[MOVIE REVIEW]Black comedy stirs reflections on pastThe heart of “The President’s Barber” is a moment when the main character, Han-mo, visits a fortuneteller’s home, and is asked to choose between two names for his son ― one that would give him power and wealth, or one that would give him a long life without anxiety.
Puzzled, Han-mo naively asks whether there’s a name that could guarantee his son power, wealth and a happy, long life. The fortuneteller says no. Hanmo chooses the latter, and names his son Nak-an, which literally means pleasure and comfort.
This scene is almost a justification for the entire film, a social portrait from the perspective of an ordinary, working-class Korean citizen who is too timid and ignorant to defy the social repression of his turbulent age.
The story, set in the late 1960s, deals with a faint-hearted, hard-working barber who goes to work for President Park Chung Hee. The film focuses on the lives of ordinary Koreans under the influence of dictatorship ― their fear, and what it meant for them to challenge authority.
A high point comes when the South’s intelligence service cracks down on a group of North Korean spies dispatched to the South to assassinate President Park. When the government learns that some of the spies they caught suffer from a minor stomach virus called Marcus disease, they decide to arrest every Korean with similar symptoms, using the media to spread the false news that it’s a deadly infection. In this way, the government tries to link communist spies with the virus in order to propagandize anti-Communism to Korean minds.
As the president’s barber, Han-mo tries to do his part. When he learns Nak-an has diarrhea, he turns the boy over to the police to prove his loyalty to the regime. He assumes his son will be released immediately, because it’s obvious he has no connection with the Communists. But that’s not what happens; the boy ends up tortured by electric shock into giving a false confession.
The episode is depicted as absurdly comic. But the story resonates with modern Korean history, in the sense that many innocent Koreans were executed for violating the National Security Law, victims of similar incidents fabricated by the government.
There is some poignant dialogue, seen through the boy’s flashbacks. Nak-an recalls a stomachache by saying, innocently, “I don’t know what caused my diarrhea at the time, but the thing that mattered the most was the fact I was having diarrhea.”
The portrait of Park Chung Hee on the wall of a barber’s shop reminds us sharply of the days when being a good citizen in Korea really meant being an obedient one. The way the film’s characters unfailingly believe in the state might trigger a guilty conscience on the part of South Koreans; do we have any right to laugh at the way North Koreans idolize Kim Jong-il?
Despite biting satire and smooth storytelling, the film relies mostly on a nostalgia that’s getting repetitive in Korean films lately. There are moments, however, when the film ventures beyond historic melodrama. The torture scene on Nak-an is an example. It’s depicted almost as a fairy tale, making it even more disturbing to watch, yet demonstrating that life is comedy in the end.
The President’s Barber (Hyoja-dong Ibalsa)
Drama / Korean; 114 minutes
Showing with English subtitles at 1:40 p.m. daily at Cine Core, Jongo 3-ga.
Call (02) 2285-2096
by Park Soo-mee