[FICTION VS. HISTORY] 'Assassination' director sprinkles fiction over the factsIn film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plotlines and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.
The year is 1911. Then Japanese Governor-General of Korea named Masatake Terauchi visits the Sontag Hotel located in Gyeongseong (the old name for Seoul). There, he gets introduced to a Korean businessman named Kang In-guk by pro-Japanese Prime Minister Lee Wan-yong. Kang acts subserviently before Terauchi and asks him to give him Joseon’s mining rights. Suddenly, a bomb blows up, injuring the three. A masked Joseon man named Yeom Seok-jin, appears and attempts to kill the two pro-Japanese Koreans and Terauchi while trying to avoid the bullets being fired by Japanese military police. Seok-jin misses his shots to kill the three and the assassination mission fails.
“After realizing that many independent fighters’ names are lost or not even remembered while others are hailed and commemorated,” the director said he imagined what their lives would’ve been like and created the film to shed light on those who are lost or forgotten.
There was indeed an attempt to assassinate Terauchi, who executed the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910, becoming the first Japanese Governor-General of Korea. But that was not in 1911 but a year before in 1910. The mission was led by Ahn Myeong-geun, a cousin of Ahn Jung-geun, who was a Korean independence activist famous for assassinating Hirobumi Ito, the first Prime Minister of Japan. Though Sontag Hotel depicted in the film actually existed in Seoul during that time, the assassination attempt was carried out near the Ji’an Yalu River Border Railway Bridge as Terauchi was attending the completion ceremony. The Korean businessman Kang is also made up, however, many historians insist that his portrayal is very close to what pro-Japanese Koreans who sold the country out were like back then.
The independent fighter Seok-jin, played by “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, is a fictional character. In the film, Seok-jin eventually gets captured by Japanese military police and is imprisoned at Jongno Police Station. He makes headlines by becoming the first escaped convict from the Jongno Police Station in 1949. Seok-jin betrays his comrades as it was the Japanese Military Police that set him free from the prison in return for his promise that he would act as a spy.
However, the director revealed at the time of the film’s release that some parts of Seok-jin’s character are modeled after a real historical figure named Yeom Dong-jin. Many rumors surround this man — some accuse Yeom of planning the assassination of Korea’s iconic independence activist Kim Gu and acting as a Japanese spy. What’s been confirmed about Yeom is that he attempted to kill Kim Il Sung, the late North Korean founder, in 1946 as a leader of Baekuisa, a far-right anti-communist terrorist group.
Kim Gu (played by Kim Hong-pa) and Kim Won-bong (played by Jo Seung-woo) are both real and important figures in Korean history. They are portrayed fairly close to the real characters, including their appearances.
The only totally fictitious element in the film seems to be the two men joining hands to plan the assassinations of the general of the Imperial Japanese Army named Kawaguchi Mamoru (a real historical figure who commanded the Gando Massacre, brutally executing more than 3,000 Joseon civilians over the course of 27 days in 1931) and Kang In-guk, the pro-Japanese businessman.
Historians like Lee Jun-sik from the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activists say Kim Gu and Kim Won-bong did not get along well, especially during that time, that there's no way that they would've joined forces as depicted in the film. Kim Gu was an anti-communist and a nationalist who campaigned for independence within the framework of the provisional government while Kim Won-bong’s beliefs were closer to anarchism and he was friendly toward communism. The two only began to show signs of collaboration in the late 1930s.
The three independent fighters — Ahn Ock-yun (played by Jun Ji-hyun), Hwang Deok-sam (played by Choi Deok-mun) and Chu Sang-ock (played by Cho Jin-woong) - who get selected to carry out the assassination are all fictional characters. The director created Ock-yun's character based on Korea's much-revered female independent activist Nam Ja-hyun. After Nam’s active participation in the March 1 Movement, she defected to Manchuria and joined an independence revolution organization and carried out various movements including a project to assassinate Japanese Governor-General Makoto Saito. Nam is commemorated as one of the greatest female independent activists. The director, however, said he gave Jun’s character the name Ahn Ock-yun by taking one letter each from three of Korea’s most revered independent activists — Ahn Jung-geun, Kim Sang-ock and Yun Bong-gil.
In the film, Kim Bong-won tells the three what their mission is and that the reason for doing so is because Imperial Japanese Army General Mamoru Kawaguchi was the one who commanded the killing of more than 3,000 Joseon civilians of all ages, who were living in Manchuria.
This is a historical fact. Kim is referring to the Gando massacre, a mass murder committed by the Japanese military against Korean civilians living in Gando (which is today’s Jiandao in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin, China) in October 1920.
In the film, Ock-yun and Sang-ock, together with a paid assassin called Hawaiian Pistol (played by Ha Jung-woo), who is also a fictional character, have a second attempt to assassinate Kang and Kawaguchi at a wedding ceremony held at Mitsukoshi Department Store in Gyeongseong. The building of this department store still exists today. It’s the main building of the Shinsegae Department Store in Myeongdong — the famous one that lights up every Christmas. Mitsukoshi Department Store opened its doors as Korea’s first department store on Oct. 20, 1930. After Korea’s liberation on Aug. 15, 1945, it was renamed as Donghwa Department Store. But soon after, the Korean War broke out and it was used as a post exchange for the American army. Samsung purchased it in 1963 and turned it into Shinsaegae Department Store.
Toward the end of the film, Seok-jin goes on trial for his pro-Japanese actions. The film is the first commercial film that introduces Korea’s Special Investigation Committee of Antinational Activists, a special committee that was established in 1948 to investigate and punish anti-national acts of pro-Japanese groups during the Japanese colonial period. However, this special committee only lasted for a year following resistance from Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea.
In the film, Seok-jin, who becomes an old man, insists that he never acted as a spy and was a true independent activist.
“There are six bullets in my body that were fired by the Japanese. Your honor, these bullets [are proof] that I was ready to become the soil for the resistance,” he says in the courtroom.
Though the film does not go into detail about the special investigation committee, the director attempts to introduce the short-lived measure and remind viewers that “there are names we should try to remember and acknowledge or punish.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]