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."

Bang is a comedy, and an action thriller, but there's no mistaking what writer/director Im thinks of this administration: It abused power at every level, from repressing student demonstrations to intimidating prostitutes. It's telling that despite the arrogance of the people in power, they're also insecure, speaking in Japanese when they want to impress someone. Soon after we first meet Kim, we see him exhale with his hand over his nose and mouth, saying he can smell the rot within (his doctor is telling him to retire and enjoy what time he has left). In real life, Kim's motive was more likely a coup than altruism, but equating the cancer devouring Kim and the corruption in his country too good a metaphor to pass up.

Baek's performance as Kim is the one that anchors the film, and it's excellent. He makes the director of a totalitarian regime's spy service a sympathetic character; maybe age and illness has mellowed him, or given him a moment of clarity. Early in the film, when he's interacting with other members of the administration, we get the impression that he's being very careful with his words, and as the dinner party progresses, he does a good job of revealing his increasing disdain to the audience without necessarily making us think he'd tip the other characters off. He sells grimly comic situations, such as looking for another gun to finish off the man crawling toward him.

Just as interesting is Han as Agent Ju. We're set up to believe he's a monster, as he browbeats a young woman and her mother awkwardly trying to blackmail someone in the administration, but as the film goes on, he becomes more nuanced. He's got a smaller world-view than Kim, less worried about principles like democracy than providing for his family. He worries about coming out on the other side alive the most, but is also truly vexed by what to do with the two college-aged girls who witness everything; his face and body language tell us that while he has no issue with killing the President or his advisors, he does have lines he does not want to cross.

The rest of the cast is strong, too. Song Jae-ho plays President Park as thoroughly slimy if short of rubbing his hands with evil. There's no concern for anyone else to him, and little but contempt for the outside world. Jeong Won-jung goes a bit over-the-top as a bully, but it fits; he's never had to be a politician like Park and thus has no issues with not just abusing power, but abusing it in a crude fashion. Kwun Byung-gil is a bit more of a moderating presence as Yang; he knows that part of his job is the be "the President's drinking buddy", and his measured delivery makes us wonder if he might eventually be the voice of reason. A different perspective is provided by Cho Sang-gun as Shim, the house's heavy old butler and caretaker who sees everything but stays aloof.

Im handles all of the film's facets exceptionally well. The action scenes are fast-paced and easy to follow; they are as tense as any you'll see and aren't derailed by the jokes - the crazy situations act add zing rather than decrease tension. The comedy is dark, and it must have been jarring initially to see Park and company portrayed as not just reprehensible, but also foolish. One tends to think of a dictator as a monster, rather than a buffoon, and the idea that the people in charge of an entire country are little more than horny asshats or that history can turn because of a drunken offensive comment at dinner is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious; and the two contradictory reactions enhance each other.

Korea had a crazy twentieth century, but it's certainly making for some great movies in the twenty-first.

Read the rest at HBS (dead link).

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.

That last act vexes me. The film is bookended with an elderly Jin-seok (Jang Min-ho) and his granddaughter (Jo Yun-hie) being called by archaeologists excavating the sight of a fierce battle that took place fifty years older, where they found an expensive pen Jin-tae gave to Jin-seok before the war. The plot twist I was expecting from this doesn't happen, but the one that does seems even more far-fetched. I'm sure people did defect during the war, but would they be placed in a position where they could potentially turn on the side defected to? It strikes me that North Korea would be more paranoid than this (as they should be); it's a situation that really wouldn't exist outside of a movie.

So, we need the cast to sell us on it, and they are pretty solid. Jang Dong-kun grabs our attention as Jin-tae, getting an awful lot of range out of his cherubic appearance. Over the course of the film, Jin-tae will be many things - loving older brother, hardened soldier, a fellow enjoying his status as a hero a little too much, and thoroughly disillusioned; he handles all of those facts and transformations without ever losing sight of who the character is at the core. Bin Won is nearly as good as younger brother Jin-seok. The pair has a good dynamic, with college student Jin-seok initially seeming like the sensible one while Jin-tae is a goofball, but Jin-tae's pragmatism allows us to see Jin-seok as somewhat naive later on; he's able to maintain his idealism because Jin-tae has been protecting him. We don't see nearly as much of Lee Eun-ju's Young-shin as we see of the brothers, of course, but she's fine there; we get a sense of her as a thoroughly decent person (the neighborhood kids all tend to congregate around her) while believing that she wouldn't consider the long-term effects of what she does.

We meet a number of other soldiers in the brothers' platoon, and they're standard war-movie types played well enough. One of the main reasons they're introduced is to serve as fodder during battle scenes, and writer/director Kang Je-gyu serves up some pretty nasty combat. The most obvious comparison is Saving Private Ryan, but where Spielberg desaturated the color to give his film the look of wartime photography, Kang eschews such tricks, opting to give us a straight-ahead view of the blood and mayhem. The violence and its effects are garish and graphic, almost at times becoming the "fun" dismemberment of horror movies, but remaining solidly disquieting. The combat is done on a large scale, with several sequences using hundreds if not thousands of extras. Some liberties are probably taken here; at least one battle is presented as being at such close quarters that not only are bayonets used, but it becomes a fistfight. It gets across the point of vicious combat, though, probably better than shooting rifles from a distance.

Kang's script is pretty good - the narrative hook of two brothers conscripted and the older, less-educated one trying to protect the one who represents the family's hopes and dreams is compelling. I like how he contrasts that with the damage that the Home Guard is doing to that family when they're away; it lends tragic weight to the proceedings and tempers the anti-North Korean rhetoric that naturally comes up during the story. But that last act; it's like it comes from another movie. It's an interesting movie, one which would certainly be worth watching, and has another good action scene, but it makes the movie less about the brothers' relationship and more about... I'm not sure, exactly. The insanity of the two Koreas being at war? How some of the authoritarian policies of South Korea were as dangerous as the communist North, if not more so? There's a good theme about the rescuer needing to be rescued, and the ending is satisfying, though it's not really an ending that the first hour and a half was leading up to.

At two hours and twenty minutes, this is an epic-sized war movie, and despite the odd last act, one with much to recommend it. It doesn't flinch from war's ugliness, nor does it ignore the South's own moral lapses in time of war. And there's something right about a Korean War movie being a brother story at its heart. I don't know that this is the definitive movie about that conflict, but it should probably be on the short list.

Read the rest at HBS (dead link)


Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

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