Sunday, June 26, 2011

Movie review: 풍산개

(이 글의 내용에 풍산개 스포일러가 있어서 알고 싶지 않으신 분이 더 이상 읽지 마세요.)

I had a chance to watch the movie 풍산개 (Pungsankae) on Friday, timely because it was the day before the 61st anniversary of the Korean War. For the most part, it is a well-made, brutal, often cryptic description of North-South antagonism.

The story is somewhat bizarre, at least from my perspective of having missed the first five minutes and not really understanding what was happening. A man (Yoon Kye Sang), who doesn't speak once throughout the movie, is given three hours to cross the DMZ and sneak back across the border with the girlfriend (Kim Gyu Ri) of a well-off North Korean defector (Kim Jong Su).

He brings the woman across exhibiting considerable skill in averting both North and South Korean soldiers, but problems start when the woman develops feelings for the human smuggler over her sleazy, much older and domineering boyfriend. Yoon, not fully trusted by the South Korean intelligence agency NIS, is arrested and tortured, but is broken out by a spy he had rescued.

The movie up until here had decent if often annoying, but most of the really interesting scenes happened afterwards. North Korean spies in South Korea are able to kidnap Yoon and the North Korean woman for whom he has now developed feelings. Her boyfriend is moved to a safehouse by South Korean intelligence.

Yoon is brutally tortured by North Korean spies who seemed (my understanding of this scene is fuzzy) to have let him go on the condition that he retrieves Kim, a very high-value defector. He does so, and Kim is killed not long after. The next day, Kim (the woman) and Yoon are to be executed Al Qaeda-style by North Korean spies who invoke the name of the Korean People's Republic, its Kim dynasty and the crimes of Kim.

My recollection of the next scene is fuzzy, but one of the North Korean spies suggests hanging on to Kim's jewelry, to which the leader is furious, switching the gun from Kim's head to his head. The spy, a stereotypical weakling, says something to the effect of "Before I die, if I can be honest, I envy South Korea. The jewelry she has is a year's, no, two year's salary for us."

I didn't understand what happened after, but two of the underlings are shown walking in a forest with Kim, possibly with the intention of raping her. She reaches a cliff overlooking a river and, seeing the men advance towards her, chooses instead to fall backwards, dying what was depicted as a beautiful, painless death.

The movie then gets bizarre. Yoon escapes from the North Koreans, finds the dead body of Kim and flies into a rage. That night, spies from both the North and South are out celebrating in what I thought was one of the funniest scenes from the movie, though maybe not to a South Korean.

The South Korean spies were at a very expensive karaoke bar or room salon, being entertained by North Korean women who posed as either South Koreans or Chinese-Koreans. The North Koreans were at a lower-end karaoke bar, being entertained by South Korean women who found the men to be annoying hicks, at one point asking, "what are you, North Korean or something?" to which one of the spies replies in a stereotype of that dialect, "no, I'm Chinese-Korean".

Yoon kidnaps the spies from both countries one by one, locking them in a room. At first, when it's only a few of them, they have some hilarious fights. When it was one-on-one at the start, the North Korean put the South Korean into a submission hold and forced him to recite an ode to North Korea. When South Koreans outnumber the North Korean, he's forced to sing the South Korean national anthem, but changes the line that says "long live our country" to "long live the Korean People's Army", earning him some punishment.

Eventually, the odds are even for all the men and Yoon throws rifles into the room, producing a tense standoff, made tenser still when someone shoots out the lights. Some of the men are killed, but they make it out alive. Yoon is shown trying to cross the border on another mission, but is killed at what is presumably the border (in reality there's no fence, just signs every 200 metres) by a hail of unidentified fire.

Given the last third of the movie, the overall message is one of the futility of war, one that's popular but one that, I think, promotes a false moral equivalency between the two countries. While the Korean War was, to be fair, a war fought between two brutal dictatorships, viewing inter-Korean relations through the prism of naive pacifism has cost lives in both the North and the South in the last decade.

Also interesting was the depiction of the spies from both countries. South Korean spies were, somewhat accurately, depicted as well-dressed, well-trained but rather powerless. Considering the immense power that the NIS has and has had, thanks to the National Security Law, they sure are a bunch of incompetent assholes who can't do anything but harass and torture ordinary people, not to mention protect South Koreans from the supposed danger of North Korean propaganda.

North Korean spies were depicted as similar to South Korean country bumpkins, a common trope on variety shows and virtually every movie. They seemed to be a weird cross between working-class South Koreans and Chinese Korean labourers, a rather interesting cover.

Finally, if I learned one thing from the movie, it was that if the Koreas ever reunite, I won't be able to understand anyone from the North. Much of the speech was completely unintelligible to me, to the point that I couldn't really distinguish it from Japanese. None of the spies sounded North Korean at all, though the lead female did a great job (to me) of a standard Pyongyang dialect, though she seemed to have lost it by the end of the movie.

As an addendum, I had a conversation the day before with Roboseyo and others about the future of a unified Korea as a multicultural state. If a unified country was a democratic state where votes from the North counted equally, it would be interesting how politicians from a place like, say, Ryangkang-do, deep in the mountains of North Korea, an impoverished province ignored at the moment never mind a unified Korea, would react to the foreign population in the South.

Much of the romantic pacific nationalism of the South Korean left is at odds with its simultaneous commitment to multiculturalism. A great chunk of the impetus for reunification is that the two countries share a language and an ethnicity, a problematic idea at a time when there are Koreans being born everyday who are Korean despite having a mixed-race heritage. If nothing else, the idea that South Korea should reunite with a country as poor as any in the world on the basis of race and language is about as much of a positive as America absorbing Liberia.


Rob-o-SE-yo said...

"America absorbing Liberia"

...I'm trying to think of a parallel that encompasses the proportion of the population PLUS the ideological differences...

like if USA absorbed a Mexico as impoverished as Haiti, but which had a population of 100 million disenchanted Maoists.

hold onto your luggage, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

but as I said when we were talking: there seems less and less interest in out-and-out reunification among people younger than the "386 generation" (now in their 50s - the 586 generation?)

Adeel said...

Yeah, that's true. I was just thinking of the racial and linguistic similarities, but Liberians wouldn't make up 33% of the American population in that merger.

I can't think of a precedent for this sort of unification, which is why I agree with you that there would still be a border of some sort for a long time.

I'm also constantly stumped when trying to think of a land border with as stark a difference in living conditions as the one we live next to. The Israeli borders with Palestine, Egypt and Syria would be the closest ones for wealth but not the communications black hole.

Hume's Bastard said...

I think your discussion of the false equivalence between the two Koreas is worth more than the movie itself.

First of all, Jeon Jae-hong is the director, but Kim Ki-duk as producer has perhaps given the film more press than it deserves. I heard Kim was not pleased with his protege's effort, too. Then, there's Yun Gye-sang's lead role that doesn't involve speaking, but one big screaming scene. How his character healed from his wounds, ran back and forth through the DMZ, and nabbed North Koreans who just happened to live near the border is more Marvel Comics than fiction.

But, what I really hated about the film is, that the North Korea angle is an unnecessary gimmick. For most of the film I thought I was watching a gangster flick. There's no reason the corrupt pol needs to find a North Korean, and therefore no reason the two "crews" of agents need to fight each other. The creepy jerk could have kidnapped any girl from any village who just happened to be mixed up in some racket. Instead of discoursing on unification through the lens of what was undoubtably a great fight scene, I would bemoan how South Korean corporations could bankroll movies to pluck South Korean and foreign heartstrings, to support their self-serving views on unification. Beware ever more gimmicky unification propaganda vehicles!

2/5 stars!