With election approaching, Korean films get political

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With election approaching, Korean films get political

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Three political films are set to hit theaters before Election Day. From left, the late first lady, Yuk Young-soo, smiles as her daughter Park Geun-hye shakes hands with the Archbishop of Seoul; late activist Kim Geun-tae is arrested; and an image from “26 Years” featuring Jang Gwang as former President Chun Doo-hwan. Provided by the JoonAng Ilbo and Cheongeoram


As the campaigns heat up with the Dec. 19 presidential election fast approaching, the contentious proxy battle among candidates has reached the box office with a slew of political films readying for their premiers.

The main opposition Democratic United Party has yet to select its nominee, but three political films that could have implications on individual candidates and the party as a whole are set to hit theaters before Election Day.

One of the most highly anticipated films is “First Lady - For Her” (working title) by Han Chang-hak, a drama detailing the life of Yuk Young-soo, the mother of Park Geun-hye, the ruling Saenuri Party’s presidential nominee. Yuk, the wife of former President Park Chung Hee, was assassinated in 1974.

With a release date set for early December, the film is centered on the personal life of the former first lady rather than the political power struggle behind the scenes of the Park Chung Hee administration.

Drama Bank, the movie’s production company, said in a statement that it portrays the “love story between the former leader and first lady and explores Yuk’s inner side.”

The first lady was 49 when she was killed in a botched assassination attempt on the president on Liberation Day. Despite her shortened life, Yuk is often cited as Korea’s most popular first lady, mainly due to her charity projects and benevolent image.

When news broke that the production company was seeking cooperation from Yuk’s hometown in Okcheon County, North Chungcheong, liberal civic groups like Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities immediately tried to block the filming.

While the district office made it clear that it would only rent the place out for the shooting, not support it financially, the squabble illustrates the extreme sensitivity surrounding the project.

“Namyoungdong” by Chung Ji-young has a more direct link with the upcoming presidential election, tracing the life of the late democratic activist Kim Geun-tae, who also served as a senior adviser of the DUP.

“Namyoungdong” is the name of the area in central Seoul where Kim was severely tortured for 22 days in 1985 for his activist career against the Yushin regime of President Park Chung Hee. The film explores how the memories of torture haunted Kim.

The director said he presents the torture scenes as vividly as possible to better portray the cruelty of the acts.

Kim is a symbolic figure, especially to the opposition party and leftist lawmakers. All of the presidential candidates of the DUP - Moon Jae-in, Chung Sye-kyun, Kim Doo-gwan and Sohn Hak-kyu - visited the activist’s funeral and expressed their condolences. Moon, the leading candidate of the party, said at the funeral that “Korean democracy owes a lot to Kim Geun-tae.”

The timing and topic of both films suggest directors had no intention of hiding their political leanings. Whether the films will have any impact on the election remains to be seen.

“Movies can easily stir people’s emotions with visual effects,” says Park Sung-hee, a professor of media studies at Ewha Womans University. “Voters should separate movie scenes from real-life events.”

But others said that the films will not sway voters’ decisions, but rather attract those already leaning toward the ideologies behind the characters.

“Both movies so explicitly support one of the two major parties,” says movie critic Kim Young-jin. “They cannot be considered sophisticated political propaganda because people already notice that.”

Movie critic Kang Yoo-jung echoes Kim’s view, saying “We’ve seen political movies like ‘The President’s Last Bang,’ but I don’t think the films influenced the result of the following election.”

“The President’s Last Bang,” directed by Im Sang-soo, is a satirical black comedy about Park Chung Hee. The portrayal of the former leader indulging in young women and enjoying enka, a Japanese music genre, sparked controversy, leading to a lawsuit by Park’s only son, Park Ji-man.

The satirical film is not the only movie that has faced a tough road due to the controversial political content.

The upcoming “26 years” by Cho Keun-hyun saw investment stall right before the first shooting. While there has been no official statement by the investment companies, a representative of the movie’s production company attributes the withdrawal to the film’s sensitive content.

Based on cartoonist Kang Pool’s Webtoon, a Web-based cartoon of the same name, “26 years” is a story of families who get involved in an attempt to assassinate then-president Chun Doo-hwan after their loved ones died in the Gwangju Democratization Movement.

Chungeoram, the production company, financed the movie with the help of voluntary investors, securing more than 400 million won ($352,700).

The representative of the management firm said that the movie will be screened at the end of November and that half of the shooting has been finished.

By Park Eun-jee [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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