Overacted and simplistic nationalismPromotional materials for director Kang Woo-suk’s “Hanbando,” or “The Korean Peninsula” in English, use the line, “The Korean Peninsula never belonged to Koreans.” Even without seeing the movie, it’s easy to guess it has patriotism ― or nationalism ― and anti-Japan sentiment at its heart.
The movie depicts a future opening ceremony for the inter-Korean railroad line, an event opposed fiercely by Japan and other neighboring superpowers. The navies of Japan and South Korea face each other on the brink of war in the disputed waters between the two countries as Japan seeks to block the railroad linkage. Japan argues that it has the right to operate the railroad, citing a 1907 treaty between Japan and the Korean empire.
A dissident historian, Choi Min-jae, argues the treaty is invalid because King Gojong used a fake stamp to endorse the document. A search for the true stamp begins, but Japan and some within the South Korean government put obstacles in the way.
The plot is far-fetched, partly because it ignores the delicate dynamics of international politics. Director Kang simplistically portrays Japan as the ultimate bad guy, while Korea is, of course, the wronged country. Such a clear-cut depiction is uncomfortable, particularly as the movie tries to focus on reality by making references to historic and current events, such as the inter-Korean railroad project which has been halted ― not because of Japan’s objection but because of North Korea’s abrupt change of mind.
The cast includes some of Korea’s best actors and actress, but each performs with glaring eyes, which made me feel uncomfortable. The acting is unnatural and overdone, and the movie would have been better if it had fewer stars. They all try hard to outshine each other, and the result is a surfeit of overacting.
The characters of the president, played by Ahn Sung-kee; junior intelligence officer Lee Sang-hyeon, played by Cha In-pyo; and historian Choi Min-jae, acted by Jo Jae-hyeon, all fall flat. They show no signs of emotional turmoil or deep consideration before parroting their patriotic lines. It is discomforting ― and a little scary ― to see such an extreme simplification of, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” (Although U.S. President George W. Bush has voiced that same sentiment!)
The music is also too dramatic and the computer graphics in some scenes are of poor quality. Military materiel and historical recreations of artifacts were also sloppy. Is it too much to expect the detail we get from TV series such as C.I.S. in this Korean blockbuster?
The character of the prime minister, played by Moon Sung-geun, was more interesting, and his dining scene with businessmen portrayed what could be real-life politics in today’s Korea.
The movie made reference to Joseon dynasty events, including the murder of Queen Min, played by Kang Su-yeon, and the scenes were bloody but beautifully choreographed.
Eventually, the true stamp is found and Japan apologizes for its occupation, allowing viewers to feel catharsis. This probably works well for some, considering the depth of anti-Japan sentiment here.
by Ser Myo-ja