S. Korean movies play on an­i­mos­ity; mes­sage films draw large crowds

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Andrew Salmon

SEOUL — Re­cent an­tag­o­nisms be­tweenSouthKore­aan­ditsmostim­por­tant al­lies — the United States andJa­pan—play­outinthe­sum­mer’s two high­est-profile movies here.

The­p­op­u­lar­i­ty­ofthe­films­mayre­flect pub­lic at­ti­tudes af­ter Seoul’s re­luc­tance to join Tokyo and Wash­ing­ton in tak­ing a hard line to­ward Py­ongyang over its nu­clear pro­gram and mis­sile tests.

Anger­to­wardJa­pan­in­ten­si­fiedon Aug.15whenout­go­ingPrimeMin­is­ter Ju­nichiro Koizumi paid a fi­nal visit to Ya­sukuni Shrine, which hon­orsJa­pane­se­warvet­er­ans,in­clud­ing some con­victed war crim­i­nals.

Anenor­mous­buz­zsur­rounds“The Host” (“Gwoemul,” or “The Mon­ster,”in­Korean),whichreg­is­teredthe big­gest-ever open­ing of a Korean movie when it de­buted on July 27.

The film deals with a mon­ster ap­pear­ing in Seoul’s Han River, ter­ror­iz­ing the cit­i­zenry. The crea­ture was cre­ated when em­ploy­ees on a U.S. Army­ba­seinSouthKore­apouredin­dus­trial waste into the river — a premise based on an ac­tual in­ci­dent six years ago. Later in the film, U.S. forces­try­tokillthe­crea­ture—which, it tran­spires, is the host to a deadly virus — with a chem­i­cal weapon.

De­spite its shlock­ytheme,the­film mix­es­the­gen­re­sofhor­ror,sci­encefic­tion, com­edy and so­cial crit­i­cism. Made by Bong Joon-ho, ar­guably South Korea’s most re­spected di­rec­tor­forthe­clas­sic“Me­moriesofMur­der” it won­ravere­views­from West­ern­crit­ics when it pre­viewed at the Fes­ti­val of Cannes.

The other sum­mer block­buster, “Han­bando” (“The Korean Penin­sula”), is set inthe­n­ear fu­ture. Ja­pan sparks naval clashes wherein it tries to ob­struct a plan to link rail lines be­tween­thet­woKoreas—an­even­tKore­ans hope will be­come a re­al­ity this year. The movie jux­ta­poses bru­tal events­from­thet­wona­tions’trou­bled past with the fic­tional mod­ern-day story line.

The­film,fea­tur­ing­some­ofKorea’s most famed ac­tors and a $10 mil­lion bud­get — enor­mous by lo­cal stan­dards —has­beena­com­mer­cial suc­cess. De­spite open­ing dur­ing tor­ren­tial rain­storms and with fierce com­pe­ti­tion from “Pi­rates of the Caribbean:Dead­Man’sCh­est,” it ran on 500 screens na­tion­wide, lur­ing 4 mil­lion view­ers in two weeks.

Crit­ics have been less kind, with many pan­ning its heavy-handed na­tion­al­ism. A Korea Times re­view slam­mingth­e­filmhas­been­poste­don the “World Racism” sec­tion of the World News Net­work Web site.

The film’s mak­ers have hit back. One of the stars, Cha In-pyo, asked in Toky­owhy­heap­pearedinthe­movie, re­port­edly replied: “I’m a cit­i­zen of theRepub­li­cofKorea,andinthe­film in­dus­try of the Repub­lic of Korea, I don’tthink­thereisany­onewhowould have turned down the script.”

Hair-trig­ger na­tion­al­ism is a fea­ture­ofSouthKore­an­life.Re­cent­man­i­fes­ta­tions in­clude at­tacks on for­eign in­vestors by the press and bu­reau­cracy, and the ma­nia sur­round­ing South Korea’s World Cup cam­paign de­spite soc­cer’s lim­ited pop­u­lar­ity do­mes­ti­cally.

“Icanac­cept na­tion­al­ism,” “Han­bando” di­rec­tor KangWoo-suk said in an in­ter­viewwith movie Web site Twitch­film.net. “Af­ter all, in a sit­u­a­tion like ours, with all that our coun­try went through over the years, isn’t na­tion­al­ism al­most a given?”

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