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The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 (2010)

The Secret Reunion

It’s not, of course, that South Korea is obsessed with the North. Although the on/off diplomacy is destabilising and the North’s sabre-rattling sets nerves on edge, it’s just a coincidence that Korean cinema picks up on themes involving the relationship with the North. In The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 (2010) we have a somewhat “optimistic” espionage drama in which two young spies from the North infiltrate the South and establish new identities as sleepers. They are Song Ji-Won (Gang Dong-Won) and Son Tae-Soon (Yoon Hee-Seok). The National Intelligence Service is tracking their movements. In fact, Son Tae-Soon has already taken the decision to defect and is feeding information to Lee Han-Kyu (Song Kang-Ho), the officer in charge of one of the counterespionage units. The South hopes to trap their handler, codenamed Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan), who’s coming south to assassinate Kim Jong-il’s second cousin and family.

 

The first third of the film deals with the build-up and the assassination itself. For Song Ji-Won, it can’t come quickly enough. He desperately misses his wife and daughter and wants to return to them. However, for all his training, he can’t bring himself to kill anyone. Shadow carries out all the executions save the defector’s young son. Song Ji-Won intervenes to save the boy. Thinking that Song Ji-Won is the traitor, Shadow escapes back to the north and has the man condemned in his absence. Unable to go home, he therefore hides in the south. Because Lee Han-Kyu failed to follow protocol, he’s scapegoated for the failure to protect the defector and the deaths of several officers who were killed by Shadow. Six years now pass.

Song Kang-Ho as a conscientious officer and loyal friend

Song Kang-Ho as a conscientious officer and loyal friend

 

Let’s pause at this point to think about the mythologising that must lay the ground for practical reunification with the North. Despite the rest of the world believing the North is the largest concentration camp ever constructed to specialise in “reeducation”, i.e. the brainwashing of the inhabitants, the South must believe the people in the North will be happy to rejoin them in a single country. Quite what the political system wold be in a unified Korea is left unclear. The fact the two countries have been at war with each other for more than fifty years cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the dream. After all, it proved possible in Germany. Why not on the Korean peninsula? So the film industry must show the new generation of North Koreans as sympathetic to the South. In his film, Son Tae-Soon has already been seduced by living in South and is only too pleased to sell out the other two. Song Ji-Won is shown as a loving husband and father, and as a deeply empathetic man. For all the training, he cannot bring himself to kill innocent women and children. He also proves more of a humanitarian than the capitalist Lee Han-Kyu. In other words, Song Ji-Won is the paragon, the hope for the future. Without a new generation like him, reintegration of the two populations will be extremely difficult. If there had only been a twenty year gap, families separated by the war could have come back together. Now everything will depend on the attitudes on the young on both sides of the border.

Gang Dong-Won an inspirational figure from the North

Gang Dong-Won an inspirational figure from the North

 

So back to the plot. Lee Han-Kyu is running a bounty business specialising in the recovery of runaway wives. A large number of women enter Korea from Viet Nam to marry farmers. When they arrive, they often find the life hard and the husbands unforgiving. During an attempt to capture a small-time gangster supporting this trade, he spots Song Ji-Won working on a building site. After some excitement, he recruits Song Ji-Won to work in his business. So begins the growth of trust and friendship between the two. Song Ji-Won wants the money to pay for his wife and child to be smuggled into the South. Lee Han-Kyu sees a chance to capture Shadow and so clear his name at the National Intelligence Service. Neither admits to recognising the other.

 

Although there are a two small elements in the story I can’t quite understand, it all works out as you would expect. In other words, it’s standard espionage fare. But the performances of Song Kang-Ho and Gang Dong-Won as a kind of odd couple approaching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau status is completely engaging. There’s a great sense of fun about how they approach the business of tracking down and returning the women. The fact both have “lost” their own wives adds a certain irony to proceedings. They also spy on each other and what they learn builds the trust that’s going to be required when Shadow returns. Put this together and you’ll find The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 packages the political message pleasingly, making it well worth watching.

 

Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000)

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

424px-JSA Joint Security Area

Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-Yeon, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000) takes us into a rather strange version of contemporary reality in which the mutual antagonism between North and South Korea mutually reinforces group standards of behaviour. The norm is a set of rules for engagement in Panmunjom. The armed forces of the two sides may literally face each other across a line drawn on the ground at the Joint Security Area, but may never interact directly. That’s left to senior officers and government officials, often working through the agency of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). At the so-called Bridge of No Return, the Military Demarcation Line has a blockhouse on each side where two members of the North and South Korean forces stand guard twenty-four hours a day. At other points along the border, troops patrol but are not allowed contact. In bad weather and through lack of care, some patrols do accidentally cross over. From North to South is not a problem. The North has mined parts of the border and this can lead to fatal consequences. In such a hothouse, national values are taken for granted and the status of a continuing war is drilled into the troops who practice shooting at each other so that, should there be a real emergency, hostilities can resume without delay. However, the greater the rigidity in any social system, the more individuals may chafe at the lack of any opportunity for self-expression or the exercise of discretion. If the wrong person is in the wrong place, this can lead to what the sociologists call anomie: a kind of mismatch between the prevailing social norms and the behaviour of one or more people. In extreme cases, the widening gulf between the prevailing systems and the individual can lead to suicide.

Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho facing off

Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho facing off

 

As a contrast, it’s interesting to note the behaviour of some of the troops along the Western Front during World War I on Christmas Day 1914. Unofficially, the troops fraternised, giving each other presents, singing carols and playing football matches. Sadly this moment of peace was quickly snuffed out by the officers and war resumed almost immediately with later attempts at truces largely unsuccessful. The book and this film detail the slow building of friendship first between three and then of the four soldiers guarding the Bridge of No Return. When the two South Koreans are caught drinking with their opposite numbers in the north blockhouse by a North Korean officer, the outcome is rather unfortunate. However, both sides are quickly to impose their interpretation on what happened. According to the South, a commando attack from the North abducted one of their soldiers and, only by great heroism did he manage to shoot himself free and return wounded to the South. According to the North, a rogue South Korean soldier crossed into the North, assassinated two soldiers and wounded a third. The NNSC is tasked with establishing the truth and the investigation is handed over to Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong-Ae) a Swiss national whose parents left the North in 1953.

Lee Yeong-Ae with the magic bullet

Lee Yeong-Ae with the magic bullet

 

The two soldiers from the South are Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk (Lee Byung-Hun) and Nam Sung-Shik (Kim Tae-Woo); from the North we have Sgt. Oh Kyeong-Pil (Song Kang-Ho) and Jung Woo-Jin (Shin Ha-Kyun). Suffice it to say, none of the survivors have any interest in telling the truth. If disclosed, their fraternisation would be so profoundly shocking, life imprisonment or simple execution would follow. Unfortunately, our intrepid investigator notices a discrepancy in the physical evidence. It seems one more bullet was fired than has been accounted for. This would suggest the “official” statements given by the survivors are untrue. We then have a careful retelling of what actually happened and watch the political and practical outcomes.

 

In every way, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA is a tragedy in the sense the characters suffer losses and some die. But instead of dealing with the larger picture of the state of war between North and South, we have it scaled down to the relationship between the four men who metaphorically and literally cross the line, and pay the price for being discovered. The two sergeants, Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho, are outstanding while Lee Yeong-Ae is somewhat underused. Director Park Chan-Wook is to be congratulated on constructing so elegant a film for exploring how the anomie first established itself and then grew. That the two countries nominally remain at war and continue to reinforce the hostility is one of the sadder scenarios currently playing out on the world stage. This is a thoughtful contribution to the wider debate wondering just how long the war would continue if it could be left to the people to decide. It’s well worth watching.

 

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