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May 18, A Splendid Holiday?

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Spring of 1980. Gwangju, South Korea. The breeze of late spring blew through the southern city, over the river of billboards and the perky sounds of green cabs. Color broadcasting had only started a few months earlier, and televisions could be seen airing baseball. Or maybe a little horror, with the virgin ghosts of KBS program Hometown of Legends predating Sadako's screams and chronic back pains by a good few moons. The residents of Gwangju were just living out their small, everyday routines, but what happened from May 18, 1980 changed their lives in ways they could have never imagined. These everyday people, those few fateful days, are the focus of Kim Ji Woon's 2007 blockbuster May 18.

For many people, Chun Doo Hwan (Jeon Du Hwan), the balding middle-aged man who took the country by force after president Park Jung Hee's assassination, was nothing more than "that guy on TV", a villain you'd hate on weekends and holidays, time permitting. Sure, martial law was just as uncomfortable as Park's yushin regime, but these were people hardened by the Korean War and decades of insane modernization, corrupt politics, and cultural propaganda. Many elders were even annoyed by students' continuous attempts to struggle for freedom, democracy, and a government that represented the people rather than military interests or Uncle Sam. With democratic movements picking up pace at various universities in the spring of 1980, professors and students became the spark of an incredible cultural and social movement that would translate into nationwide demonstrations, the most impressive being the hundred thousand protesters who occupied Seoul Station on May 15 the same year.

When Chun started extending martial law to the entire nation, prohibiting rallies, strikes, or anything critical of the leader, he did so with the same delicacy that highlighted his tenure on top of the totem pole, brutal force doing the talking. It wasn't just students, politicians, and protestors, but also parents, friends, and neighbors that perished under the uncontrolled fire and violence of Chun's troops, which stormed Gwangju between May 18 and 27 to enforce martial law. The Gwangju Massacre (or, if you like more politically correct terms, Democratization Movement) saw hundreds of Koreans die, some say even thousands, many of them not knowing what brought them to their deaths as they stormed the street enraged at the military's indiscriminate display of violence. It was an event that not only profoundly changed the face of Korean politics, it influenced popular culture and sentiment in ways that are still felt today.

From South Koreans' stance towards their Northern brethren to their attitude towards American presence in the peninsula, the political and social fabric of the country went through a slow but tumultuous development, symbolically culminating in 1997 when May 18 was declared an official memorial day. Maybe May 18's original Korean title, meaning "splendid holiday", hints at the impact such an event left on the Korean psyche, hurting the people so greatly but also giving them the strength to react.

For years, until the democratization process allowed it, talking about the Gwangju Uprising was nearly impossible, and despite almost three decades having passed by, it's still one of the most controversial and sensitive topics of debate. For those reasons and many others, including the increasingly difficult situation Chungmuro is facing, a project like May 18 was full of risks, but also quite an admirable challenge to take. The 2007 film obviously is not the first to tackle the subject, but while Korean War-themed works can be found starting right from the immediate postwar period, May 18 is still too hot a topic to just get a passing reference.

The dramas and films portraying May 18 can be easily counted on two hands, and even then we're dealing either with a limited scope (short or independent films), or dramas using the event as part of a larger historical and social spectrum. The three examples most people would instantly mention are the 1995 SBS drama Sandglass, Jang Sun Woo's 1996 masterpiece A Petal, and Lee Chang Dong's Peppermint Candy. Sandglass, from the legendary duo behind Eyes of Dawn (producer Kim Jong Hak and writer Song Ji Na), is one of the few television dramas to record ratings of over 60%, and in a period when the broadcaster was yet to cover the entire nation, making it even more impressive. Starring Choi Min Soo, Ko Hyun Jung, and Park Sang Won, the series is a spectacular mix of history, melodrama, action, and politics, reminding in some ways of The Godfather but also retaining a unique Korean flavor and that pungent bit of history, real enough to make it a classic.

The re-enactment of the massacre is particularly touching, fully conveying the brutality, desperation, fervor, and futility of the event. It was so realistic that it led many people to reconsider the off-limit subject, the story they never wanted to tell their sons or grandsons. It would be foolish to say a television drama restarted the process for the eventual indictment of former president Chun and his yesmen (although for an all too brief term), but what The Sandglass showed was the use of a mainstream medium to reassess the past and awaken the will to fight, something even the most optimistic of street demonstrator wouldn't be able to do.

The mistake too many films dealing with tragedy make is only creating insipid portrays of heroes fighting for the country or their family, perishing in dignity and leaving a trail of pride, sorrow, and memories. What really mentally destroyed the lives of many people who survived the Gwangju Massacre was the sense of guilt and regret - for living when next door neighbors died under the troops' fire, for running away when friends stood to fight, for not crying as loudly as others because you're glad you escaped with your life. That irresistible and excruciatingly painful dualism is what dominated Jang Sun Woo's monstrously hard-hitting A Petal.

Jang himself spent years in prison for demonstrating, and later he finally found the money, courage, and the right conditions (namely, someone crazy or brilliant enough to fund the film) to make something he planned for fifteen long years. His idea wasn't to re-enact the event, but to reflect the consequences of the event on everyday people, with the kind of power that would wake up even the most disinterested. A young girl, losing her parents and her innocence in the massacre, is devastated mentally by the loss, and raped by a man who has lost the self-esteem or will to live on. The two slowly come to terms with the tragedy through their evolving relationship, going from the brutality of their first meeting to flowers blossoming in the darkness. Jang's greatest achievement was making the viewer feel the connection; the allegory of the young, innocent girl raped by brutal force mirroring the people who lost their innocence because of the senseless violence. He did so without entering the political sphere, making obvious comments about the forces involved, or indulging in syrupy re-enactments.

Something similar could be said for Lee Chang Dong's masterful Peppermint Candy, although Gwangju is only a part of the film. Telling the story of Korea's last twenty years in reverse, the film's use of the Gwangju Massacre was rather indirect, with Sol Kyung Gu playing a soldier who injures a nameless, almost faceless man fighting for something the man behind the rifle didn't realize, or even had the time to agree or disagree with.

While these three examples tend to put the event inside a larger discussion about modern Korean history, the 2005 MBC drama The Fifth Republic is much closer to a documentary. This political drama follows in the footsteps of its four prequels (almost all excellent, featuring amazing casts), dealing with the entire Korean postwar history from Lee Seung Man to the fifth installment's Chun Doo Hwan. The Gwangju Massacre here is meticulously recreated, but more than dealing with the people, it's like a behind-the-scenes look at what led to it, with Lee Deok Hwa playing Chun in one of his most memorable roles. Gwangju was also featured in a couple of short films by director Kim Tae Young in the late 80s, namely Kant's Presentation and Wasteland, along with the 1990 film Song of Resurrection.

As can be seen, although there were not many works dealing with the Gwangju Uprising prior to May 18, almost all of them paid respect to this historical memory with equally vivid results. In that sense, May 18 was both a risk and an opportunity to change the cards, diversify its portrayal. What director Kim Ji Hoon stressed ever since the first few interviews was that May 18 was simply trying to re-enact May 18, 1980 as realistically as possible, this time from the people's point of view. There's no political undercurrent flowing under the story; even the student protests leading to the event, the political and social climate that brought about the demonstrations, take a backseat to the tragedy of those who became unwittingly involved because everything was happening right under their nose, with no option to run. It's not politics, policies, diplomacy, or government, but protecting your family, friends, and neighbors. In that sense, one could say the director's decision to focus on a few stories was effective, starting from taxi driver Kang Min Woo (Kim Sang Kyung of Memories of Murder), his younger brother (Lee Jun Ki of King and The Clown), and the nurse he loves (Lee Yo Won of Fashion Seventies). Their everyday lives and those of their neighbors are suddenly and violently destroyed by hoopla and tragedy.

The focus on people, not principles, is the film's biggest strength, and at the same time its biggest flaw. Tragedy has a certain resonance regardless of background, but after working so hard to create the scent of the era, a little more time to establish the political and social background of the period can only help realism. What one does get is an impressive-looking 95% scale of Geumnamro where most of the action took place. Costing three billion won (US$3 million) alone, the immense set features 27 buildings and over a hundred gingko trees. Under the leadership of art director Park Il Hyun (Superstar Mr. Gam and Peppermint Candy), 80s Gwangju was recreated not only architecturally but also culturally, with the countless billboards making the entire neighborhood a sight to behold. The props and details help create a great mood of realism which will surely help many future productions as well (the baseball comedy Scout starring Lim Chang Jung was also shot there, for instance).

May 18 has the finest ingredients: the perfect subject, beautiful set and props, and a fine cast led by Kim Sang Kyung and the great Ahn Sung Ki, along with talented theater-trained actors like Park Cheol Min and Park Won Sang and idols like Lee Jun Ki and Lee Yo Won as the icing on the cake. The problem is that the ball is dropped midway with a pedestrian script and even more insipid direction. Shown to an audience, be it domestic or overseas, not accustomed with modern Korean history, May 18 could feel like the Korean Alamo version of Taegukgi. The idea of putting the focus on the people is a very commendable effort, especially as the cries of the victims become all too often a watershed for political commentary and diplomacy. But it's also a convenient excuse to only scratch the surface, to recreate the tragic experience through universal melodrama, to give moviegoers what they want and send them home with red eyes.

Maybe that's why even competing with monster hit D-War, May 18 sold over seven million tickets, one of the few blockbusters to shine in a year when only less than 10% of films released in theaters recouped their investment. Maybe that's the point. As a cinematic experience of teargas and popcorn nostalgia, May 18 works, sometimes even tremendously so. But if you really want to know what happened on and especially after those nefarious days, A Petal or at least The Sandglass still work the best.

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Published January 21, 2008

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