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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Soon-yeon looks after her sickly younger sibling

Barbie (바비) – ★★★★☆

Barbie (바비)

Barbie (바비)

Director Lee Sang-woo (이상우) has earned the moniker of the ‘ogre of independent cinema’, a title which he is interestingly in favor of. The titles in his filmography attest to his desire to explore controversial subjects, notably Mother is a Whore (엄마는 창녀다) (2009) and Father is a Dog (아버지는 개다) (2010), both of which scrutinize the Korean family unit. As such, the influential director’s films are fascinating insights into taboo subjects often ignored by mainstream cinema.

With Barbie, the topic of international adoption is broached yet throughout the narrative director Lee Sang-woo also examines the concept of the ‘American dream’, the materialism within Korean society, and the poverty and human rights abuses that impact those living on the fringes of contemporary society. The film is a fascinating perspective on such an array of controversial subjects and, while it does takes some time to establish the story, Barbie is an incredibly compelling and poignant production.

Soon-yeong  (Kim Sae-ron (김새론) and her sickly younger sister Soon-ja (Kim Ah-ron (김아론), live with their mentally ill father on the coast of Pohang city. Life is extremely difficult for the family, and while Soon-yeong diligently takes care of everyone her sister dreams of escape. Their uncle Mang-taek  (Lee Cheon-hee (이천희) exploits them all in running his coastal motel where drunks and vagrants frequent. Yet everything changes when Mang-taek’s associate, an American named Steve (Earl Jackson) arrives with his daughter Barbie (Cat Tebo) with an offer to take Soon-yeong back to the USA for ‘a better life’. With the family thrown into chaos, and Steve’s motivations becoming increasingly unclear, Soon-yeong and Soon-ja must make decisions that will change them forever.

Soon-yeon, Soon-ja and their father have their lives turned upside down by Mang-taek

Soon-yeon, Soon-ja and their father have their lives turned upside down by Mang-taek

The world of Barbie  – the coastal area of Pohang City – is expertly constructed as a nihilistic purgatory by director Lee Sang-woo. The bleakness of the surroundings and the poverty that afflicts Soon-yeon’s family is palpable, while the vagrants and sexual predators that move in and out of their lives bring a genuine sense of danger to their well-being. The director constantly challenges the family with the society and culture that surrounds them, allowing for a slow-paced yet highly interesting examination of those struggling to survive in contemporary Korea. With no mother and a mentally ill father, it’s down to Soon-yeon to take on the roles of mother for her sibling Soon-ja, as well as wife and bread-winner as she sells home-made accessories and prepares meals. Yet the real tragedy lies in the fact her efforts are never appreciated, as her father cannot articulate his affection while Soon-ja has grown to despise the life into which she has been born, fantasizing of an escape of make-up and pretty dresses. Such protagonists are complex and acutely difficult to portray, yet the casting of real-life sisters Kim Sae-ron and Kim Ah-ron is an absolute masterstroke. The two young actresses are simply wonderful in conveying not only their poverty-stricken lifestyle, but also how it has forged them into very different beings. Kim Sae-ron, who has honed her talent through films such as The Man From Nowhere and Neighbors, is startlingly poignant throughout Barbie as her indomitable spirit overcomes the heartache before her. Yet younger sister Kim Ah-ron continually threatens to steal the show with her vehement bitterness towards those around her and the desperate attempts to make her fantasy of becoming a princess a reality. However, Soon-ja’s poor health always brings her back to the homestead and Soon-yeon’s care, adding further layers of nuance in exploring the family unit.

Soon-yeon looks after her sickly younger sibling

Soon-yeon looks after her sickly younger sibling

The notion of escape is ultimately provided by uncle Mang-taek, and his associate Steve. Mang-taek is a shockingly awful parental figure due to his abusive language and the manner in which he treats the young girls, bullying and insulting them to get what he wants. His awareness of their plight, and his refusal to share the burden, adds further animosity to his untrustworthy nature. His relationship with Steve is complex to say the least, with the two secretive men disliking and reviling yet needing one another, allegorizing the nature of Korean and American ties. While Mang-taek curses Steve with racial slurs and offenses under his breath, Steve openly displays his detest of Korea in a similarly offensive fashion, highlighting their mutual dislike and lack of cultural understanding yet are forced to work together. Furthermore, director Lee Sang-woo continually emphasises the wealth gap between them through contrasting the luxurious arenas in which Steve and daughter Barbie inhabit, with the extreme poverty occupied by Soon-yeon’s family. Hope appears, however, through the burgeoning friendship between Soon-yeon and Barbie. While they cannot communicate there is an unspoken mutual respect which the director uses to explore the generational ideological differences.

The crux of Barbie’s narrative is the adoption of Soon-yeong by Steve, yet her friendship with his daughter angers him to an unreasonable degree. The plot takes an incredibly long time to explore why this is the case, yet when it finally arrives the film shines as one of the most compelling and poignant pieces of independent cinema of 2012. The contrast between Soon-yeon, who wishes to stay, and Soon-ja, who wishes to go, is central in exploring the concept of the Korean family as well as the dream of America as a land of opportunity and escape. The bittersweet nature of both philosophies are wonderfully conveyed by director Lee Sang-woo, and his approach leaves a lasting and indelible impression.

Soon-ja dreams of America as an escape from poverty

Soon-ja dreams of America as an escape from poverty

Verdict:

Barbie is a highly compelling and poignant drama from director Lee Sang-woo that explores an incredible array of social issues within contemporary Korea. As with the director’s previous work the focus is squarely on interrogating the family unit, yet the inclusion of international adoption allows for an expansion in highlighting a variety of socio-cultural themes and issues. While it takes the film quite some time to get going, Barbie serves as a powerful reminder of the issues facing those in poverty and leaves an indelible impression.

★★★★☆

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Mi-yeon is loving and romantic, attributes not appreciated by her boyfriend

Humming (허밍) – ★★☆☆☆

Humming (허밍)

Humming (허밍)

Cinematic representations of the spirit, or soul, within the romance genre are often life-affirming portrayals of the power of love transcending the physical realm. As the titular phantom in Ghost (1990), Patrick Swayze won the hearts of audiences as a guardian spirit seemingly proving that if love is strong and true it is ‘taken with you’ into the afterlife. In Just Like Heaven (2005), Reese Witherspoon’s spirit left her comatose body and found romance with the man living in her house, emphasising the link between body and soul and the healing power of love.

Humming (허밍), which sees unappreciated comatose girlfriend Mi-yeon returning as a spirit, is director Park Dae-yeong’s attempt at capturing the magic and charm offered by such a premise. The result is an incredibly bland offering with awful dialogue and under-developed characterisation, which gradually gets better in building to a romantic climax.

Jun-seo (Lee Cheon-hee (이천희) is a hardworking scientist who dislikes sports and exercising. Despite this he is routinely dragged to events including diving and rock climbing by his long-term girlfriend Mi-yeon. Her zest for life and trying new things, as well as providing an abundance of affection and romance, makes Jun-seo the envy of other men yet he feels tired by the relationship and begins seeking a way out – namely the one year work placement which is located in the South Pole. Despite this Mi-yeon claims she will wait for him, but on the way to meet him she is the victim of a traffic accident and falls into a coma. Her spirit however continues to meet Jun-seo, and as he gathers his memories of their relationship he begins to remember the love that first brought them together.

Mi-yeon is loving and romantic, attributes not appreciated by her boyfriend

Mi-yeon is loving and romantic, attributes not appreciated by her boyfriend

Humming begins well, as Mi-yeon’s caring and affectionate personality is at odds with Jun-seo’s indifference and reluctance to try new things. Mi-yeon is clearly 100% committed to the relationship, providing incredibly charming and romantic scenes such as leaving a treasure hunt of love letters around Jun-seo’s apartment; Jun-seo, on the other hand, disregards them as an irritation and compounds his boredom with their partnership. Problems quickly rise however as these scenes extend for far too long and become tiresome, making Mi-yeon an almost tragic character due to her naivety while Jun-seo moves from a man tired of his relationship to being nasty and cowardly. As such, Mi-yeon’s accident – terribly filmed by director Park Dae-yeong – is a welcome change of pace rather than a dramatic and unsettling event. The premise of Mi-yeon’s spirit visiting her boyfriend is a wonderfully romantic concept, yet in truth this happens scarcely and does incredibly little to further the narrative. Instead, time is devoted to Jun-seo who, due to earlier scenes, is quite unlikeable and uncompelling as he pieces together memories of how their love initially developed. Again the potential is sound, yet rather than a series of short flashbacks intertwined with contemporary self-discovery, Park Dae-yeong opts to allow the nostalgic sequences to engulf the entire film and as such overshadow the events of the present. The precarious situation of comatose Mi-yeon is therefore undermined as the early stages of the relationship are portrayed, and despite the desperate attempts to convey the sincerity and purity of the blossoming romance they are unconvincing, dull and predictable. Humming is very much a bland, TV movie-style affair.

Jun-seo remembers the romantic moments from his and Mi-yeon's past

Jun-seo remembers the romantic moments from his and Mi-yeon’s past

In terms of performance Han Ji-hye is highly charismatic as love-struck Mi-yeon, lighting up the screen whenever she appears. However the actress is generally required to be happy, smiling and romantic and the underdevelopment is such that she is not stretched into any dramatic territory. The same cannot be said for Lee Cheon-hee who has several dramatic scenes, particularly as time begins to run out for the couple, and his performance is generally competent.

The main problem is the absence of character development. While the similarly themed but by no means perfect Just Like Heaven also featured the spirit of a comatose woman, it succeeded in portraying how the central couple evolved and developed together through both comedic and dramatic events. In Humming such sensibilities are noticeably absent and as such Jun-seo and Mi-yeon are not an engaging couple for audiences to root for.

Jun-seo and Mi-yeon attempt to reconnect

Jun-seo and Mi-yeon attempt to reconnect

Verdict:

Humming – an interesting title considering ‘humming’ never features – has a premise full of potential for romance through the spiritual connections and nostalgic notions of a love long forgotten. Yet the film never gets close to fulfilling such promise due to the unbalanced narrative structure and incredibly underdeveloped characters that ultimately make for a bland and predictable viewing experience. In the lead up to the cliched finaleHumming does become more engaging yet it is too little too late for what is essentially a TV film.

★★☆☆☆

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