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Features

A New Trend in National Division-Themed Films

Jul 16, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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How Did Each Era Influence National Division-Themed Films?



‘National Division’ holds a special meaning in Korean Cinema. Ever since the film Swiri (1999) introduced this subject matter in 1999, Korean mainstream cinema has never ceased to tackle this theme. A more detailed examination through highlights minute shifts in point-of-views and trends depending on the political situation or changing tensions between South and North Korea. Let’s take a look at the major trends in Korean films dealing with the national division, from the President KIM Dae-jung regime during which the 1st South-North Korean Summit took place (in 2000) to the rapidly developing relationship of these past few months between the two Koreas. 

National Division Ideology, Now Significant Keywords in Mainstream Cinema



KANG Je-kyu’s Swiri, released soon after President KIM Dae-jung took office (1998~2003), ignited the renaissance of Korean Cinema and made a strong impression on Korean society. Up till that point, ‘spy movies’ centering on gunfights and action were a genre that had never been attempted in Korean films. Furthermore, this film offered a point-of-view that had never been seen before. As a spy film dealing with the tension-packed intelligence operation between South Korea’s secret service agents and North Korean terrorists who have infiltrated South Korea, Swiri followed South Korean RYU (played by HAN Suk-kyu) and North Korean HEE (played by KIM Yun-jin). These two protagonists who have given up their private life in order to serve their country fall in love, only to end up in a deadly stand-off when they discover each other’s true identity. KIM Dae-jung’s election allowed filmmaker KANG Je-kyu to be more flexible in his interpretation of the division of the Korean Peninsula by showing individuals who became victims of an anti-communist Korean society. KANG subsequently went on to direct TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War (2004) which depicted how war can drive two extremely close brothers into pointing their guns at each other. 

PARK Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area /JSA (2000) also clearly displayed this position. South and North Korean soldiers at the Joint Security Area are sharing a friendship until a deadly gun accident forces them to turn against each other. This is because the ‘stance imposed by one’s state’ takes precedence over a ‘personal position’ towards the other. Paradoxically, it is because of its evocation of overshadowed truths and the insignificance of personal emotions when the state is placed above the individual that the film becomes extremely tragic. 

The Conservatives Rule, A Gush of Korean War-Based Films 



Welcome To Dongmakgol (2005), released during the late President ROH Moo-hyun regime (2003-2008), is another film that provided a fresh new take on national division-themed films. Inspired by the rule of the democratic party which created a reconciliatory mood between the two Koreas, Welcome To Dongmakgol took this theme a step further by imagining an alliance between soldiers from the South, the North and the Allied Forces to protect the people of Dongmakgol Village, whose humble lives were totally removed from the war up till that point. KWAK Kyung-taek’s Typhoon (2005) was another film that told the story of National Intelligence Service agent KANG Se-jong (played by LEE Jung-jae) who, during his mission to prevent North Korean pirate Myung-sin (played by JANG Dong-gun) from committing a terrorist attack against the Korean peninsula, develops compassion towards his foe as he learns about his tragic past. Such narrative structure would also be found later in films such as WON Shin-yun’s The Suspect (2013) and RYOO Seung-wan’s The Berlin File (2013). 

National division-themed films continued to be made even during the successive rules of conservative presidents LEE Myung-bak (2008~2013) and PARK Geung-hye (2013-2017). However, what is interesting is that a large number of films set during the Korean War were released during that period. John H. LEE’s 71-Into The Fire (2010), JANG Hun’s The Front Line (2011), KANG Je-kyu’s My Way (2011), CHEON Sung-il’s The Long Way Home (2015), LEE Han’s A Melody to Remember (2016) and John H. LEE’s Operation Chromite (2016) are to name a few. Korean films that used re-interpret the South-North Korean division from a present point-of-view were now revisiting the battlefields as if they were trying to go back in time. Each film had a different theme and perspective, but it is notable that most box office successes of that period did not have happy endings. As if they were emphasizing that the national division issue was not something that could overcome by will, but an inexorable tragedy. Another film, Northern Limit Line (2015), was based on the true events that took place in 2002 during the World Cup held in Korea and Japan when a North Korean patrol boat crossed the Northern Limit Line and triggered a confrontation with South Korean vessels, which would be known as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong. By positioning North Korea as the ‘main adversary’, the film announced its conservative point-of-view. 

Of course, this didn’t mean that national division-themed films following the legacy of films like Swiri and Joint Security Area /JSA were totally out of the picture. One example was JANG Hun’s Secret Reunion (2010). This tale of a South Korean intelligence agent Han-gyu (played by SONG Kang-ho) and North Korean undercover spy Ji-won (played by GANG Dong-won) set itself as a national division-themed version of a buddy cop movie in which a friendship develops between the seemingly irreconcilable rivals as they solve a case together. Such a structure was repeated in later films such as KIM Sung-hoon’s Confidential Assignment (2017) and YANG Woo-suk’s Steel Rain (2017). 

Confidential Assignment and ILLANG : THE WOLF BRIGADE, Providing a New Framework for National Division-Themed Films 



Then, how will the rapid shift to a reconciliation mood between South and North Korea impact national division-themed films in the future? For now, it won’t be easy for Korean films to properly reflect this since the state of this major issue in international affairs is in constant evolution. Nevertheless, YOON Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North and KIM Jee-woon’s ILLANG : THE WOLF BRIGADE, scheduled for release this summer, suggest a new trend in national division-themed films. Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Midnight Screening section, The Spy Gone North is inspired by the real-life South Korean spy whose mission was to infiltrate North Korea during the 1990s. Set in the mid-90s, the film tells the story of a military intelligence agent (played by HWANG Jung-min) assigned to disclose North Korea’s nuclear facility under the code name ‘Black Venus’ and succeeds in detecting a secret deal between the South and North Korean ruling class. ILLANG : THE WOLF BRIGADE, a Korean adaptation of the Japanese animation of the same title, brings us to the year 2029 when chaos breaks out after a 5-year plan for reunification between South and North Korea is declared. The film’s protagonist is ‘Illang’ (played by GANG Dong-won), a human weapon member of the new police division called the ‘Special Unit’, created to suppress an anti-reunification terrorist group. ILLANG : THE WOLF BRIGADE will present the clashes between the government preparing for reunification, the armed terrorist group who are against this, and power groups within the government with conflicting positions, as well as different world powers who each have different stakes regarding the reunification of the Korean peninsula.
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