Screening Korea
Thomas Nocka Final Blog

The Differences in Shared Feelings in the Koreas

When the relationship between North and South Korea is discussed now a days, most people immediately think of mutual hate. The two countries have been completely and politically different and at a stage of near war ever since the Korean war ended. However, this relationship is different when looked at through the people’s perspective compared to the political perspective. Through the depiction of several Korean war films and other films with conflict involving both countries, feelings of empathy, that were not always felt, can now be felt from the South Korean people. This relationship shown through film has evolved throughout time by becoming more mutually acceptable and understanding of each other. Early films like Piagol show the post war hate for each other. Films made this century, like Taegukgi, The Frontline, and Joint Security Area all show a new way of looking at their neighbors. Although, politically, the relationship between the North and South has not gotten any better, the evolution of Korean film has shown that the people of Korea have grown to have feelings of empathy for each other.

In order to better understand the difference in the relationships of Korea’s governments and its people it is important to understand how both countries have gotten to this point. Korea split and North Korea and South Korea were formed in 1945. This was a result of the end of World War Two and the allies taking back Korea from Japan (Kim). The Soviet Union, the US, the Republic of China, and Great Britain agreed to make Korea a trusteeship in hopes of helping the country unify under one government. The countries for democracy, the United States and Great Britain, took root in the south part of the country and the countries for communism, the Republic of China and Russia, took root in the North (Hwang 169). Each side put a leader in place to act as a Korean figurehead for their political system, with the south putting Syngman Rhee in power and the North putting Kim Il-sung in power (Hwang 166). These tensions eventually led to the Korean war, a war that was basically fought over political ideology and led to no change.

Since the Korean war and to this day, political tensions are still very high. During The Cold war and throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, many small skirmishes have occurred and both sides have kidnapped officials. The most notable conflict in recent years was the sinking of the  ROKS Cheonan in 2010. This was a South Korean warship that the south claimed was hit by a North Korean torpedo. During the sinking, 46 of 104 South Korean sailors died (Hahn). To this day, tensions are still very high with North Korea launching missiles tests in hopes of developing ICBMs, long range nuclear missiles. Under Trump’s new presidency, he has started threatening that the US is not afraid to take any actions to stop North Korea from their “reckless acts of aggression” and from them getting ICBMs (McKirdy).

During and following, for a long time, the Korean war the both sides felt a strong sense of contempt for each other. This feeling really only stemmed from the idea that the other side believed in a different political ideology. Film was a way that national sentiment was depicted along with the control and censoring by the government. One South Korean film that depicts this feeling of hate for the North is Piagol. Piagol was released only two years after the end of the war in 1955 and is directed by Lee Kang-cheon. The film tells the tale of a group of communists running around the countryside near Mt. Jiri while southern forces slowly hunt them down. During the film, all but one of the group members are killed by either the southern forces, the brutal and psycho Captain Agari in charge of the group, or fighting over the two women in the group. Funnily enough, Piagol received political criticism after its release for not being enough anti-communist (Paquet). At the end of the film, it shows the last guerilla standing walking off with the South Korean flag being overlaid into the picture. The only reason that the entire group was killed and one had to be left alive was because the censors demanded that this ending scene happen. Scenes like this and many other scenes in the film give off feelings of hate for North Korea and their communist ideologies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQn2lKk2zH4

It is important to talk about the significance that the South Korean government had in the production of film for the majority of the past century. Since the end of the Korean war,  the South Korean government had strong restrictions on what could and could not be shown. These restrictions were so strong that even a director named Lee Man-Hee was arrested in 1965 when he released a new film that showed sympathy for communists (Hendrix). These restrictions continued for much of the century until they loosened a bit in the 1980’s. It was not until 1995 that a court ruled that the government must completely dismantle its censorship board and that Korean directors had full freedom (Hendrix).

Fast forwarding to modern day, South Korea’s films depiction of North Korea has changed greatly. Unlike before, there are no sensors that control what the films have to show and it is all up to the director.  Taegukgi is one of these modern day South Korean films that show this change in depiction. Taegukgi was released in 2005 and was directed by Kang Je-gyu. It follows the story of two brothers who come from a modest family in the South that have to go to fight in the Korean war. While at war, the older brother Lee Jin-tae watches over his younger brother Jin-seok and also becomes a savage and renowned fighter. Late into the film, Lee Jin-tae tries to stop a group of anti communists from taking Jin-seok and his fiance. During the=is scuffle his fiance is killed. This makes Lee Jin-tae go mad and join the North Korean forces only to end up meeting his brother at battle and dying. This film is unlike any old South Korean film like Piagol because it focus less on the portrayal of the North being evil and more on themes of brotherhood and war. It is also interesting to note that whenever contempt was shown towards the other side it always was made clear that it had to do in relation to political ideology. It seems that Kang Je-gyu wanted to emphasize that fact that the Korean people do not hate each other, they just differ in political ideology. One scene that shows an example of this is near the end of the film when the two brothers meet on the battlefield and Lee Jin-tae exclaims that Jin-seok is a “State guard bastard.” This is referring to his brother fighting for South Korea which is protecting the United States interests in the war; anti-communism.

Other South Korean films even push the idea the new age relationship even more than Taegukgi. The first of these new age films to question the hate is a film called Joint Security Area (JSA for short). Joint Security Area was released in 2000 and is directed by Park Chan-wook. The film tells the story of an investigation by the UN of mutli-murder case in the DMZ. As the film progresses the viewer finds out that the men involved in the murder and conflict from the North and South were actually friends. The Two guards from the South snuck over to the North side to hang out with the two guards stationed there. The murder happens when a North Korean commander walks in on all the men having a good time together and shooting breaks out. Throughout the film it shows that the North and South Koreans are very similar to each other but are ultimately seperate because of politics.  Many scenes throughout this show this theme and that the only barrier that arises between the men in having national pride for their country. In one scene of the film one of the two south Korean men asks one of the North Korean men “Don’t you want to come to South.” This changes the mood of the room from happy and playful to serious and angry. The North Korean soldier replies very seriously that “my dream, is that one day, my country makes the best damn sweets on this peninsula,” referring to the choco cakes that the men from the South bring the men in the North that they do not have and love. This scene shows that men are very similar, but once their national identity gets called into question they clam up. In this scene, Park Chan-wook is trying to get across the point that the division between the North and South stems from political differences and not because of who the people are on either side.

Films like the Front Line portray a common bond of questioning what the fighting between the Koreas is really about and empathy for the other side. This film was released in 2011 and is directed by Hun Jang. The film tells the story of a South Korean investigator/soldier who must go to the front of the line in the Korean war to investigate a unit whose commander was killed. The commander solves the murder but then help the unit fight for Aerok Mountain which they constantly lose and then take back throughout the film. During this time both the South Koreans and North Koreans leave gifts for each other as the hill gets taken back by the other side. The repetitive mission of constantly fighting for the same objective has the South Korean unit questioning what the importance of their role is in the war. The film really focuses on a mutual hate for the war and the people making them fight it, rather than the either side. As a whole, the film also questions why either side is killing each other and who has committed wrong.  In one scene near the of the film, the South Korean investigator/soldiers is sitting in the cave where each side left gifts for each other with a North Korean soldier. In this scene, the South Korean talks and the other man about the war and asks “why are we fighting” and mentions “we should all go to hell.” Directly after this the South Korean soldier walks out of the cave and there is a massive wide high angle shot of all the dead bodies on the battlefield and then the film ends. In this final scene of the film, director Hun Jang is trying to show the idea that the fighting and feuding between the North and South is terrible and pointless. Jang also emphasizes this same fact by including the North and South trading of gifts throughout the film.

South Korean film has been a reflection of the evolution of the feelings and relationships shared between North and South Korea. Politically, the two countries have never seen any growth and or any sign that they will not be political enemies. Putting politics aside, through time, the Korean people have come to realize how they feel about the other Korea. Films like Piagol show the immediate post war Korea sentiment, a strong hate for the other side and everything they stand for. This was a period where the government cared so much about the anti-North sentiment that it had forced censorship. In more recent years, films have used the Korean war as a background to send a new message. A message sent in films like Taegukgi and the Frontline that shows the driving factor of division is politics. Joint Security Area preaches the same themes however sends an even stronger message because it takes place modern day. Joint Security Area tries to show the concept that even soldiers from the North and South can be good friends, but the only thing that holds them back is governments with differing political ideologies. It is interesting to think of the future of South Korean film and how it will continue to push against the political ideologies of Korea. Also with all the conflict going on now with North and South Korea, one might think political ideologies of South Korea might start pushing back into film. Regardless of whatever is happening between these two countries, the feelings and thoughts of the South Koreans will continue to be reflected in their film.

Citations

Chan-wook, Park, director. Joint Security Area. Wei Han Zi Xun, 2000

 

 

Gang-Cheon, Lee, director. Piagol. 30 Apr. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs6xoW708oM.

 

 

Hahn, Bae-ho, and Jung Ha Lee. “North Korea.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Mar. 2017, www.britannica.com/place/North-Korea/Relations-with-the-South. Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

Hendrix, Grady. “Why Koreans Can’t Get Enough of Bleak Movies About Their History and Politics.” Slate Magazine, 18 Jan. 2012, www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2012/01/the_front_line_why_do_koreans_love_bleak_war_movies_.html. Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

Hwang, Kyung Moon. A history of Korea: an episodic narrative. London, Palgrave, Macmillan Education, 2017.

 

McKirdy, Euan. “North Korea Timeline: From Trump’s Inauguration to Now.” WCVB, WCVB, 14 May 2017, www.wcvb.com/article/north-korea-timeline-from-trumps-inauguration-to-now/9650524. Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

Jang, Hun, director. The Front Line. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw36ZRCVSaw. Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

Kim, Jina. “Screening Korea: Film and Historical Understanding.” 2 Mar. 2017, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

 

Kang , Je-kyu, director. Taegukgi. 2 Nov. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vqb_DzL8xmw. Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

Paquet, Darcy. “Short Reviews.” Darcy’s Korean Film Page – 1945 to 1959, Koreanfilm.org, 15 Nov. 2015, www.koreanfilm.org/kfilm45-59.html#piagol. Accessed 15 May 2017.

 

 

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