The movie starts at present day Korean peninsula, the man simply known as “Poongsan” – from the brand of North Korean cigarettes he smokes – makes regular trips across the DMZ to smuggle everything from people to antiques. No one knows whether he is from the North or the South, though from his commando-like abilities he is obviously highly trained. He makes contact with clients via a makeshift memorial bulletin board for divided families along the DMZ. On one mission he smuggles an antique, as well as a young boy, from North to South but when they are caught by the police, the South’s National Intelligence Service becomes aware of Poongsan’s existence. They contract him to bring a young woman, In-ok (Kim Gyu-ri), from Pyongyang to her lover (Kim Jong-su), a high-ranking North Korean official who recently defected and is still guarded by NIS agents. The arrogant official, who is paranoid about being assassinated (and rightfully so because he is), has been holding out on writing a report for the NIS until In-ok joins him. On the journey across the DMZ, In-ok accidentally sets off a mine that almost kills her and Poongsan, and she also has to be revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when she almost drowns.
The mission is successful but In-ok has become attached to Poongsan who saved her life. Suspicious that the two made love during the crossing, the arrogant abuses In-ok after they are reunited and she expresses a desire to return to the North. Meanwhile, Poongsan is tortured by an NIS team leader (Choi Mu-seong) to find out whether he is a North Korean agent, but is rescued by the team leader’s boss (Han Gi-jung). Poongsan is forced to rescue NIS agent Kim Yong-nam, who’s been caught in the North and is under harsh interrogation; in gratitude, and appalled by his own agency’s methods, Kim later helps Poongsan escape from the NIS’ control. But then Poongsan and In-ok are captured by North Korean agents in the South. In-ok is killed breaking Poongsan’s heart, however, he keeps working and in the last scene his luck runs out as he is shot by a North Korean while pole vaulting over a battier.
One interesting thing about this film is that Poongsan is apparently mute not saying a word throughout the whole two hour film therefore using either the words of others around Poongsan or what you imagine he would say or is thinking when he is alone to know what is going on. An interesting device/technique to be sure. The love story between a naturally mute protagonist (what else!?), about who we don’t get to know anything, and a North Korean woman who is abused by her husband, who actually loves her.
The protagonist, about whose motives we don’t get to know anything in the course of the movie either, still remains somewhat interesting. He is a border runner who doesn’t belong on either on this side nor on the other. He is homeless and yet has his home in both Koreas and therefore is most likely also a symbolization of the inner conflict of a divided Korea. He is a wanderer between the two worlds, it seems, and because of this he also has some superhuman powers.
It is fascinating to see Poongsan succeed in doing with the greatest of ease what so many of the best elite soldiers aren’t able to do: to take a walk through the demilitarized zone. No one stands a chance against this man, until the script demands that Poongsan is overpowered. In such a case it suddenly becomes pretty easy to deal with him.
Poongsan is very good film it has an original, good story and uses unconventional devices. What was the last American film you remember where the lead character doesn’t say a word throughout the entire film? Poonsang was a box office smash in Asia—as it should be. If we had films like this in American theaters I just might go back. Alas we don’t.