of the Seoul District Prosecutor’s Office. And here is smacking around a guy for filling soju with paint thinner. I am not sure if he is more upset that this guy has been poisoning people or because he has been depriving them of the sacred soju.
As Choi is about to start, Section Chiefs Yoo Seung-mok and Park Won-taek arrive. Yoo invites Choi to have some real food. Choi says okay and Park gives him a document to sign. No such thing as a free drink, huh. Choi looks over the paper. Park Jong-chul…22-years-old…Seoul National University…died of a heart attack…authorization for cremation…and he has to sign this? Choi asks if the kid’s family has seen his body during the eight hours that he has been dead. The silence of the chiefs tells him no, but Section Chief Park says that they got consent from the father at Busan Police Station…BUSAN? 190 miles away? Was there even an autopsy? Choi is not buying this, but Park tells him to just sign it. Choi, already ticked off about the soju scam and probably a little drunk off soju himself, flings the paper at them and tells them to leave. Park leaves, but Yoo tries to be nice about it, saying that the powers that be want this done by morning. Choi tells him to do the autopsy in the morning and do the cremation in the afternoon. That is as far as he budges. And now his dinner is soggy. Choi might be under the impression that his father-in-law could use his status and connections to mitigate any blowback from this refusal.
Looks like Yoo is still sticking around as Choi receives phone calls from angry and threatening superiors. Apparently, the Assistant Prosecutor General has also gotten threats, and he comes around to order Choi to sign the papers. Or Yoo will sign them himself. On its own, that doesn’t seem like much of a threat, but the implications are clear, so Choi agrees to sign the papers. He goes back into his office, smashes the phone, signs the document, and flings it at Yoo.
Oh, wait. Choi wrote that he forbids cremation. He rushes out of his office and puts a chair against the doorknob so that Yoo cannot get out. His secretary anxiously follows him without taking away the chair.
Choi is still too angry to go home…and maybe a little scared. So, he goes to a bath house and meets with Prosecutor Lee of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office. He vents about the Anti-communist minions acting like they are above prosecutors and thinks about handing in his resignation just to screw them over more. Lee says that they won’t care. So, Choi asks Lee for a favor. What favor?
The Anti-communist minions have been searching for Choi, but cannot find him. Yoo reports back to Commissioner Park, who calls the District Attorney’s office.
It is the 15th of January. 7:30 AM. The District Attorney arrives at the office to find Choi asleep there. He tells Choi that Commissioner Park had called him early in the morning about this. He orders Choi to close the case. Choi insists on seeing an autopsy first, but the DA warns him that he will get all of them in trouble by crossing Choi. Choi mentions a previous case where their office went along with the Anti-communist Investigation’s story and ended up getting in trouble for it anyways. He is certain that Park Jong-chul was tortured to death. The DA tells him that the fallout from this possibly going public will be more than any of them can handle, but Choi says that that is the very reason why he wants to do this correctly. He offers to take the blame for this, being the pain-in-the-ass who ran wild. Then Choi takes a drink from his flask.
Reporter Shin Sung-ho of Joongang Daily shows up at Prosecutor Lee’s office for tea. In less than thirty seconds of Shin’s arrival, Lee starts casually talking about Park Jong-chul’s death. Turns out that Lee hates the Anti-communist thugs about as much as Choi does. It is unclear whether Lee had assumed that Shin already knew about this, but it appears that Shin didn’t. He tries to play it off all casually, though it is clear that he considers this to be a major story. He later rushes to a phonebooth and relays the story to his chief. Was…this Choi’s favor?
Park Jong-chul’s family are sent to the morgue with little explanation as to why. They did not even know that they were coming to his funeral until they got there.
It is 3:00 PM when the Prosecutor’s Press Room receives a batch of papers from the Joongang Daily. All of their phones start ringing, which I guess means that many people had noticed something in the paper, but what? They look through, seeing something about a hospital.
Shin calls his chief again from a phone booth, only to hear that the military has stormed the place. He is surprised; didn’t they fact check the story? Doesn’t matter; they violated…some journalism guidelines or whatever. He tells Shin to lay low for the moment, saying that the soldiers will beat him to death if they catch him. It is that time when a soldier grabs the chief. And that Shin sees a military jeep near to him. So, he runs off without hanging up the phone.
Commissioner Park goes to the Police Headquarters to see the Commissioner General. Everyone is tense, but Park tells the Commissioner General just to state that the leftist student died of a heart attack.
And that is just what the Commissioner General does at 4:00 PM. Well, he tries…he gets in a little trouble with reciting all of the lies, so Commissioner Park takes over, saying that the student got so scared when an investigator slammed his hand on the table that he suffered a fatal heart attack. For some odd reason, a few of the reporters express some skepticism and actually push back against the police narrative in the moment. The Commissioner General asserts that a doctor from Chung-ang Hospital confirmed it, but stumbles again coming up with the name Oh Yun-sang. All of the reporters immediately rush to the hospital to search for Doctor Oh. The Commissioner General worries that he had said too much.
It is unclear how much time the Anti-communist thugs had to find Doctor Oh and coach him through his responses before the reporters showed up, but he struggles through it. Luckily for him, one of thugs quietly reminds Oh how important it is to stay on track.
The reports eventually file out, dismissive of what they heard, but cynically pessimistic that they will be able to print anything close to the truth. Yoon Sang-sam of the Dong-a Daily, however, slips into the bathroom when the Anti-communist thugs aren’t looking.
It is 4:00 PM at Hanyang Hospital. Prosecutor Choi meets with a medical examiner from the National Crime Lab and tells him to do everything by the book. He tells his colleague, Prosecutor Pyo to leave out no detail. Pyo demures so Choi kicks his shin. So Pyo, the examiner, the medical witness, and the photographer walk to the morgue, but seven Anti-communist thugs block their path and harass them when they try to go past.
It looks like Choi might try to intervene but he then comes across another group of thugs preventing the Park family members from seeing the body. Jong-chul’s mother begs Choi to let her see her son for one last time, but he just stands there silently as the thugs drag her into a van.
Choi calls Commissioner Park to complain about the thugs preventing an autopsy. Commissioner Park says that the autopsy is not to take place. Choi accuses Park of flouting the law and going beyond his jurisdiction. He also mocks Park’s Northern accent before hanging up.
Commissioner Park attempts to rush to the hospital only to find that Choi is outside of the facility. So, they have a bit of a confrontation right there. Choi hands Park an official autopsy order. Park tears it up, so Choi pulls out an edition of Newsweek…hey remember Newsweek before it got terrible? Well, this one has a picture of South Korean riot police on the cover. Choi says that his wife’s cousin married a journalist from Newsweek who has been begging him for a story on what has been going on. Boy would it stink for another story to get out so close to the Olympics. So…Park tosses the pieces of the autopsy form back at Choi. He and his minions walk off, leaving Choi alone to ponder how long he may have to live.
Well, it looks like the autopsy is going forward. And there is another witness, a man who identifies himself as Jong-chul’s uncle, Park Wol-gil. They proceed and he immediately starts tearing up.
Back at Chung-ang hospital, Doctor Oh is still under the watch of an Ac thug. He even has to announce when he is going to the bathroom. Bathroom? Oh, right. Yoon has been hiding in a toilet stall for so long that his knees ache. He tries to ask Doctor Oh about what he had seen. After seemingly trying to ignore Yoon, Doctor Oh lets the tap drown out his whispers. There was water all over the floor, a bathtub nearby, and crackling in the lungs. Put it all together and…
The autopsy is over. Yoon arrives just in time to see Wol-gil being led out of the hospital and into the van. Ac thugs attempt to prevent reporters from approaching him or taking pictures, but just as he reaches the van, he screams out that the police murdered his nephew, not shock. Yoon asks if it was water torture and gets a punch to the face in response. He falls and hits his arm on the concrete.
Things are going badly for the Ac, so it is necessary to pick a couple of fall guys. Namely two of the four minions who were involved: Jin-gyu and Lieutenant Jo Han-kyung. Section Chief Yoon gives them statements to recite, calling it a formality. They can think of this as early vacation. Jo starts to protest that he did everything that he was ordered to do, but Commissioner Park quietly shuts him up.
With a cast on his arm, Yoon protests to his bosses that they have to run this story before it gets swept under the rug. I guess that he got to his boss Jeong Gu-jong. Jeong tells the staff that they will start running a special on torture prevention. He orders a task force to find out who killed Park Jong-chul and how. To hell with the “guidelines” against reporting on the student’s death. Well, that’s that. The reporters all seem delighted. Well, I don’t know about Yoon, as he had jetted out of there after his rant.
The medical examiner meets with the Commissioner General. He starts to give his actual report until the Commissioner General yells at him to just put “heart attack” as the cause. Apparently, he did not get the memo that he has to lie. The Commissioner General shows him an envelope with…well, it is unclear what is inside because the medical examiner leaves without taking it, even after the Commissioner General pretty much threatens his life.
It is the 16th of January. 9:00 AM. The Commissioner General gives another press conference, claiming that Park Jong-chul had tuberculosis and any bruises were from attempts at resuscitation. Meanwhile his family watches as his body gets cremated and his bones are swept into a pan.
As the family are rushed into vehicles, police are deployed to prevent reporters from getting to close and they lift their shields to prevent photographers from taking pictures. Yoon crawls on the ground and sees a bit of the license plate for one car before the shields come down.
Yoon and his colleagues trail the convoy, and Yoon says to follow the car that splits from the others. They manage to catch two members of Jong-chul’s family spreading his ashes down the river. Except, much of the river is frozen, so the ashes collect upon the top. His father, who had been quietly solemn ever since arriving, breaks down and sobs. Why can’t you leave? The authorities drowned him, but it is his father who has to push his ashes into the water.
Yoon arrives at the Prosecutor’s Office just as Choi exits with a box of stuff. I guess he really did quit…unless he was fired. Yoon asks him whether Park Jong-chul was drowned to death or beaten. Choi refuses to answer, saying that finding out is Yoon’s job. Yoon scolds him, but Choi simply drives off…leaving the box of stuff. Oooh? The fucking autopsy report! You bet the water torture is going into the papers.
It is the 19th of January. 4:00 PM. The police headquarters’ covert office. Oh, that sounds ominous. The two fall guys are taken there under false pretenses and placed under arrest for excessive force, no longer treated as cops. Of course, they try to resist and are beaten in the process.
Commissioner Park was not informed of this. Apparently, the Commissioner General did it under direct orders from the administration. And Park is not to be told where his guys were taken. Well, he is ticked off. Good thing that Section Chief Yoo has found out where they are.
A bunch of Ac thugs go to the place where the fall guys are being…well…tortured. A bit of an inter-department scuffle breaks out and Commissioner Park manages to corner the superior officer. Park accuses him of taking bribes while the members of the Anti-communist department have been risking their lives to prevent Kim Il-sung from swallowing the peninsula whole.
The Ac thugs push out the other cops so that Commissioner Park can speak to Jo Han-kyung alone. Jo says that they are charging him with first degree murder, but Park says that he will talk them down to involuntary manslaughter. He also promises to take care of Jo’s family. So…Jo falls in line. Just like that.
And…okay, I guess that we are entering a completely different part of the story. This is Han Byung-yong and he works as a guard at Yeongdeungpo Penitentiary. He had previously been fired for union activity, but was reinstated.
And this is Lee Bu-young, a former reporter for Dong-a Daily. He is in prison for leading riots in Incheon. He and Han just exchanged what looked to be different copies of the same issue of TV Guide. That…is weird. He asks Han to tell another prisoner to stop his…I guess that that is singing. Han says that he is not allowed to go near those prisoners. Who are they? The cops who killed that college student. Well, nice early vacation indeed.
Han is off work and off the bus. He is walking down the street when he notices some cops stopping people and demanding to see their ID. Han acts like he is stopping by a news stand to ask about the bus schedule when a guy tries to flee from the cops and gets tackled right by him. Han picks up the TV Guide and walks in the other direction.
I guess that going in the opposite direction forced Han to take the long route home. Or to his sister’s home. She is not happy that he is late, but neither is she happy that he is here in the first place as opposed to with a family of his own.
Han goes to see his niece, Yeon-hee, who is struggling to record a song from the radio. He jokingly asks if she wants a hammer and she complains that she had asked him to fix it. She changes her tune when he gives her a Walkman as her college acceptance gift. Suddenly, he is the best uncle ever.
Then…Han pulls out the TV Guide. Yeon-hee is nervous. Does her uncle want her to meet him again? Han says that he gets stopped at checkpoints every time but she doesn’t. Yeon-hee reminds him that he almost lost his job because of that union business, but Han insists that this isn’t about the union. It is for a really good cause. Yeon-hee looks through the TV Guide until she finds the notes. Oh…I um…had figured that it would be like some code made from holes poked through the paper or something, but nope, those are just full sentences. From a convict, Yeon-hee says. Han tells her that the Walkman could go to the son of his boss, who has also gotten accepted into college. Yeon-hee grimaces. Last time? Deal.
With her Walkman in one hand and the TV Guide in the other, Yeon-hee walks right through the checkpoint, though not without all of the cops leering at her.
Ham Se-woong of Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice goes to a Buddhist Temple to meet with Kim Jeong-nam. Oh right, the guy whom Commissioner Park was trying to catch. Well, he is working as a gardener here. Ham is going to make a statement tomorrow demanding to know the truth about the student’s death. Kim advises him to avoid mentioning the involvement of additional officers, which would provoke the police to raise their guard even more and hamper the search for the truth.
And here comes Yeon-hee to give Mr. Kim the TV Guide. She tells him that her uncle apologizes for not being able to do this himself. She then turns to Ham, noting that he does not look like he is here for Buddhist services. She concludes that he must be the mastermind behind all of this. Yeon-hee sarcastically prays to Ham to turn himself in and walks off. Kim laughs and Ham does as well.
It is the 20th of February. 4:30 PM. Bit of a time jump. Well, it looks like Han gets to get near those Ac inmates here, when he is escorting Jin-gyu to see his family. His mother asked what he did and he says that it was nothing; that it will get worked out. His father asks how can he refer to killing a man as nothing. Jin-gyu insists that it is not like that. His father asks what happened. Jin-yu says that he only held the guy’s legs. That was it. Behind Jin-yu, Security Section Chief Ahn Yoo is taking notes in the visitor’s log.
Suddenly, Ac thugs burst into the room to drag Jin-yu away. They also push past Han to get into the other section with the family, knocking him to the ground as they take the family members out. Yoo tries to complain to Section Chief Park about the visitor regulation violation, but Park just tears up the visitor’s log threatening to blow up the place if he writes them down again.
As Ahn Yoo is trying to piece together the visitor’s log, Han calls to say that Lee Bu-young requests a meeting. He goes to see Lee, who asks if there were more cops involved in the torture. Ahn says that Lee can stay longer, but ends the meeting. Lee asks if Ahn wants to be complicit, but Ahn responds that he is not at liberty to divulge information obtained while on duty.
It is the 3rd of March. 2:00 PM. Yeon-hee meets up with her friend Jung-mi for some…well, it doesn’t really matter what they were going to do, as a group of students suddenly start marching in the street in front of them. Yeon-hee tries to leave, but Jung-mi wants to stay…because the leader is cute.
One of the protesters give Yeon-hee and Jung-mi a flyer for Park Jong-chul’s memorial. Jung-mi is no longer interested. Also, the cute guy has marched away, so no meeting him. Time to go.
Suddenly, police officers in Canadian tuxedos appear and start launching tear gas grenades. The start a baton attack. The students go running. Yeong-hee loses Jung-mi and gets knocked to the ground by…something.
Yeong-hee tries to run off, but a cop catches her by the hair. She protests that she is not a protester, but it is of no use. He throws her to the ground and…some guy knocks him over, picks up Yeong-hee and runs off with her.
The two try to escape through an alleyway, but it doesn’t quite work. The cop grabs onto Yeong-hee so she hits him with part of a mannequin and then stomps on his helmeted head.
The two are still being chased, so a store owner pulls them into her store and pulls down the shutter gate before the cops can come in. She then motions at them to go to the back. As the cops order her to open the gate, she locks it and yells that the store is closed.
Yeong-hee is rubbing her eyes, but the man tells her to wash her face with water instead, as rubbing her eyes with her hands will make it sting worse. He pulls down the handkerchief and…oh…
It looks like the cops have gone, so the storeowner opens up the front. Yeong-hee and the man are about to leave when Yeong-hee notices that he is missing a shoe. Luckily…this is a shoe store. The owner lets him have a brand-new pair of shoes, if only so that the cops don’t look at him funny. They usually cost 8, but she offers them to him for 5. He…has no money, but Yeong-hee offers to pay…well, pay him back. The storeowner laughs as she takes the money. It is unclear whether it is because of the ridiculousness of all this or because Yeong-hee just gave herself a little mustache through her smeared makeup, but Yeong-hee takes one look in the mirror and jets off to the backroom in horror.
2017 was an…interesting year in South Korea. President Park Geun-hye, who had been the subject of scandal since even before becoming president, was impeached and removed in March. Massive protests played a part in turning enough of the country and the political system against her, though it would be alleged later on that she had plans in place for violently moving against the protesters. Later that year would come movies dramatizing political protests in the 1980s. One was A Taxi Driver, filmed the previous year and released in August, which dramatized the Gwanju Massacre early on in the Chun presidency. And this movie, which started filming mostly in April and was released in December, showed the beginning of the end. In a sense, these films are companions, though the presentation of both are quite different.
For the first maybe thirty minutes, it looks like the movie is going to follow Prosecutor Choi and his jurisdictional spat with Commissioner Park’s department. However, after that, reporter Yoon starts taking the spotlight and keeps it until around the fifty-minute mark, when prison guard Han and his niece Yeon-hee. Additionally, while the time-jumps may seem small at first, they get larger and larger, until the film encompasses around 5 months. From the beginning of the end to the end. The director, Jang Joon-hwan, likened the story to a relay race. It is about the everyday heroes and the heroism of everyone.
If there has to be a lead character, then one could argue that it is Commissioner Park Cheo-won. While several of the principal characters are based on real people, Commissioner Park is a fictionalized character, perhaps due to libel laws. At the same time, that gives the writer freedom to portray the main “villain” in any way. So, the movie makes up a character whose fear of Communism comes from a place of genuine terror and personal trauma. We first see him paying respects to his family members whom we find out later were slaughtered by someone whom they had considered part of the family. He may be a ruthless duplicitous bully, but he also tries to look out for his men, no matter who sociopathic they may act. This is not simply about him being power-hungry. While others in the Chun administration, including Chun, may be willing to throw others under the metaphorical bus to save their skin, Commissioner park is a true believer; it is just that his belief got him to hitch his wagon to a brutal and illegitimate dictatorship that would be willing to throw him under the bus if it came to that.
The Chun administration never really had legitimacy. It came to power in a military coup and the Gwangju Massacre had cast a shadow over his presidency. In that sense, it is not surprising that so many people in the movie were willing to push back once they realized that there was momentum in that direction. It may seem incredible that there were so many in various key facets of society, but if this article is to be believed, then that was true. There are so many familiar names there that I briefly wondered if that article was the inspiration for the movie.
There may have been a bit of worry due to a controversy earlier that year with one of the stars. Gang Don-wong, who has a very important guest role, had done an interview in 2007 where he praised his grandfather, Lee Jong-man, who was the CEO of Daedong Industrial Company. Well, it turns out that Lee had been a MAJOR collaborator with the Japanese government, and whether or not there had been controversy during the time of that interview, there definitely was when that interview resurfaced in late nine months before the movie was released. It took about a week (during which a bunch of internet posts about it were deleted) for Gang to apologize for the interview and for his ignorance, though he did not really comment on the post scrubbing. I guess that the filmmakers did not worry too much, as principal photography started nearly 2 months after the incident without him getting recast. And controversy did not hurt the movie too much, as it made around 51 to 51.5 million dollars on a 14 million-dollar budget. That may be on the low end of what the filmmakers wanted, but withing the desired range.
Anyways, a bigger issue to me would be how Oh Dai-su, who played the chief of Joongang Daily, would be accused of sexual harassment and assault starting about three months after the movie was released. God, Oh Dai-su was in frigging everything. Yes, including Korean movies that you like. Well, at least it was only a 40-second role here.AAAANYWAYS…
Two weeks before the official release, there was a special screening where real life-counterparts of people from the movie were in the audience. Overall, they seemed to like it a lot. Of course, they all noted differences when it came to their parts of the story. Park Jong-bu, older brother of Jong-chul, noted that the movie left out the prosecutors’ complicity in the coverup. I am not sure which prosecutors he is talking about specifically. There was Prosecutor Pyo, whose main contribution to the movie is getting kicked by Choi. Perhaps his role could have been expanded. The real Choi, by the way, jokingly criticized his portrayal as violent drunken tough guy, calling himself a very quiet person. The real-life Han also noted that parts of his story were dramatized, particularly one section.
One dramatization of Han’s life is…well…his niece. Apparently, Yeon-hee was not based on a real person. So, Han’s story real-life story was merely his own story, so the fictionalization of his story was done so to open up space for this other character. I think that the character of Yeon-hee was meant to depict the average Korean who is initially apathetic towards the protests. This was Kim Tae-ri’s second film role after her breakout in The Handmaiden and she does very well here. Sidenote: if you are wondering if she has an on-screen reunion with Ha Jung-woo, the answer is no.
It is Yeon-hee’s arc that represents the change in the Korean public, and is, thus integral to the movie. And, despite not showing up until over fifty-minutes in, she is the heart of the movie. Yet, there is also a peculiar writing choice in her presence. She is the movie’s youngest main character and its only female one. This may be because the student protests, which are shown to include many young women, is largely in the background. It is a bit of an odd choice for a movie that has the death of a student protester as its catalyst. That scene of Yeon-hee happening upon a student protest by accident happens about halfway through the movie. And, yeah, I get that there would be little narrative momentum in a story that focuses on students printing flyers, planning protests, and then protesting. Still, it is weird that they are largely backgrounded for the sake of older men, members of the law, the news, the medical community, and the political opposition. These individuals as opposed to the collective. It is notable that Yeon-hee’s main connection to anti-Chun activity is not with protesters her age, but with her uncle’s membership in the opposition.
While the student protesters may have been idealistic and perhaps more politically radical than the movie’s principal heroes, Yeon-hee’s characterization is rather…ummm stereotypical: vain, shallow, materialistic, self-centered, and boy-crazy. She is drawn to the student movement not because of politics, but because of a cute guy. And her change comes not really from the student movement itself, but due to more personal feelings. That said, it was also personal feelings that had prevented her from joining in the first place. She is not ignorant of the government’s vile nature, but whose own painful experiences has left her with cynical apathy. And she worries that her father figure is going down the same path that led to her father’s death. So, it is not a totally thin character. I am not saying that movie is saying that these male individuals in places of power were the only ones who took down the government and that youths did nothing; it is just that the movie decided to focus on who it focused on and the results of that are the results.
Another kind of odd thing is how much the government’s grip over society is told rather than shown. There is a lot of talk, sometimes annoyingly didactic talk, about how nothing will change. But then, things change. Of course, the Anti-communist Bureau, the cops in general, and the military are shown engaging in unbridled brutality. Yet, almost no one seems to back down under intimidation aside from very minor characters. Most of the “heroes” do what they do and then suffer the consequences afterwards. Threats of violence do not deter the people once, only make them alter tactics a bit. Then again, that could have been how it was; that the regime had no legitimacy within society. While they may have cynically resigned themselves to the brutality and the pathetic lies ever since the Gwangju Massacre, the blatant ridiculousness surrounding Park Jong-chul’s murder may have been the last straw for many. And when the cracks started to show, those who may have previously felt nothing but despair saw an opportunity. The regime, always on shaky ground, was about to crumble; it just needed a few more pushes. And when Chun tried to do away with the already thin veneer of a democratic process, that was the last straw for many more. To be sure, there may have been more than the movie showed, such as the additional prosecutorial complicity that Park Jong-bu referred to. Still, if this this LA Times article is anything to go by, the government’s control over the narrative did not last very long. So, while it seems odd, perhaps that was how it was?
The movie appears to end on a hopeful note, with the bombastic song that gives the movie its English title, playing under the credits. Yet, another song plays after that, a quieter, smaller song that implies that the day has not yet come and that the future is unknown. So, as cheesy and sentimental as the movie may be, it acknowledges that simply having gained democracy does not mean that the struggle is over. The election of Park Geun-hye was an obvious sign back then and the current president Yoon Suk-yeol should also be a wakeup call. The people have to remain aware and vigilant. Otherwise, we get what was voted for. Ahem…
This is not a criticism of the film, but I could not help but view this movie through the lens of an American having witnessed the past five years. For a government to be brought down because of protests over the killing of one guy by the cops? I know that it was more complicated than that, but it seems almost…quaint. I mean, how many “police-involved fatalities” have involved at most a few cops getting jailed and a couple of reforms that would not have prevented said killings in the first place? I have heard the “heart attack” excuse before, or some variant that is connected to dubious claims of drug abuse. Setting aside what has been going on here during the past decade and what has been happening just this week, American democracy brought us Ronald Reagan, who did not exactly put in a lot of effort to foster democracy within Chun’s South Korea. Supposedly, there were quite a lot of anti-American sentiments within the student movement and…if that is true, perhaps the students were right to feel that way, even if that does not necessarily help to combat the accusations of them being communist agents. I don’t know if that was a reason to keep them in the background, though.
Even taking into account my issues with the movie, I really enjoyed it and do highly recommend it. I don’t know if watching it TODAY, given how we have been flooded with toxic politics as of late. But if you need to feel a shot of cathartic hope, then maybe this will be just the thing for you.
WTF ASIA 239: Junoon (India: 1979, approx. 131 minutes)
Available on Einthusan.
WTF ASIA 240: A Family (Japan: 2021, approx. 136 minutes)