Assassination (암살) – ★★★☆☆

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, independence fighters wage war against the regime. However complicating matters significantly are the native Koreans who offer support to the invaders, turning traitor for wealth and power. One such turncoat, Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yeong), is selected as the next assassination target with sniper Ahn Ok-yoon (Jeon Ji-hyeon), bruiser ‘Big Gun’ (Jo Jin-woong) and explosives expert Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon) recruited for the task by independence captain Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae). However unbeknownst to the trio, contract killers Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-soo) have been hired to stop them before they can fulfil the mission.

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Deserving credit for producing blockbuster fare in the Korean film industry – as well as for touching on the extremely sensitive issue of Japanese collaboration – director Choi Dong-hoon has once again crafted solid entertainment in the form of Assassination. While boasting a talented ensemble cast and and production values most other directors could only dream of, Choi’s latest still, as with prior film The Thieves, suffers from an overly-long and convoluted narrative that is tonally inconsistent. Alongside poor characterisation and lack of depth, Assassination is ultimately eye-candy cinema that is fun while it lasts but difficult to truly invest in.

Assassination begins in explosive fashion, as the fraught political period is brought to life through an adrenaline-inducing opening sequence that sees resistance fighter Yeom attempt to take out a high-profile Japanese target. It’s an engrossing and brilliantly executed introduction, with director Choi effortlessly generating thrills while setting up momentum for events to come. It also, ironically, contains much of what the film is about – glorious production values and camerawork, and talented performers wrangling with thread-bare characterisation.

The film’s reported $16 million budget is clearly visible in every frame as Assassination is truly a visual treat. The production, set and costume design are consistently impressive from beginning to end and it’s a genuine shame that the talented teams behind these areas have not been more widely celebrated for their work, for Assassination is worth watching largely for the visual finesse within.

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Director Choi has always managed to attract an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of the best talent within the industry for his projects, and Assassination is no exception. The manner in which such disparate characters are weaved together is arguably more organic than Choi’s previous work, and there is great entertainment value to be had during the film’s first half as alliances are forged and events set up. Yet at the half way mark the narrative takes a turn for the worse, veering into a wealth of convoluted and contrived plot points while taking initially promising characters and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

While the film’s stars perform their roles competently, unfortunately the characterisation issues effect them greatly. Jeon Ji-hyeon is promising as an empowered captain of the indolence who defies authority, only to be later reduced to her image in the film’s second act and never really shows her range. Ha Jeong-woo does what he can in the role of Hawaii Pistol though it quickly becomes apparent that both he and sidekick Oh Dal-soo never really belong in a story of Korean independence, seemingly remnants from a comedy-western that are shoe-horned in for light relief. Lee Jeong-jae performs the role of resistance leader Yeom with confident ease and is arguably the most charismatic presence, although the actor is in real danger of becoming typecast which undermines the tension.

While consistently entertaining, perhaps the biggest issue with Assassination is that the narrative itself is simply vapid. Director Choi bravely employs the extremely sensitive topic of Koreans collaborating with their oppressors during the era, but never explores nor takes a stance on the issue. It’s only in the film’s dying moments when one such traitor is allowed to twist history into portraying himself as a patriot that the film’s message takes a disturbingly conservative tone, and as such the underutilisation of a key feature of Korean history is sadly wasted.

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Verdict:

One of the big tentpole films of 2015, blockbuster Assassination is an entertaining affair. Director Choi Dong-hoon once again proves his ability to command a talented ensemble cast and enormous budget. Top marks however instead go to the production crew who’ve crafted Assassination into a visual treat, making it possible to withstand the overly-long convoluted narrative and thread-bare characterisation that so often threatens to derail the proceedings.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Reviews

Perfect Proposal (은밀한 유혹) gets an English Subbed Trailer

Perfect Proposal (은밀한 유혹)

Perfect Proposal (은밀한 유혹)

Steamy thriller Perfect Proposal – or more literally translated as Secret Temptation – has received an English subtitled trailer ahead of its June 4th release date in Korea.

Based on French novel “La Femme de paille” (Woman of Straw) by Catherine Arley, the scandalous story depicts an ambitious young man (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) attempting to scheme a fortune from his sickly uncle (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), enlisting the help of an attractive yet heavily-indebted woman (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) to do so. If she can marry the old man and manipulate him into changing his will so that she inherits his fortune, the pair will be rich forever more. Yet things don’t turn out as planned.

Director Yoon Jae-goo (윤재구), who previously helmed Secret (2009) and wrote Seven Days (2007), adapted the screenplay as well as taking the megaphone, and it will be interesting to see how he has interpreted such thrillingly seductive source material.

Perfect Proposal also signifies the return of actress Im Soo-jeong after a three year absence from the big screen, and playing a particularly different role from her last outing in Everything About My Wife.

For the English subbed trailer, please see below.

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KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) – ★★★☆☆

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.

Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people.  Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.

From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.

Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.

Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

Verdict:

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Whistle Blower (제보자) – ★★★☆☆

Whistle Blower (제보자)

Whistle Blower (제보자)

In 2004, Korean doctor Hwang Woo-suk published that he, along with his team of researchers, had successfully cloned a human embryo and were able to remove stem cells from it. The revelation rocked the scientific community as the breakthrough was the first of its kind, yet it was surpassed only a year later when Hwang claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cells. As such, Hwang and his team had the ability to work on remedies for diseases previously believed to be incurable, catapulting the doctor into the limelight as a national hero and a savior of the Korean economy. Except that, as an investigation in 2006 by MBC reporters revealed, it was all a lie. Despite the evidence however, many Koreans still believe that doctor Hwang is the ‘pride of Korea’, and that to question his work is unpatriotic.

Whistle Blower (제보자), by director Lim Soon-rye (임순례) and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong (이춘형), is based on the scandalous affair that caused international embarrassment for the Korean scientific community. The thriller focuses on investigative journalist Min-cheol (Park Hae-il (박해일) as he is tipped off about the stem cell hoax by whistle blower Min-ho (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석). Joining forces with intrepid young reporter I-seul (Song Ha-yoon (송하윤), the duo begin digging into the claims of Doctor Lee Jang-hwan (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), and uncover a series of shocking revelations while also contending with angry Korean citizens.

Producer Min-cheol interviews whistle blower Min-ho, who claims to have knowledge of a  national scandal

Producer Min-cheol interviews whistle blower Min-ho, who claims to have knowledge of a national scandal

Given the electrifying and scandalous subject material, the potential for a explosive and culturally resonating conspiracy thriller was high. Yet with Whistle Blower director Lim and screenwriter Lee have crafted a standard effort, one that is competent and ticks all the boxes of the genre yet is uninspired and barely scratches the surface of the core issues with which the film is concerned.

The true-life crime features not only a hoax on an international scale, but the collusion of the then-government and media in both propelling the fraud into the national consciousness as well as stifling the investigation into it, while the zealous nationalistic fervor of the populace offers potent introspective exploration. Such issues are depicted in a very limited capacity or completely omitted altogether which is more than a little disappointing, and while watching Whistle Blower the sense that the filmmakers were censored as much as the characters within the film adds an acute sense of irony.

Where Whistle Blower succeeds is through the journey of producer Min-cheol, as he attempts to uncover evidence to support his case against Dr. Lee. Director Lim does well in representing the variety of obstacles in his path and paces the story well, resulting in a thriller that moves along briskly and is rarely dull. The various tip offs continually spur interest while the back room politics within the station add an additional threat of urgency, as well as hinting at the larger scale corruption of Korean conglomerates.

Producer Min-cheol and intrepid assisstant I-seul uncover the evidence

Producer Min-cheol and intrepid assistant I-seul uncover the evidence

Park Hae-il is in typically good form as the investigative producer, though as there is little in the way of character development the role is far from demanding. He works best when playing off of the supportive cast, particularly his intrepid assistant I-seul and team leader Seong-ho, played by Song Ha-yoon and Park Won-sang (박원상) respectively. Despite their limited presence throughout the film both Song and Park are highly charismatic, endearing protagonists, giving impressive performances and often steal the show whenever they are on screen.

Ironically whistle blower Min-ho is given very little screen-time and development that mostly requires actor Yoo to walk around appearing pitiful, with the narrative largely focusing – repetitively – on his and wife Mi-hyeon’s (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong (류현경) sick child. This is a great shame and a missed opportunity given that that real whistleblower is still considered something of a traitor by many in contemporary Korea. Luckily however, actress Ryoo provides the best performance in the film despite her extremely limited presence, making the situation one possible to invest in.

Interestingly, the filmmakers have opted to represent the fraudulent Dr. Lee in a rather positive, sympathetic light. The narrative seeks to portray the doctor less as a criminal, and more of a man whose ambition to help both the sick and Korea at large got the better of him. There are occasional hints at his manipulative genius, yet the story doesn’t delve deeper into the illegalities outside of the fabricated stem cell research, which is truly bizarre and a waste of potential.

The reporters must contend with rampant nationalism in their quest to expose the truth

The reporters must contend with rampant nationalism in their quest to expose the truth

Verdict:

Given the scandalous true story on which the film is based, Whistle Blower had the potential to be an explosive thriller and a keen exploration of a variety of facets in contemporary Korean culture. Yet director Lim Soon-rye and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong have produced a standard, uninspired example of the genre, one which fulfills the criteria but never delves deeply into the issues of the time. Whistle Blower is competent yet disappointing, and is a real missed opportunity.

★★★☆☆

Reviews
Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) – ★★★★☆

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브)

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브)

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) is a rare breed of Korean thriller. Featuring superstar Ha Jeong-woo (하정우), the film takes place almost entirely within a single room rather than racing against time around a city. As such it shares several tropes with Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, ramping up tension through the claustrophobic setting while simultaneously exposing the lead protagonist for past bad deeds.

Within the highly restrictive setting director Kim Byeong-woo (김병우) does an excellent job in generating suspense, while the critique of the highly competitive – and corrupt – world of the newsroom makes the thriller a surprisingly deep cultural examination. However, the film is let down by a lack of characterisation in regards to the central roles while the tension is often undermined by arguably unintentional comedy. Despite such shortcomings The Terror Live is a unique and interesting addition to the genre, and one which leaves audiences wondering about the villains in society after the credits have finished rolling.

Yeong-hwa is apathetic in his role as a radio show host

Yeong-hwa is apathetic in his role as a radio show host

Recently divorced and demoted to a radio show host, Yoon Yeong-hwa (Ha Jeong-woo) couldn’t care less about his new role as he repeatedly offends callers with his brusque manner. However when one caller phones in and claims to have primed bombs on Mapo Bridge located near the station, Yeong-hwa scoffs – and moments later the bridge is in ruins. Seeing this as his chance to return to the spotlight as a TV news anchor, Yeong-hwa teams up with former manager Cha Dae-eun (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), quickly setting up a newsroom and broadcasting the terrorists demands instead of reporting to the police.  As the ratings skyrocket and other news agencies struggle to catch up, it quickly becomes apparent to Yeong-hwa that something is very, very wrong as the terrorist becomes increasingly fixated on him personally, intent on exposing his checkered past.

One of the great strengths of The Terror Live is in conveying the cutthroat manner executed by those in power and in the media.  The thriller is one of the few films to tackle the issue of real news and the mediated news presented to society, capturing the seemingly inherent corruption and societal risks taken in the war for ratings.  Within this framework Yeong-hwa – whose name literally means ‘movie’ – is very much at home and director Kim does a superb job in slowly drip-feeding character information throughout the narrative. From the outset Yeong-hwa is certainly in-keeping with other thriller anti-heroes as he thrives in the grey areas of morality, only coming to reconsider his position due to the threat of exposure. As such the anchorman must not only acquire, filter, and present the news to Korean society and outwit a terrorist on live television, but also fend off a damaging character assassination attempt and please his management. Juggling so many plot threads is consistently riveting viewing, as new dimensions to the case constantly challenge everything Yeong-hwa and the audience have come to learn, driving up suspense for a thrilling viewing experience.

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

Ironically however the inclusion of so many plot threads is also one of The Terror Live‘s key flaws, as there is so much going on that character development is sacrificed. Ha Jeong-woo is a gifted actor and performs very competently, yet he is given little to work with as Yeong-hwa other than being a shrewd and morally ambiguous news anchor. The same criticism also applies to the terrorist, who clearly has strong motivation for his attacks but is a rather two-dimensional antagonist. Luckily director Kim’s highly kinetic camerawork keeps such issues at bay featuring a variety of techniques including crash-zooms and realism-inducing camera shaking as well as more traditional fare, while the rapid editing helps to ramp up the tension without ever becoming nauseating.

The suspense generated within the confines of the newsroom is very impressive, yet bizarrely there are often instances of unwarranted comedy that serve to completely undermine the tension. It is difficult to know if such moments are intentional or not. When Yeong-hwa struggles with a situation and begins swearing at his oppressors it is incredibly funny, although the straight faces within the film suggest otherwise. Once the comedy has passed however it’s back to business and the dramatics increase further, leading to a daring finale and a potent commentary on Korean politics and the media.

The conflict between the bid for ratings or stopping the terrorist put the team at odds

The conflict between the bid for ratings or stopping the terrorist put the team at odds

Verdict:

The Terror Live is a rare and highly interesting thriller. Within the confines of a newsroom director Kim Byeong-woo does an excellent job in escalating tension by featuring a variety of camerawork techniques, while the story regarding corruption within both Korean media and the government is a potent socio-cultural critique. While the lack of characterisation and (arguably unintentional) comedy undermines the suspense, there is more than enough on offer to provide an entertaining thrill-ride from start to finish.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Jin-bae attempts to penetrate the security surrounding 'The Man's' residence

26 Years (26년) – ★★★★☆

26 Years (26년)

26 Years (26년)

The production history of 26 Years (26년) is an incredible tale. Based on the popular web-comic by Kang Full (강풀), the film adaptation has languished in development for years as companies refused to finance the film due to the politically sensitive story – with some claiming the conservative government were the source of pressure. Frustrated, producer Choi Yong-bae went an alternative route to secure funding through crowd-sourcing, attracting donations from over 15,000 people which in turn garnered larger sums from celebrities such as musician Lee Seung-hwan and TV personality Kim Je-dong.

As with the 2012’s other controversial film National Security (남영동 1985)26 Years was timed to coincide with the presidential election and held particular relevance. The revenge story is based on the May 1980 Gwangju massacre, where Korean troops brutally suppressed the democratic protests killing up to 2000 people. The man responsible – dictator Chun Doo-hwan – was sentenced to death but later pardoned, currently living in seclusion at taxpayers expense. With prior dictator Park Chun-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, running for the 2012 presidency, 26 Years was a not-so-subtle attempt at reminding the public of her legacy. The result is an incredibly exciting thriller with a poignant emotional core, one that occasionally requires leaps in disbelief and sometimes stumbles in generating tension, but a film that nonetheless serves as a potent reminder of the raw, unresolved wound that for many continues to be a source of pain within the nation.

During the May 1980 Gwangju massacre, families were torn apart and forever scarred as loved ones were murdered before their eyes. 26 years later, the youths of the time have become adults and sought their way in life, yet the psychological scars that they carry from the time are still readily apparent. Kwak Jin-bae (Jin Goo (진구), who lost his father in the incident while his mother succumbed to psychological illness, has become a gangster at a nightclub. Sim Mi-jin (Han Hye-jin (한혜진) has become an Olympic marksman despite the death of her mother and father’s subsequent alcoholism. Police officer Kwon Jeong-hyeok (Seulong (임슬옹), whose sister was horrifically killed in front of him, is insulted further when tasked with helping the man responsible arrive home safely by changing traffic lights. When a former soldier who took part in the event called Kim Gap-se (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) gathers the three together, they formulate a plan to finally kill ‘The Man’ (Jang Gwang, 장광) once and for all.

The team is recruited by former soldier Kim Gap-se and second-in-command Kim Joo-an

The team is recruited by former soldier Kim Gap-se and second-in-command Kim Joo-an

Director Jo Geun-hyeon (조근현) does an incredible job of conveying the pain and suffering endured by the events of the Gwangju massacre. In a truly stunning animated sequence the history of the tragedy is presented, as well as the specific horrors that the individuals – who later form the revenge squad – experience. While such an approach could easily be melodramatic and even insulting to the victims of the conflict, director Jo deftly sidesteps such concerns by conveying the stark, unadulterated terror that was inflicted upon the people. Blood, psychological breakdowns, rotting corpses and disembowelment all feature in frightening detail, not only exploring the abject brutality of the atrocity but also providing powerful impetus for the those effected.

The psychological scars brought about by the event are not ignored, and screenwriter Lee Hae-young deserves credit for their inclusion and elevating the narrative beyond a standard revenge thriller. Each protagonist has their own distinct neuroses, from Jin-bae’s outbursts of violence to Mi-jin’s cold and unemotional demeanor, and each serves a valuable purpose in the mission. Writer Lee also manages to include some wonderful moments, such as the oft-stated argument that dictator Chun was good for the country due to economic policies and the Olympic Games, a debate that is quietened simply through Jin-bae’s glare. In another, a police officer likens helping Chun arrive home safely to feeling ‘like being raped.’ These minor asides help to form a sense of Korean unity against corruption, and lend further legitimacy to the resentment against Chun and the assassination attempt.

Chun, however, is never mentioned directly and is simply referred to as ‘The Man’ throughout the film, although it’s quite clear who is the villain. As the former dictator, actor Jang Gwang gives a highly effective performance conveying the stubborn, unremorseful antagonist with skill despite appearing in relatively few scenes. Jang seems to be adept in playing nefarious roles, as exhibited as a true-life child molester in Silenced (도가니)and his performance in 26 Years is certainly one of the highlights of his career to date.

Jin-bae attempts to penetrate the security surrounding 'The Man's' residence

Jin-bae attempts to penetrate the security surrounding ‘The Man’s’ residence

The rest of the cast also fare well, however due to the quite ambitious task of including so many individuals and narrative facets their character development, as well as that of their mission, is somewhat stunted. Of them all, Jin Goo as violent gangster Jin-bae receives the most amount of screen-time as he gradually changes from thug to team leader. Jin Goo brings an intensity to the role and conveys the required physicality well, quickly becoming the central hero of the film and his presence is always engaging and entertaining. His relationship with Olympic sharpshooter Mi-jin however is quite convoluted and unnecessary, particularly as there are precious few moments that explore the team dynamics or the relationships between each member prior to the forced romance. Han Hye-jin has stated that she wanted to role of Mi-jin as she wanted an acting role (rather than simply one for her appearance) although she never really attempts to go beyond cold stoicism. Police officer Jeong-hyeok, played by Seulong, suffers the most in terms of focus and is often a whiny irritation. This is a shame considering his backstory is one of the most poignant, yet his motivations are never really explored. Lee Kyeong-yeong, who also starred in the aforementioned National Security, provides a unique perspective as a soldier forced to take part in the Gwangju massacre and performs well with the material he is provided, but again the great many facets within the narrative don’t allow further room to explore his guilt.

Despite the fairly brief character development once the team forms, their combined efforts during the assassination attempts are thrilling and adrenaline-inducing. Even though it is fictional, it is genuinely exciting, even cathartic, to see the man responsible for the Gwangju massacre in the crosshairs of a victim he created and as such brings a fresh perspective on the old debate between revenge and justice. The lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are continually blurred as a result, with the police and security officers set up as opposition but are themselves conflicted by their roles. While the attempts to kill ‘The Man’ occasionally require the odd leap of disbelief and are overly long, the audience investment generated throughout makes the action and tension incredibly engaging.

Mi-jin takes aim, ready to serve justice on the unrepentant dictator

Mi-jin takes aim, ready to serve justice on the unrepentant dictator

Verdict:

With an fraught production history finally culminating in crowd-sourcing, 26 Years is a great cinematic adaptation of Kang Full’s webcomic. With its politically sensitive story involving the 1980 Gwangju massacre and the subsequent pardoning of the dictator responsible, the film strikes an emotional chord despite the fictional revenge tale. Director Jo Geun-hyeon and writer Lee Hae-young have produced a highly engaging thriller and is a poignant reminder of the legacy of Chun Doo-hwan’s regime.

★★★★☆

Reviews
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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