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