A kinder and gentler North Korea

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A kinder and gentler North Korea

The seemingly endless political negotiations with North Korea are enough to make any armchair diplomat eventually glaze over and tune out. If movies are an accurate gauge of popular culture, the South Korean masses have collectively changed the channel.
Although the country remains technically at war, this year South Korean filmmakers have been increasingly producing stories of peace and reconciliation.
The most recent film in the trend is "Welcome to Dongmakgol" which has attracted over 5.5 million viewers nationwide since opening on Aug. 4.
The movie is set during the Korean War in a small mountain village called Dongmakgol, where an American pilot, two North Korean soldiers and two South Korean soldiers accidentally arrive.
The villagers live a "primitive" farming life with no modern technology, and are not daunted by guns, which they have never seen before.
In this peaceful rural setting, the "enemies" panic at first, confused as to whether they should kill each other. But when a misplaced grenade blows up the village storehouse, they decide to put aside their own issues and work with the villagers to gather enough food for the coming winter, during which they form a strong friendship.
Similarly, "Heaven's Soldiers," which hit theaters on July 26, has drawn crowds over 1.1 million. The comedy begins as a North Korean soldier steals a nuclear weapon and a South Korean soldier chases him to get it back. However, a rogue comet causes a time warp, flinging the two men back in time to the year 1572 where they have to fight together to drive out Manchurian barbarians from Korea. Again, reconciliation is the main message.
"A Bold Family," which ran in theaters in June and was released on DVD last week, shows a silly family going to extremes because the grandfather mistakenly believes that Korea has been unified and they don't have the heart to tell him the truth.
The pop culture perspective on North Korea has softened significantly since the 1999 blockbuster “Swiri,” which swirls with mixed emotions.
“Swiri” is the codename of a female North Korean agent sent to blow up a stadium in South Korea. Instead, she falls in love with a Southern intelligence agent who is charged with tracking her down, but in the final scene the lovers face off at gunpoint.
North Koreans were humanized further in 2000 with "JSA," an investigative story about the murder of two North Korean soldiers stationed in the DMZ.
The soldiers were allegedly killed by a South Korean soldier, but the shootings were actually a misunderstanding.
The storyline was sensational at the time because it showed North and South Korean soldiers in the DMZ having a good time together and being friends. However, tensions between the two Koreas did not ease in the movie, and the friendship ended tragically.
A more neutral perspective is presented in "Double Agent,” a 2003 film about a North Korean diplomat who defects to the South while remaining loyal to the North. The film deals more with his inner psychological struggle than with the ideological standoff between North and South.
The films released this year ― “Welcome to Dongmakgol” and “A Bold Family” ― were overtly pro-North Korean, signifying a major break from the past.
During decades of South Korean military dictatorships, films “were required to portray the South Korean army as a courageous and superior, while the North Korean army was always shown in a negative light,” notes Park Pyeong-sik, a film critic.
“North Korea was considered evil incarnate," says Park.
Political freedom with the 1988 transition to democracy and new sources of financing have played a major role in the changing tone of filmmaking.
It was only in 1990 with “Nambugun” by director Jeong Ji-yeong that South Korean filmmakers changed their view of the North.
Today’s filmmakers say that they are simply responding to public sentiment. A recent survey conducted by the employment agency Saramin showed that 73.9 percent of South Koreans hoped for unification.
“Society's views of North Korea have changed drastically since the [2000 inter-Korean] summit. Films should reflect this,” said Cho Myeong-nam, director of "A Bold Family."
However, maybe North Korea is just another subject.
“In daily life we think about love, justice, money and so on. [Inter-Korean] problems are timely. It’s just another item of interest,” says Cho Hee-mun, a film professor at Sangmyung University.


by Wohn Dong-hee
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