Monday, April 10, 2006

Two from Korea: The President's Last Bang and The Brotherhood of War

I haven't been reading nearly as much as I want to lately, and I've got a pile of stuff to go through, but I'd like to find a good book about Korean history in the twentieth century, if only because what I've seen on film the past few years is fascinating. Tragic, more often than not, though it seems to be turning out all right in the end, at least for South Korea: Like Japan before them, they've got a strong economy and their export goods are gaining a better reputation. They've got one of the most vibrant national cinemas going, too.

Which is kind of amazing, really. Up until about fifteen years ago, South Korea was mostly a democracy in name only; it just looked good because it was located next to North Korea on a map, where Kim Il-Sung basically made himself a communist king and his son maintains just as firm a grip. It's easy to look like the good guys next to that, but in the South, Park Chun-hee declared martial law and remained President for eighteen years before the assassination attempt chronicled in The President's Last Bang, but his death didn't change much; Memories of Murder opens by informing us that ten years later, the country was under the rule of a military dictatorship; Ma Vie en Rose describes how dissidents evaded the government's curfew by hiding out in all-night comic book rental shops.

Crazy. Absolutely crazy, and somehow, it's all working out for South Korea. One just hopes that eventually, the two Koreas will be able to reunite as the two Germanies did. The Korean people have earned itself some happiness and prosperity, although I must admit to being glad that they've been able to turn their darker years into some damn good movies.

The President's Last Bang (Geuddae geusaramdeul)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

History is stranger than fiction.

In October, 1979, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency assassinated President Park Chun-hee. This is a matter of historical fact, but Im Sang-soo isn't interested in delivering a dry lecture. So he makes The President's Last Bang a comedy. After all, most Koreans know the names and events; what Im does is provide surprising motivations and highlight how an act this audacious will have moments a morbid humor.

President Park, we're informed, has been in office for eighteen years, and though the fiction of democracy is maintained via an opposition party, he is a venal and corrupt dictator. Idle and arrogant in his power, he decides to have a "meeting" (more of a party) at a KCIA safe house. In attendance will be the President, Chief Bodyguard Cha (Jeong Won-jung), Chief Secretary Yang (Kwun Byung-gil), two young and pretty women, and KCIA chief Kim (Baek Yun-shik). After a series of particularly ugly comments by Cha, Kim excuses himself to speak with one Chief Agent Ju (Han Suk-kyu): "We do it tonight." What about...? "The President is the primary target. Killing Cha is just a bonus."

Read the rest at HBS.

The Brotherhood of War (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Korean War on Film)

The Korean War is overlooked in the United States; the world was much the same at its end as at its beginning, and it never became the unending quagmire that Vietnam or Iraq did. The Communist witch-hunts and later Vietnam became much more interesting stories. In Korea, though, it was one of the century's defining events, and here serves as the backdrop for an intense, if occasionally melodramatic, war movie.

University student Lee Jin-seok (Bin Won) and his older brother Jin-tae (Jang Dong-Kun) live just outside Soeul with Jin-tae's fiancée Young-shin (Lee Eun-ju) and their mother (Lee Yeong-ran). When North Korea invades and Souel is evacuated, Jin-seok is dragooned into the army, as is Jin-tae when he tries to extricate his brother, despite the rule about only one child per family. As they're assigned to the front lines, Jin-tae makes a deal with his superior officer to take dangerous assignments to keep his brother relatively safe, gaining a hero's reputation in the process. Meanwhile, on the homefront, Young-shin is considered a communist sympathizer because she attended meetings for the rice that was handed out - and as you can imagine, being considered a communist sympathizer is much worse in a Republic of Korea in the middle of a shooting war than Cold War America. When the family is reunited, the story takes a lurching (and improbable?) twist.

Read the rest at HBS

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brotherhood of war sounds really good, I'm going to have to check it out.

Ben said...

Yeah it does sound interesting, I hope it's released out here soon.