Saturday, June 22, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: National Security (남영동 1985, 2012)

Part of Connor McMorran's coverage for MKC of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 19-30, 2013).

Though 2012 was an important year in Korean cinema for many reasons, one of the more interesting ones is that it saw the return of director Chung Ji-young. 2012 was essentially bookended by his two films; Unbowed was released in January, and National Security arrived at the end of November. Both films featured highly political narratives based on real life events, yet National Security struggled to bring in anywhere near the same audience numbers as Unbowed.

Subject matter could be key to understanding why this happened. Unbowed was essentially a courtroom drama, in which a University professor fights against the justice system to prove his innocence. On the other hand, National Security details the abduction and subsequent 22-day torture of a supposed political activist. The film is set almost entirely within the cold, lifeless, concrete walls of the Namyeong-dong detention centre, and a good amount of that time is spent depicting the torture of Kim Jong-tae, who is based on the real life democratic activist Kim Geun-tae.

It’s a gruelling watch, forcing to inhabit the same mental space as its desperate protagonist. However, where we the audience have the knowledge of history, and the reassurance that ultimately Kim Jong-tae is released, Kim Jong-tae himself is left wondering if he will ever be free again. The film’s sparing use of music, and occasional dreamlike sequences in which Kim is visited by apparitions of not only his wife, but also himself, help to really enhance Kim’s desperation. The film offers little in the way of narrative, choosing instead to display the systematic and horrible mental and physical torture of Kim over the course of 22 days.

The reason for such torture is clear, Kim is suspected of being involved in pro-democracy rallies and engaging in violent protest, and he has been brought in to identify the ‘leaders’ of such rallies. It is explained through the film that Kim participated in pro-democratic activities during the 1970s, when Park Chung-hee was president. However since the 1980s, with the Chun Doo-hwan's ascent to power and an increased police state, Kim no longer takes part. Yet, due to his past, Kim is kidnapped and tortured until he is a broken man forced to sign a false confession. With this focus on the destruction of human spirit over a conventional narrative, Chung seems to be making an appeal to humanity – forcing us to question how we could ever treat each other in such ways. There is no overt political motivation here, rather a far more genuine goal: in making this film, it causes us to remember what has happened so that we may not forget, and so that it will not happen again.

However, there is a frustrating reality to Chung’s commitment to telling this story. In providing such an intense experience, many people will likely be put off from even seeing the film in the first place. Through depicting the stages of torturing a man until his will is broken, people are forced to dwell on many hard to deal with thoughts about society, and the audience numbers in Korea seem to suggest that people did not want to face such thoughts. National Security causes us to question the role of film in society, how can people gain awareness and understanding if they are unwilling to watch it in the first place? What’s worse is that National Security is a truly brilliant film which deals with its subject matter in a non-gratuitous yet emotionally resonating way. It’s a brave cry out for the horrors of history to remain in our everyday consciousness, and it’s a film that absolutely deserves to be seen.

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