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Tag Archives: North Korea

As promised Poongsan Dog (2011).

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.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Joint Security Area (2000) or “Can’t we all just get along?”

Joint Security Area is the first film of our Korean Cold War trifecta.  In 2000 when it debuted it was the highest grossing Korean film of all time.  It was shot on location at the demilitarized zone or DMZ (the heavily patrolled border dividing North and South Korea).  The film is explained through a series of flashbacks, flashbacks that show low level North and South Korean soldiers becoming friends, drinking together and sharing pictures and gifts.  This is of course taboo between the two countries which are still technically at war.

 

Two North Korean soldiers are found dead by gunshot wound while a lone South Korean soldier heads back toward his side of the DMZ.  The South Korean troops get their man however a firefight erupts and two days later the fragile relationship between the two countries is on the verge of war.  An international peace agency sends in a Swiss Korean Army officer who attempts to sort through the evidence and discover what actually happened.  She is warned at the beginning by the ranking General in charge of the DMZ that the outcome of this proceeding is not the point, but that the process be totally neutral—a warning she ignores to her own peril.

Explained through flashbacks it is shown that Soo-hyeok (a South Korean) was on patrol with other soldiers, only to get lost on the North Korean side of the DMZ and to partially trip a mine; found by Kyeong-pil and Woo-jin, (both North Koreans) who deactivate the mine, which later prompts Soo-hyeok to throw written messages over the border to maintain contact.  Eventually inviting Soo-hyeok across the border, the three become a group of friends that soon includes Sung-shik, with the four agreeing to leave politics out of their friendship so to remain loyal to their own country.

 

As tensions rise between the North and South, Soo-hyeok and Sung-shik return to the North to say goodbye and celebrate Woo-jin’s birthday, only to be discovered by a commanding officer from the North and resulting in a Mexican Standoff.  Despite Woo-jin panicking and betraying his friends, Kyeong-pil convinces Woo-jin, Soo-hyeok and the officer to lower their weapons, only for Sung-shik to panic and shoot the commanding officer when he reaches for his radio; when Woo-jin draws his gun again, Sung-shik kills him, before shooting his corpse several times out of anger.  Kyeong-pil persuades Sung-shik to lay down the gun and for the two to flee with a false alibi of being kidnapped, before throwing away the evidence that he and Woo-jin were fraternizing with Southern soldiers. After shooting Kyeong-pil to complete his alibi, Sung-shik and Soo-hyeok flee across the border, with the former getting past unseen; since Soo-hyeok has a wounded leg from the firefight, he is the only soldier seen.

 

As the investigator starts piecing this together (using the only real clue a missing bullet) and confronts the soldiers one South Korean throws himself out of a window putting him into a coma.  After that horrific incident, her family’s past is uncovered and it turns out that her father was a general for the North Korean army tainting any neutrality she may have brought to the proceedings.  Because the missing bullet which all of her theories hinged on was intentionally thrown away she cannot figure out who really shot Woo-jin due to a remaining inconsistency in their stories. Sophie (the investigator) hugs Soo-hyeok and wishes him well, only for Soo-hyeok to steal an officer’s pistol before committing suicide as he is escorted to a waiting car.  It is revealed Soo-hyeok shot Woo-jin, and he committed suicide out of guilt for Woo-jin’s death and Sung-shik’s suicide attempt.

 

The film magnificently concludes with a photograph of the joint security area that accidentally contains all four soldiers.

This film is the perfect kickoff for our Cold War series. It has all the elements of a Cold War movie: you’ve got two sides with opposing ideologies – and in fact it’s communism versus capitalism, and as in the West, capitalism has shown its economic might over basically an ideology which in North Korea happens to be called juche instead of communism. Juche means independence or self-reliance, but in North Korea juche is simply Orwellian doublespeak for totalitarianism run horrifically amuck. But the fact of the matter is that the people of these two countries are no different from each other, and what separates them is a fence. A big fence, yes. A fence I wouldn’t want to cross, yes. A 100%  jones fest, yes. The fact of the matter is that at the heart of it, in the DMZ where they all meet, in the last scene in the picture together, they are not fighting. One of them is even smiling for the camera. But that’s not the real reason this is a good movie. The real reason this is a good movie is because of the Cold War aspects of it: the spies, the electrified fences, the constant threat of total war. The stakes are high. And we see these individuals who are caught up as pawns in this very high stakes game – who really just want to go home. It’s all there for the writing – but think of how many different ways this could have been played out. It could have gone to total war. Those guys could have been court-martialed.

What parallel do we have to this situation in the United States right now? Nothing. We have some disorganized group of terrorists, who have no united front so to speak, who are intentionally walled off as cells so that one group can’t affect the other if they are caught. Moreover, in the U.S. right now our real enemies are within: the government, corrupt politicians, police brutality, big corporations and banks. There aren’t the clear sides that you have in a Cold War situation. We keep trying to manufacture wars, as if we were nostalgic for the Cold War: the war on drugs, the war on terrorism. But we find it hard to make that work when the real enemy is us: our own corruption, our own consumerism, our own fiscal irresponsibility as a country, our own fanaticism and arrogance in the face of poverty. Our own political correctness that we have let hogtie us into an inability to do anything about the “isms” that we claim to care so much about eradicating. The only good movie to come out of Hollywood to address such issues is V for Vendetta. Otherwise, Hollywood has been left as bankrupt of ideas as Lehman Brothers.

 

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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What is America missing that gives Korean cinema an edge over the domestic crap we call film? Simple, we still have a Cold War between the North and the South which invites many exciting scripts and opportunities.

For years many of America’s greatest films have a basis in some form of Cold War tension or potential disaster. Think about the many James Bond movies, or movies like The Spy Who Came in From Out of the Cold (previously reviewed on this site), Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, and the list could go on and on. However with the Cold War essentially over in 1989 all these great spy and other similar type dramas had withered away at least here in America.

Let us not forget though that North and South Korea are still technically at war.  Only an armistice has been signed, not a treaty, so to say they have a Cold War between two countries is actually an understatement. Now that Sonny boy has taken over and is posing for the world by blowing up his uncles and other relatives, the potential for story lines is wide open not only for the division of North and South Korea but also for the unification of North and South Korea. Perhaps even our idiotic American writers could come up with a good script. Since 1950 we have had over 50 years of tales of the North brainwashing its citizens and the South trembling at the size of their army, each country spying the balls out of the other, the North using torture, the South using more conventional techniques. You also get some good tangential spinoffs like City Hunter (previously reviewed on this site). That’s not to even mention the gangster movies (though they have nothing to do with the Cold War). You get all three. It’s a writer’s dream. Women are even given a stronger role in Korean movies and television shows than they used to be. So let’s take a look. The next three movies we review will embody this blend of Cold War situations and themes and gritty writing. But if you are an American director, take note: we at JPFMovies are not advocating that you copy any more Asian films. These movies and shows are offered as role models and not as material to be plagiarized (as Spike Lee just did with Old Boy):

Joint Security Area

Poongsang Dog

IRIS

Stay alert. But beware. Once you get hooked on really good Korean cinema, you may not find yourself able to set foot in an American theater ever again. We at JPFMovies know this for a fact, as it has been over a decade since we had the stomachs for American film.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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South Korea’s Dramas Have Come a Long Way and May Very Well Lead the Pack in Quality and Originality. Apropos The City Hunter (2012) Part 1.

The “Rangoon Incident” a Little History

On October 9, 1983, then South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan was on an official visit to Rangoon, the capital of Burma.  During the visit he planned to lay a wreath at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum to commemorate Aung San, who founded the independent Burma and was assassinated in 1947.  While the president’s staff and advance team began assembling at the mausoleum, one of three concealed bombs in the roof exploded.  The immense blast ripped through the crowd below, killing 21 people and seriously wounding 46 others.  The explosion killed three senior South Korean politicians: foreign minister Lee Beom-seok; economic planning minister and deputy prime minister, Suh Suk Joon; and minister for commerce and industry, Kim Dong Whie.  Fourteen Korean presidential advisers, journalists, and security officials were killed; 4 Burmese nationals, including 3 journalists, were also among the dead.  President Chun was saved only because his car had been delayed in traffic and was only minutes from arriving at the memorial.  The bomb was reportedly detonated early because the presidential bugle which signaled Chun’s arrival mistakenly rang out a few minutes ahead of schedule.

A North Korean army major and two captains were suspected and caught.  They revealed that they had slipped off a ship docked in Yangon port, and had received the explosives in a North Korean diplomatic pouch.  Two of the three attackers attempted to commit suicide by blowing themselves up with a hand grenade that same day, but survived and were arrested.  The third suspect, a major from North Korean Army, went missing, but was hunted down by the Burmese Army.  The major confessed his mission and links to North Korea to avoid the death sentence receiving life imprisonment.  His colleague was executed by hanging.  North Korea denied any links to the incident and even today in the face of massive evidence continues to deny any involvement in the atrocity.

As a result of the bombing, Burma suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea.  Chinese officials refused to meet or even talk with North Korean officials for months.  South Korea, under pressure from the United States, did not retaliate with anything other than heated rhetoric.

Why is this important?  Because that is the scary, but true, backdrop for The City Hunter series.

The 20 episode series begins at the Rangoon bombing and fictionalizes a South Korean military retaliation hatched by five South Korean official’s code-named “Operation Cleansweep.”  The objective was to enter North Korea and kill several top members of the North’s high military command.  Two Presidential Security Service bodyguards and best friends Lee Jin-pyo (Kim Sang-joong) and Park Moo-yul (Park Sang-min) who were at the bombing, organize a 21-man team for the mission.  While the team effectively eliminates its targets in Pyongyang, the five officials abandon the plan in midstream to avoid an international crisis if the mission is discovered.  They fear that the United States will remove nuclear protection if the mission is made public as Seoul officially declared that it will not retaliate.

Though their mission is a total success, as the troops are escaping by swimming from Nampo to a Navy submarine, snipers from the friendly vessel open fire on their own soldiers.  Park, who is already injured, takes several bullets to save Lee.  Lee, the sole survivor, swims back to shore and returns to South Korea, where he finds out that the assault team’s service and personal records have been erased.

Obsessed with avenging his fallen comrades, Lee Jin-pyo kidnaps Moo-yul’s infant son.  He runs to the Golden Triangle (an area in Southeast Asia second only to Afghanistan in opium production) to raise the child as a trained killer and instrument of his revenge.

Fast forward a number of years later, Yoon-sung, after successfully finishing his college years and attaining a doctorate from MIT, returns to South Korea to implement the plans for revenge against the five officials who murdered the soldiers.  He finds a job at the South Korea’s Blue House as an IT expert.  Obviously making him privy to vast amounts of intelligence and information that could be valuable in discovering and punishing the five officials behind the aborted mission.

The 20 episode series walks us through the trials and tribulations of finding and taking revenge on the responsible officials.

Let’s talk a little bit about why I think South Korea’s (and in general Asian) TV dramas have surpassed the shows pumped out for the U.S. market.

Anyone who knows us here at JPFmovies knows that we quit watching all American live-regular programing (including cable) years ago and went to an all movie all the time format for entertainment-this includes selected U.S. TV series that we do like, but have a policy of only watching via DVD or electronically.  Why?  The reason is very simple.  Several years ago we were watching regularly scheduled programming and realized that the shows were actually making us feel stupider.  Cliché plots, programs that have dragged on way past their useful lives and commercials finally pushed us over the edge, something had to be done.  The switch was made and thus began the search for viable alternatives.

Already conditioned to subtitles, the JPFmovie personnel was forced to migrate to series and films produced in Asia.  Unlike their American counterparts, the Asian’s limit the number of episodes is limited and pre-determined-typically in the range of 4, 10 or 20 shows.  That is it.  The show ends, the viewer gets closure and the series does not suffer a slow painful death.  So you know going in what to expect, the show is not dependent on ratings.  Also, Asian shows are often a melding of history and fiction i.e. The City Hunter, starts off with a real event and moves forward from there.  It is a refreshing change from either America’s cops and robbers or your “fish out of water” stories.  For JPFmovie personnel at least our loyalty has changed.  Ask yourself this, when was the last time an American series went out on top?

Well that ends the complaining for now; stay tuned for The City Hunter Part 2 and more on Asia vs. American TV.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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