Jong-tae is tortured with electricity by Lee Doo-han, known as 'The Undertaker'

National Security (남영동 1985) – ★★★★☆

National Security (남영동1985)

National Security (남영동1985)

National Security (남영동 1985), based on the true story of the illegal imprisonment and torture of activist Kim Jong-tae (김종태), is a difficult and thought-provoking viewing experience. The second feature after director Chung Ji-young’s (정지영) 13 year hiatus from film making – after popular courtroom drama Unbowed (부러진 화살)also based on a true story – National Security is stark and uncompromising in portraying the abject humiliation and pain inflicted upon an innocent man. Such boldness was also reflected in the timing of the film. Turning heads and garnering strong reviews during the premiere at the 2012 Busan International Film Festival, National Security was distributed nationally at the end of November, coinciding with the run up to the presidential elections.

While the film didn’t achieve the implied intention of halting conservative candidate – and dictator Park Chung-hee’s daughter – Park Geun-hye from winning the election, National Security is nonetheless a powerful film about the human rights abuses conducted at the notorious Namyeong-dong detention facility during the 1980s. While it occasionally suffers from repetition and lack of focus on the central protagonist, National Security is a highly compelling and captivating drama, and another great example of the politicization of contemporary mainstream Korean cinema.

In September 1985, senior ranking democracy activist Kim Jong-tae (Park Won-sang (박원상) is abducted and taken to the infamous Namyeong-dong prison, where torture and false confessions are commonplace occurrences. Through intimidation and bullying, the jailers force information from Jong-tae about his past with the Youth Federation for Democracy and his role in the movement against the military dictatorship of fascist Chun Do-hwan. When his answers aren’t what they want, the next 22 days are spent humiliating and abusing Jong-tae through beatings, water-boarding, and electricity, led by Lee Doo-han (Lee Kyeong-yeong, 이경영), also known as ‘The Undertaker’.

Jong-tae is stripped naked and humiliated as preparations for torture begin

Jong-tae is stripped naked and humiliated as preparations for torture begin

Director Chung’s minimalist style is incredible in capturing Jong-tae’s predicament. The stark, washed-out tones coupled with the bare, dirty ‘interrogation’ room in which most of the film takes place, perfectly convey the hopelessness of the situation and the sheer lack of anything humane in Jong-tae’s environment. The director, who also co-wrote the script with three other writers, takes his time in building tension by slowly pacing the torture and humiliations that the central protagonist experiences making for compelling, and occasionally difficult to watch, scenes. Indeed, when Jong-tae first enters the detention room and is forced to strip naked and deprived of sleep and food, the tension is palpable and the emotional resonance disturbing. Yet as physical punishments are initiated and become more and more severe, the pressure is heightened and empathy deepened to the extreme. The torture techniques themselves, gathered from Kim Jong-tae’s memoirs and other prisoner accounts, are portrayed with frightening realism as water-boarding and electric shock methods are enacted, with the consequences quite horrifying. Yet while disturbing and powerful, such scenes of torture become quite repetitive over time as similar acts are enacted again and again, diluting their potency and causing the second act to stall for a period of time.

The laissez-faire attitude towards torture by the guards is also one of the striking features of National Security. Director Chung does an admirable job in providing each of the jailers distinct personalities, conveying them not as evil but as men with few prospects. The relationships that build between Jong-tae and the guards are the source of ironic dark humour, as problems are shared and advice given before the humiliations begin once again. The most fascinating characterization is bestowed upon Lee Doo-han, also known as ‘The Undertaker’. Actor Lee Kyeong-yeong performs the role effectively, conveying the clinical precision and arrogant professionalism of the torture specialist. Whenever he appears on screen, the subtle charisma commands respect while his arrival signifies further pain for Jong-tae, making Doo-han a genuine love-to-hate antagonist.

Jong-tae is tortured with electricity by Lee Doo-han, known as 'The Undertaker'

Jong-tae is tortured with electricity by Lee Doo-han, known as ‘The Undertaker’

While great effort has been taken to provide characterization for Doo-han and the guards, oddly the same cannot be said for Jong-tae himself. In spending so much interest in secondary characters, director Chung appears to have forgotten about the most central one, an issue that also applied with his prior film Unbowed. Aside from a few fantasy sequences and a welcome although belated flashback, director Chung doesn’t really provide Jong-tae with enough history and information to create strong empathy with audiences, relying instead on audience awareness, and the shock of scenes of torture, to do so instead. Despite this, actor Park Won-sang is incredible in the role and performs with sincerity throughout, from moments of abject hunger and tiredness through to horrifying moments of torture. Yet the actor always manages to convey a sense of quiet dignity, even when his actions suggest otherwise.

In a fascinating turnaround, National Security ends with Jong-tae’s career in politics in 2004, working within Korea’s fledgling democratic system to bring the events at Namyeong-dong to light and to halt such abuses from occurring again. Such scenes are powerful reminders of how recent such events were, and that many who were abused, as well as those who committed atrocities, are still alive. It is a fitting finale for such a poignant film, and serves well to instill a sense of modest victory amongst audiences, particularly those from Korea itself, although insinuates that there is still work to be done.

A prominent politician in 2004, Jong-tae works to ensure such atrocities never happen again

A prominent politician in 2004, Jong-tae works to ensure such atrocities never happen again

Verdict:

National Security is a powerful, disturbing film about the human rights abuses suffered by democratic rights campaigner Kim Jong-tae at Namyeong-dong detention center in 1985. Director Chung Ji-young employs his minimalist style highly effectively in depicting scenes of humiliation and torture, allowing for the horror of the acts to speak for themselves. As the central protagonist actor Park Won-sang performs with incredible sincerity, while he characterization of the guards, and of ‘The Undertaker’ Lee Doo-han in particular, are developed, love-to-hate antagonists. National Security is a poignant reminder of the importance of human rights, and is a welcome addition in the politicization of contemporary Korean cinema.

★★★★☆

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Professor Kim Gyeong-ho fights for the truth using the law, which is being abused

Unbowed (부러진 화살) – ★★★★☆

Unbowed (부러진 화살)

Unbowed (부러진 화살)

Courtroom dramas are not a staple of Korean cinema, which is somewhat surprising given the tumultuous relationship between the social elite and corruption. And yet, in the past two years two prominent films based on real events have emerged – Silenced (AKA The Crucible) (도가니), about the sexual abuse of deaf children, and Unbowed (부러진 화살). Politically-charged, socio-cultural critiques are a huge reason why Korean cinema attracted such attention during the late ’90s, and while contemporary output has been much more commercially driven, it appears the industry could be moving back to what made Korean cinema so initially unique. If this is indeed a movement, then Unbowed is certainly part of it.

Unbowed, by director Chung Ji-young (정지영) who returned to the helm after a thirteen year absence, is based on the true story of a professor whose trial for unfair dismissal was rejected. Upset with the verdict, the professor challenged one the judges outside his home with a crossbow. The story, understandably, made headlines; but as time passed it became clear that the story reported in the press and the truth were markedly different. Director Chung Ji-young – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Hyeon-geun (한현근) – presents the tale of Professor Kim Gyeong-ho (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) and his defence lawyer Park Joon (Park Won-sang (박원상) with a highly effective stark social realist aesthetic, much like the very logical, no-frills protagonists themselves. The result is a courtroom drama where the facts speak louder than any directorial style, and the infuriation when clear violations of the law are committed are palpable. However, the focus and development of the central two protagonists is stunted due to far too many characters and secondary narrative elements inhabiting the story, forcing the impact of scenes, and the film overall, to become lessoned.

Professor Kim Kyeong-ho fights for the truth using the law, which is being abused

Professor Kim Gyeong-ho fights for the truth using the law, which is being abused

Interestingly, director Chung Ji-young opens Unbowed with the very event that made headlines as Professor Kim confronts the judge from his case with a crossbow. Yet rather than portray the entire confrontation from beginning to end, the professor’s subsequent incarceration is edited in as well as the journalism that appeared once the incident became public knowledge. While initially a tad frustrating, it becomes readily apparent that the filmmakers wish for the facts – rather than artistic license – to drive the narrative as well as the audience’s desire for more information. This is certainly a noble attempt, yet as the names of those involved as well as other features have been altered this is somewhat undermined. Luckily such a contradiction doesn’t detract from the overall narrative as from the outset the blatant disregard of the law by judges and lawmakers, the questionable evidence and Professor Kim’s charismatically stubborn refusal to submit continually shines through. Likewise the casting of Ahn Seong-gi as the professor is a masterstroke, who brings his incredible likability to the role yet also stretches himself into new territory conveying such a highly logical, intelligent, and occasionally cold protagonist with the utmost sincerity.

Unbowed largely succeeds due to the character of Professor Kim. Ahn Seong-gi portrays him as a humble yet highly intelligent man, a man of principals and ethics undaunted by the challenges before him. Scenes in the courtroom are wonderfully shocking and amusing as the Professor admonishes the judges for cutting him off during speeches, or for simply disregarding the law. An understanding of Korean culture, where seniority is incredibly important, makes such sequences all the more entertaining and are unfailing in creating a triumphant underdog narrative. Similarly the flashback scenes establishing the case, including the Professor’s time at university, prior court cases, and even family scenes, construct him as a genuinely likable and modest man, who simply wants nothing more than fairness for his students, his countrymen and women, and himself. However, the best examples of the courtroom  drama convey how the case fundamentally changes those involved and in this sense Unbowed stutters. From the outset Professor Kim is, despite his stubbornness, a great man which leaves little room for character development. There is only one instance where the film takes a decidedly dark tone for the protagonist, yet what occurs takes place off camera and the ramifications are only alluded to and not explored, which is a missed opportunity. Yet this lack of examination is also due to the great deal of focus bestowed upon defence lawyer Park Joon, who fights for the Professor’s freedom in his own unique manner.

Defence Lawyer Park Joon attempts to garner the support of the public using the media

Defence Lawyer Park Joon attempts to garner the support of the public using the media

Professor Kim’s relationship with defence lawyer Park Joon forms an integral part of the film and is executed well, with Park Won-sang highly competent in the role. The actors respond and play off of each other well, although they manage to form their alliance quite quickly and easily despite their protestations to the contrary. Oddly, the narrative often seems more concerned with Park Joon’s story as he must battle alcoholism, the bankruptcy of his company, the tug of war between his wife and an attractive journalist, and his disillusionment with the law due to a past mistake. If all this appears too much then you’d be correct, as there are so many narrative tangents that add precious little to the main arc that their inclusion is often quite redundant. It also comes at a price, as genuine character development is sacrificed in order to accommodate so many threads. The lawyer’s love interest, in the form of journalist Jang Eun-seo (played by Kim Ji-ho (김지호), is also critically underused as she offers little more than a female presence rather than a crucial figure in the development of the case. Additionally, Park Won-sang is unfortunately required to provide comedic relief, and despite these scenes acting as brief interludes they are generally a wholly unnecessary distraction from the Professor’s story. That said, as the trial begins to gather pace and focus is applied to the final verdict, Unbowed recaptures the verve and vitality that makes the story so compelling and enthralling.

The judges continually reject evidence and pleas that would clarify the truth

The judges continually reject evidence and pleas that would clarify the truth

Verdict:

Unbowed is a highly entertaining courtroom drama, filmed in a modest social realist aesthetic by director Chung Ji-young and featuring a charismatic and articulate performance by Ahn Seong-gi. Both of these features work wonderfully together in portraying the based-on-true-events narrative, adding realism, sincerity, and credibility to the plight of the Professor as well as highlighting corruption within the Korean legal system. While too many narrative threads involving defence lawyer Park Joon overburden the main arc, Unbowed is a great example of a Korean courtroom drama done right.

 ★★★★☆

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