Making historyKim San, a young communist from Korea, met Helen Foster Snow in Manchuria in 1937, at the start of the Sino-Japanese War. Then 32, Mr. Kim had first come to China as an independence activist fighting Japan’s colonial rule over Korea. He became an anarchist, and eventually a communist, joining the Chinese revolution.
Ms. Snow, an aspiring writer from Utah, was intrigued enough by Mr. Kim’s story ― and by the fact that, to her surprise, he greeted her in English ― that she decided to write a book about him. “Song of Ariran” was published in the United States in 1941 under Ms. Snow’s pen name, Nym Wales.
Several decades later, the story is equally intriguing to Shim Jae-myung, a Korean film producer. Ms. Shim wants to make “Song of Ariran,” the movie.
Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable.
“Song of Ariran,” better known to Koreans as “Arirang,” was banned for years by South Korea’s military regimes, because it was the story of a communist. During this period, making a film of the book certainly would have been out of the question ― it would have been a major violation of the National Security Law.
But today, Korean lawmakers are arguing about whether to revise the National Security Law or abolish it outright. And in the domestic film industry, the politically charged modern history of Korea is becoming a more popular source of material.
“The success of ‘Joint Security Area’ meant a lot to me,” said Ms. Shim, whose company Myung Films (which has since merged with Kang Je-gyu Films to form MKB) produced and distributed the 2000 North-South spy thriller that, at the time, was one of Korea’s most financially successful films ever.
“[‘Joint Security Area’] conveyed the meaning of the Korean War well, and it was also commercially successful,” Ms. Shim said. “It gave me confidence that we can now talk about the historic truth behind the veil.”
Korean modern history, stained with colonialism, war, division and military dictatorship, is clearly a rich source of material. But for a long time, it was taboo for Korean filmmakers.
“There of course have been efforts to deal with modern history, but the filmmakers suffered from censorship, not only by the government but by themselves,” said Han Hong-koo, a professor of Korean history at Sung-Kong-Hoe University, whom Ms. Shim recruited as an adviser for “Song of Ariran.”
Last year, “Joint Security Area’s” box office numbers were surpassed by “Silmido,” the fact-based story of a South Korean assassination squad that was trained in the late 1960s to kill Kim Il Sung; it became the top-grossing Korean film in history. Soon after that, “Silmido’s” record was broken by yet another history-based film: “Taegukgi,” a tragic story of two brothers set against the Korean War.
Now more filmmakers are taking their material from recent history. Director Park Chan-wook, currently best known for “Old Boy,” has said that his next film will be about what’s known as the Inhyeokdang Incident, in which the Park Chung Hee regime executed eight civilians falsely charged with being agents for North Korea.
In addition to “Song of Ariran,” Ms. Shim hopes to make a film based on the book “The Bridge at No Gun Ri,” an account of a massacre of civilians by U.S. forces during the Korean War. (She hopes to see both films released in 2006.) Two directors, including Lee Gwang-mo (“Spring in My Hometown”), are working on films about the 1980 uprising in Gwangju, where civilians were slain by the Chun Doo Hwan regime. A lesser-known tragedy on Jejudo island in 1948, in which tens of thousands of civilians were shot to death in an anti-communist crackdown, is also the subject of a project by a local filmmaker.
Director Kim Eui-seok (“Sword in the Moon”) is working on a film about Ji Gang-heon, a jail inmate who broke out and took hostages a few days after the 1988 Seoul Olympics; during the standoff, he famously said, “If you’re rich, you’re not guilty, and if you’re poor, you’re guilty.”
“The real story itself is like a movie,” the director says. “But what I really want to talk about is the story of the isolated and the have-nots like Mr. Ji. I don’t see much change in this society since then, and I’d like to talk about the present through the past.” His tentative title for the film is “Picnic.”
Such tragedies have been made into documentaries on the independent film scene, but never opened in mainstream theaters for many reasons, only one of which was censorship. What changed things?
Lee Jae-gwang, a film critic, says there were a number of factors. “First of all, the film industry itself grew bigger, and filmmakers came to have confidence in making movies out of history, which, in many cases, requires a big budget,” Mr. Lee said. “Also, history is making news in our everyday lives these days, especially in the political world, which makes it an attractive topic to the public.”
Mr. Lee also argues that filmmakers simply needed new material. “The public has grown tired of the comedy and gangster films by now, and the filmmakers are taking history as the next topic.”
A more obvious factor, perhaps, is that the military dictatorships, and the habits of mind they instilled, are receding into the past.
“The National Security Law, for one thing, has long been dead in people’s hearts, like the military regimes,” Mr. Han said. “People are no longer afraid of the topics that were once taboo. Now is the time to break the long silence about modern history.”
In film, however, it takes certain skills to break the silence.
The primary concern for Ms. Shim is the tug of war between reality and dramatization, which is why she asked Mr. Han to be an advisor for “Song of Ariran.” She has also done her own historical research.
“Films like ‘The President’s Barber’” ― a fictitious film about a citizen caught up in the turmoil of the Park Chung Hee years ―“used metaphors to talk about history, which is not the case with ‘Song of Ariran’ and ‘The Bridge at No Gun Ri.’ They’ve long remained in my mind, and I’ll make the necessary efforts to tell the truth about history.”
Mr. Han, while calling realism “the number one priority” for historical films, acknowledges that the audience has to be entertained. “Getting a balanced position between realism and dramatization is the most difficult problem to be solved,” he said.
Ms. Shim remains confident, however. “Commercial success can come in many ways. Some films succeed for taking new angles, others for sincerity. Why not history? Realism, in this case, must not be a victim of dramatization. Commercial success, I believe, would naturally follow.”
by Chun Su-jin