Smash-hit films criticized for political leanings

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Smash-hit films criticized for political leanings


Directors Yoon Je-kyun, inset left, of “Ode to My Father,” and Yang Woo-seok, inset right, of “The Attorney” discuss their movies, which have garnered criticism for their perceived political intentions. Behind are the lead characters from their films. Hwang Jung-min, left, plays Deok-soo in “Ode” while Sang Kang-ho acts as Song Woo-seok in “The Attorney.” Provided by Kim Jin-sol (Studio 706)

It only took 28 days for Korean film “Ode to My Father” to hit the 10 million admissions mark on Jan. 13. It also remained in first place at the local box office for five consecutive weeks.

Millions of viewers have laughed and wept with Deok-soo, the lead character played by actor Hwang Jung-min. As head of his family he lives through various historical events such as the Hungnam Evacuation during the 1950-53 Korean War, the government’s decision to dispatch nurses and miners to Germany in the 1960s and the Vietnam War.


Actor Hwang Jung-min, right, who plays lead character Deok-soo in “Ode to My Father,” puts his hand on his heart in the middle of a quarrel as a flag-lowering ceremony begins. Until the mid-1980s, Koreans participated in a nationwide flag-raising ceremony at 8 a.m. and a lowering ceremony at 5 p.m daily.

However, some people have criticized the movie, directed by Yoon Je-kyun, for being a right-wing film that emphasizes just one side of Korea’s modern history.

Similarly, despite attracting more than 10 million viewers, “The Attorney” (2014) by Yang Woo-seok was embroiled in criticism for being seen as too left-wing.


Lawyer Song Woo-seok (played by Song Kang-ho), the main character in “The Attorney,” pleads on behalf of university student Jin-woo, who was used as a scapegoat and accused of being involved in pro-Communist activities. Provided by each distribution company

Are the two controversial films truly lopsided, and did the directors produce them with the intention of creating political divide?

The JoongAng Ilbo recently sat down with Yoon and Yang to hear their opinions.

Q. Yang, how do you feel about Yoon’s film?

A. Yang: I feel that this kind of film is indispensable for our society. It gives us a chance to ruminate on the modern history of Korea. Portraying how this country was able to achieve today’s development from rubble through one man’s life is an astonishing achievement as a movie director. I believe “The Attorney” is also in the same line as “Ode” for that same reason: It allows us to ruminate on the valuable past that is gradually being forgotten by the people of today.

What do you mean by giving us an opportunity to ruminate on the past?

Yang: If “The Attorney” evoked the value of democratization, “Ode” sends a message that we must not forget the efforts of the older generation that contributed to the industrialization of Korea. The movie accurately, yet in a moving way, delivers detailed tales of their hardships and suffering that could only be explained by the older generation over a bitter drink. The biggest problem of our society today is forgetfulness. As these two movies help people remember the valuable past that should never be forgotten, I believe they are on the same track.

Unlike “Ode,” in which the lead character is fictional, “The Attorney” dealt with a real person.

Yang: I understand our turbulent past in the 1980s through two figures. During the threatening military regime in the early ’80s, a lawyer who seemed far from the pro-democracy movement [of the time] jumped into the center of it after one incident. He was former-President Roh Moo-hyun. The other person is former Blue House economic policy maker Kim Jae-ik, who strengthened the foundation for industrialization and informativeness. Thanks to them, Korea was able to achieve both industrialization and democratization at the same time in the 1980s. I was very interested in producing a film based on Kim, but I ended up making “The Attorney” first.

Yoon, you have emphasized several times in the media that you purposely excluded political issues from “Ode.” But some people argue that decision in itself is very political.

Yoon: All I wanted to do was make a family movie that could be watched together by three generations. That is why I purposely took out political events that could be sensitive and create an uncomfortable atmosphere.

Many people also view “The Attorney” as a political film. How do you feel about this?

Yang: I don’t think “The Attorney” is a political film. All I wanted was to ensure that the existence of this one person who lived fiercely through the time would not be forgotten. “The Attorney” is also a movie that portrays a father figure who lived for his family. I wanted the young Koreans of today who don’t understand the time to learn about it through the movie.

It has been said that “Ode” could also create communication between generations. Do you think this is true?

Yoon: I wanted young Koreans to take this opportunity to understand their fathers and grandfathers. Young people could also argue that they are living a difficult life and are experiencing their own kind of suffering and hardships. They can say that they don’t have hope for the future. But I think this argument itself can trigger a conversation among three generations. I never imagined that it would be embroiled in political controversy.

Yang: I believe people just framed “Ode” as a movie that stimulates a political divide just like they did for “The Attorney.” Using “framing theory” like this, which labels any kind of incident as either leaning to the right or left by picking out several words and phrases as politically controversial rather than trying to understand the actual context, is rampant. I also thought, after watching “Ode,” that young people may feel disappointed so it came as a surprise when it was the progressive side that seemed disappointed. My guess was wrong.

Do you think that disputes among generations have become that much of an issue?

Yang: We should think deeply about why the recent television drama “Misaeng,” which portrayed the joys and sorrows of a young temporary employee, created such an explosive response. I believe disputes among the “Ode” generation and the “Misaeng” generation are far more productive than the dispute that has been created among the conservatives and the progressives.

Yoon: “Ode” being buried in such political logic and being compared to “The Attorney” as two opposite political films is circumstantial evidence that our society is not at all healthy. It’s a tragedy of our society.

Why do you think this framing theory has even penetrated the film industry?

Yang: It is because there is a group that believes that the energy created through conflict is more beneficial than the energy created through a harmony of understanding and sympathy. They believe conflict is more advantageous to them than healing. That is why they are continuing to spark arguments and are making it an issue.

Yoon: Whether conservative or progressive, they don’t have to understand each other, but they at least need to acknowledge each other. The character Deok-soo in “Ode,” works his fingers to the bone with an urge to make sure his children live a better life in a better society than he does. In “The Attorney,” the lawyer Song Woo-seok, gives up his pursuit of success as he believes his children should grow up in a just society. Who can argue that either one of these breadwinners is right or wrong?

Are you saying that industrialization and democratization should not be considered as two opposing values?

Yang: The two values can never be separated. Democratization’s industrial value is enormous. Moreover, it’s difficult for democratization to be achieved unless some level of industrialization is at its foundation. Both of the movies attracted more than 10 million admissions and that means the public did not see them as having a biased perspective. Korean people are like an ocean that embraces both the values in the movie. Upon strong winds, waves can crash here and there, but the ocean itself never moves.

Is there going to be a sequel for “Ode”?

Yoon: The initial script included vast content that even covered the pro-democracy movement. But it was difficult to include all that in one movie. Next time, I want to produce a movie where Deok-soo and his family pass through the difficult democratization period in the 1980s and ’90s. Like “The Attorney,” one of Deok-soo’s family members could be involved in the pro-democracy movement.

Yang, what opinion do you have on the generation that went through industrialization?

Yang: I am very interested in that generation. Recently, I have been thinking about producing a movie about ramyeon. I want to tell a story of our early years of industrialization through instant noodles. Ramyeon is a cheap food that keeps even those suffering from poverty full. Back then, large business entrepreneurs produced instant noodles as relief goods. President Park Chung Hee was also interested in developing ramyeon. If I have the opportunity, I want to produce a TV drama that explores the merits and demerits of the Fifth Republic [the government under Chun Doo-hwan from 1979-87] again, which was considered by society as absolutely evil.

Do you think people who watch these movies will experience the same emotions?

Yang: Maybe a feeling of remorse and thankfulness, as well as sympathy. The subject may differ, whether it’s a specific person or a specific generation, but the emotion felt by the audience will be similar.

Yoon: I hope people don’t get pulled in by comments on the Internet that have somewhat reached the extreme. I believe the Korean audience are smart people who can keep a balance.


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