Monday, April 22, 2013

UDINE 2013: National Security (남영동1985, 2012)

Part of MKC's coverage of the 15th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Corruption, injustice and terror have always been a sad reality of politics. Over the years, many filmmakers have gone to great lengths (sometimes even putting their lives in peril) in a bid to give a voice to the victims of political malfeasance and to shed light on the frequently covered-up truths within the halls of power. Notable examples include Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969). Among the pantheon of political works it is true that those that endure are the ones that shock; works that can elicit an audible gasp from audience members. However, a filmmaker must be careful not to go too far and should also pay due consideration to narrative and filmic requirements when presenting a politically charged narrative on screen.

Chung Ji-young made a big comeback following a 13-year absence this time last year when Unbowed debuted at the 16th edition of the Busan Film Festival. Hot on its heels and proving that it wasn’t a fluke, he has returned with a searing indictment of the brutal Chun Doo-hwan administration that terrorized Korea for the better part of the 1980s.

National Security is an impressive work but not an easy watch. It is a film about torture and on that point it is no holds barred. The vast majority of the running time is consecrated to the prolonged torment inflicted on one man. That man is real life figure Kim Geun-tae, who underwent 22 days of unspeakable abuse before being released and later serving as Korea’s Minister of Health and Welfare and on the country’s National Assembly.

With so much torture and so little plot, Chung ran a great danger of alienating his audience but remarkably, as a result of its superb staging and confident pacing, National Security is a gripping effort. While the torturers carry out horrific acts on screen they are nevertheless presented as real people. Sadistic as they are, this is their job and they work long hours, sometimes not going home for 10 days at a stretch. In between sessions of waterboarding one character seeks the advice of the victim regarding his personal romantic matters. It’s a shocking dichotomy that serves to highlight how a few weeks of hell for one prisoner is a routine job for a group of civic employees. This also alludes to how prevalent this form of interrogation must have been at the time.

With over 40 credits in the past 15 years Park Won-sang is a veteran actor but he has only recently been claiming the spotlight for himself. He was excellent as the passionate lawyer in Unbowed and clearly Chung was impressed enough with him to cast him again in this difficult role. Naked and battered for most of the film, Park expertly conveys how a person can be utterly broken by prolonged torture. Though he never quite loses his convictions, Kim Geun-tae slowly becomes a nervous, flinching wreck. Park’s portrayal is excellent and the fear he conveys, in large part through his eyes, is potent and devastating.

Likewise Lee Kyeong-Yeong, as the most senior, sadistic and effective torturer Lee Geun-an (nicknamed ‘The Undertaker’), is very effective in his role. Measured and professional, the cruelty he inflicts on Kim is all the more efficacious as a result of his deliberate and calm delivery.

Due to the intense nature of the film it is perhaps unsurprising that some walkouts were reported during last year's Busan International Film Festival. Graphic as the abuse is on screen, more than anything it is the psychological aspect of the torture that is hard to take. Nevertheless, Chung’s new feature is one that shouldn’t be missed. Powerful and uncompromising, National Security is a unique and unforgettable cinematic experience.

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