There has been a noticeable ideological shift in the representation between North and South Korea in recent cinematic productions. While the late ’90s inaugurated a period where the differences between the people were rendered moot (as exemplified by Shiri (쉬리), JSA – Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA) and Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며), the past few years have appropriated a nihilistic approach that represents both sides as equally corrupt. The Front Line (고지전), Dance Town (댄스 타운) and even insanely popular TV drama City Hunter (시티헌터) have all subscribed to such representations, depicting government and military officials, and even citizens, as either equally underhanded or worse than their northern counterparts. Poongsan (풍산개) joins this trend, examining the lives of those caught between the ideological conflict in an interesting, albeit haphazard, style.
Poongsan tells the story of an unnamed man who regularly risks his life by crossing the De-Militarized Zone at the request of families on either side. He becomes know as ‘Poongsan’ (Yoon Kye-sang (윤계상) after the brand of cigarettes he smokes, and passes letters, videos, trinkets, and in special cases, people. Concurrently South Korean agents are pressuring a high ranking North Korean defector (Kim Jong-soo (김종수) for information, which he claims he cannot provide without his girlfriend In-ok (Kim Gyoo-ri (김규리) who still lives in The People’s Republic. The agents charge the DMZ runner with finding and retrieving the woman, yet on their dangerous return an unshakeable bond forms between them. On their arrival in the South,the double-crossing South Korean agents and North Korean spies vie for control over the lives of the defector, his girlfriend and the runner, leading to a deadly showdown.
While directed by his protege Juhn Jai-hong (전재홍), Kim Ki-duk’s (김기덕) indelible stamp is firmly cemented in Poongsan due to his dual role as writer/producer. The nameless DMZ runner, who never utters a word of dialogue during the entire course of the film, has more than a little in common with the lead in prior film 3-Iron (빈집). ‘Poongsan’ never talks, rather allowing his actions to convey his personality and pure intentions. If there is an ‘enemy’ in the film it would be ‘words’. The spies within the film continually offer empty promises and the rhetoric they spout is interchangeable. Worse still is that once the rhetoric has finished, both sides engage in horrific barbarous torture methods that reveal a twisted sadism within the agents. Even the past times of the agents are the same; the southern agents visit a hostess bar for the northern prostitutes, and the northern agents frequent a bar for southern working girls. The high ranking North Korean defector is portrayed similarly, initially conveying love and adoration for his girlfriend which later reveals itself as passive-aggressive misogyny. His vital report is also of note, as the defector understands the nature of his situation – once his document is submitted, his own life will be forfeit despite the security insisting otherwise. Only the silent ‘Poongsan’ and In-ok are represented as innocent and genuine, the true victims of the ideological warfare that continues to divide the populace.
As is often Kim Ki-duk’s style, the narrative veers in different directions unexpectedly yet still serves to emphasise the underlying socio-cultural critique. A wide array of alternating generic features are employed to this end, however they tend to distract from the deconstruction of the north/south opposition rather than enhance it. In addition, leaps are taken with suspension of disbelief in several areas. For example, the romance between ‘Poongsan’ and In-ok begins organically enough yet somehow jumps into a timeless intimate love; similarly, ‘Poongsan’ is a veritable one-man army who seemingly recovers from grave wounds with ease. The final showdown involves the highly idealised event of locking both factions of agents in a room to settle the dispute once and for all, which is an interesting premise yet merely serves to highlight their cowardice and lacks intensity. As the chief protagonist, Yoon Kye-sang (윤계상) gives a competent performance as ‘Poongsan’, a difficult task given the inherent stoicism. Unfortunately ‘Poongsan’ is, in the latter half of the film, relegated to being a supporting actor as the political themes take precedence.
Poongsan is a very interesting nihilistic examination of the north/south divide, one that embraces wholeheartedly the similarities between both sides in an incredibly pessimistic context. The deconstruction of the agencies of both countries, and the use of language as a tool/enemy is wonderfully executed and brings a new dimension to the political debate within the cinematic realm. The lead protagonists however lack the depth required for them to be believable and fully attract empathy, and in addition to other frivolous/whimsical uses of generic conventions and audience disbelief, detract from the construction of this statement. Poongsan will no doubt be hailed in future discussions of Korean cinema as a film that brought a new dimension to an old debate and is an entertaining, though occasionally disjointed, film.