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The North/South Korean Divide In Modern Cinema

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Typhoon, the latest effort from Friend director Kwak Kyung Taek, is a telling example of modern commercial Korean cinema. On the one hand, it is an explosive action blockbuster in the Hollywood model, with the highest budget in Korean history and on location filming in Pusan, Thailand, and Russia. On the other, it is a deeply personal and uniquely Korean film, based upon and shot through with the tension resulting from the North/South conflict. Over the last few years, more and more Korean directors have been using the cinematic medium to explore the division of their nation, and to express the often painful and bitter sentiments that it arouses.

The division of Korea has its roots in the brutal Japanese occupation of the country from 1910 to 1945, a period that saw hundreds of thousands forced into labour, conscripted into military service, used for biological experiments, made to work as sex slaves or simply killed. Following Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, the country was left with a power vacuum, since no Koreans had been allowed to hold administrative positions. Immediately, the Americans and Soviets moved in, with the former supporting the South, and the latter the North. Fearing the spread of communism, the Americans followed a policy of Containment, supporting Korean nationalists and influencing the United Nations to provide support for the South Korean army. Deciding to create their own occupied zone, U.S. troops used the 38th parallel to effectively divide the country in half, leaving them with the capital, Seoul. This was done without consulting any Korean experts.

Thus, two different systems of government developed in the North and South, influenced by cold war politics. Eventually, in 1950, North Korea invaded the South, beginning the Korean War, which lasted for three years. During the war there were heavy casualties on both sides, though the North in particular suffered due to an intensive American bombing campaign that decimated its cities. Although the two sides never actually signed a peace treaty, and are therefore technically still at war, a boundary between the two was set, known as the demilitarised zone.

Both the North and South claim to be working towards reunification, though it is only recently that genuine steps towards this appear to have been taken, with cooperation in sporting events, economic plans and even tourism. In the South, a "Sunshine Policy" has now been adopted towards the North, aimed at offering a friendly, open hand, rather than the suspicious glare of an enemy.

Despite this long history, the division and its effects on the Korean people have been a taboo cinematic subject until relatively recently. One of the first significant films to broach the subject was Gilsodom in 1985. The film was directed by Im Kwon Taek, one of Korea's most respected directors, and responsible for some of the biggest domestic box office hits of the 1990s, including The General's Son (1990) and Sopyonje (1993). The film examines the divide from the perspective of ordinary people, following a young woman separated from her husband and child by the war, who encounters them again after being apart for thirty years.

A few light-hearted efforts, such as the bumbling comedy The Spy Lee Chul Jin (1999) aside, the next proper film to examine the conflicted emotions of Koreans towards the division was Park Chan Wook's JSA: Joint Security Area (2000). In the spirit of the sunshine policy, this was the first film to treat the subject with an air of tragedy, depicting North Koreans as estranged brothers rather than enemies. Taking a direct approach to the subject, Park's film takes place in the demilitarised zone itself, and deals with the shooting of two North Korean soldiers, which threatens to plunge the two counties back into full scale war. The case is investigated by Major Sophie Jean (played by Lee Yeong Ae), a symbolically half Swiss, half Korean United Nations arbitrator who is charged with showing no favouritism to either side. Behind the official reports of what happened, she discovers an unlikely story of camaraderie in the face of enmity, echoing the growing sense of loss and remorse felt by many Koreans. The film was a huge hit, becoming Korea's highest grossing domestic film at the time of its release.

In the same year came Shiri, directed by Gang Je Gyu. The film took a very different approach to the split, being a big budget Hollywood style action thriller, boasting a then-record budget for a South Korean production. The film is vaguely symbolic, in that it features a seemingly schizophrenic female spy (played by Kim Yoon Jin), who is sent to the South by a rogue group of warmongering North Korean soldiers. She becomes torn between her two identities, and more specifically between the two men she loves. Unfortunately, subtlety and any kind of social commentary are cast aside in favour of loud explosions and car chases, with North Koreans being almost demonised as crazed terrorist fanatics. Still, the film is entertaining enough in its own way, and proved very popular at the box office, out-grossing even JSA.

The success of Shiri and JSA opened the floodgates, and the next few years saw a number of films that utilised the theme of the divided nation. Some of these, such as Kim Hyun Jung's Double Agent (2003) dealt with this explicitly, playing out tales of espionage and deception, reflecting feelings of distrust and fear. However, others such as Address Unknown (2001) and The Coast Guard (2002), both directed by Kim Ki Duk, took a less obvious route, attempting to explore the psychology of modern South Koreans, using concerns of identity and internal conflict as allegory. These films also analysed the historical reasons behind the division, with the former in particular casting an accusing eye over American involvement in Korea.

In fact, identity, memory and guilt have become mainstay themes of South Korean cinema over the last few years, as can be seen in the likes of Old Boy (2003), also directed by Park Chan Wook. The film is a dark exploration of memory and guilt, and can perhaps be seen not only as a musing upon the past, but as a violent depiction of the results of a conflict that left a nation and its people torn in two. These themes have cropped up in a number of other films, such as Kim Jee Woon's classic horror A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), as well as many other similar genre efforts.

Another group of films dealing with the divide has been those which tell militaristic tales of brotherhood. The first of these was Sil Mi Do (2003), directed by Kang Woo Suk. The film took a bitter look at the past, via a group of thirty one condemned South Korean criminals who are conscripted by the army and trained for a suicide mission to kill the Northern president. The film pulls no punches, portraying the South Korean administration as untrustworthy, furthering the feelings of many that the continuation of the divide is a direct result of political failings. As well as being a massive box office hit, the film won the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (for Jung Jae Young) awards at the 25th Blue Dragon Awards presentation.

This was followed in 2004 by Taegukgi (2004), an even more lavish production, directed by Shiri helmer Gang Je Gyu. This time around, Gang took an altogether more emotional, though no less action packed approach to the subject, with an epic story of two brothers (played by superstars Jang Dong Gun and Won Bin) during the Korean War. Although the film is told solely from a South Korean perspective, treating the North as a fanatical enemy, it is a decidedly melancholy affair, featuring numerous brutally realistic battles and clearly showing that the conflict can have no real winner.

There have been several other films along the same lines, such as Lee Kyu Hyung's D.M.Z. the Demilitarised Zone (2004), a very personal tale which is based upon the director's own experiences. Militarism and the effects of living in a country constantly on guard from attack by its neighbour have also been explored in the likes of The Unforgiven (2005).

Not all films to tackle the subject of the divide have been particularly serious, and indeed a few have utilised the situation for more straightforward entertainment. One such example is Heaven's Soldiers (2005), a time travel science fiction thriller which sees soldiers from the North and South transported back to the 16th century, where they join forces against the Japanese. Another example is Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), a nostalgic fantasy set during the Korean War in a mystical village that has somehow managed to shut out the rest of the world and has no knowledge of the conflict.

Typhoon is the latest in a line of films to comment on the divide by using the situation as the basis for action and conflict. The film follows Myeong Shin (Jang Dong Gun), a defector from the North, who is rejected by the South and decides to enact violent revenge against both as a pirate. He is pursued by Kang Se Jong (Lee Jeong Jae), a naval officer who attempts to bring him to justice. The film is similar to Sil Mi Do and Taegukgi in that it represents the conflict through its two protagonists, treating violence and bloodshed as an inescapable, disastrous fate, and thus almost acting as a cautionary tale.

Perhaps what is most important about Typhoon, and indeed all of the other films that examine Korea's North/South divide, is their willingness to explore the inner turmoil of the nations' people, rather than simply exploit the situation for entertainment purposes. Though most of the films never attempt to offer solutions beyond brooding over the past and providing gloomy speculations on the future, they are effective in communicating the regrets, hopes and fears that many hold and with which the possibility of eventual reunification is fraught.

Published June 15, 2006

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