[DVD REVIEW]Historic film has many rare insights

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[DVD REVIEW]Historic film has many rare insights

In 1955, South Korea lay in ruins. The film industry, equally ravaged, was, by inclination and legal necessity, single-mindedly devoted to the cause of anti-communism.
But “Piagol,” by Lee Kang-cheon, set itself apart from other war pictures. Filmed against the beautiful backdrop of Mount Jiri in Korea’s Jeolla provinces, this film has few gunfights, no heroic policemen beating back the communist guerrillas. In fact, not a single South Korean soldier makes an appearance.
Instead, “Piagol” chronicles the final days of a band of North Korean partisans as they struggle to survive after the armistice has been signed. It’s touching and unusually bold for its time, and, as part of the incredible Korean Film Archive series, it’s now out on DVD with English subtitles.
What makes it such a courageous film for 1955 South Korea is its heroes ― they are all devoted communists. Comrade captain of Agari troop (Lee Ye-chun) is an unforgiving master, hypocritically exploiting communist ideology to control everyone, killing two of his comrades for treason, raping another and turning a blind eye to the murders of two more, clutching to the end a meaningless paper commendation from a fighting force that no longer exists.
Meanwhile, Chul-soo (Kim Jin-kyu), an intellectual true believer turned guerrilla, and Ae-ran (Roh Kyung-hee), the captain’s “secretary,” gravitate toward each other, eventually spotting a chance to escape the guerrilla group.
One cannot really call their relationship love, because these characters seem no longer capable of such a positive emotional activity ― they spend long stretches gazing into space in shock, unable to accept that the inevitable consequences of the path they chose is spiritual, and eventually physical, death.
Scenes of the partisans forcing villagers to kill each other, burning buildings and stealing livestock predate later, more melodramatic examples such as Im Kwon-taek’s “Taebaek Mountains” by decades. As valuable as the subtitled film itself are the special features, also subtitled in English, and a fully bilingual booklet explaining the historical context behind “Piagol,” its director and its controversial original release.
The censors did not allow the film to be released as planned because, even though the guerrilla cell eventually and unavoidably destroys itself, it was judged as insufficiently anti-communist because it acknowledges its subjects’ humanity, and that positive traits like loyalty, love and passion led them down their murderous path.
Newspaper articles published in 1955 from different perspectives are included in the booklet and provide a rare peek into contemporary Korean film criticism, though like the subtitles in the film itself, the English translation is often difficult to comprehend.
The “Piagol” DVD, and the entire Archive series, is a rare chance for English-speaking viewers to see behind the lens of Korea’s infant film industry and into the politics of a war-ravaged, divided nation. For those with a patient interest in modern Korean history, it’s not to be missed.

by By Ben Applegate Contributing Writer [ben@joongang.co.kr]
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