Thursday, July 26, 2007

Splendid Vacation

[Update - added a few photos]

I was coming home last night in a taxi, and, while wondering whether having a tv next to the driver was a good idea, learned via a news report on said tv that the military truth committee, which announced that it would investigate (among other things) the Kwangju Uprising two years ago, had finally released its report. The Donga Ilbo has an article about this:
The Truth Committee of the Army declassified 140,000 pages of previously classified documents, and issued a report on the 12/12 incident and other related events yesterday.[...]

A handwritten memo was discovered written on the minutes of the meeting “Directions and Guidelines for the Chungjeong Operation” which read, “Your Highness Mr. Jeon: Use of deadly force allowed upon any threat to soldiers on duty.” On hand at the meeting were Jeon Doo-hwan, then Defense Minister Ju Yeong-bok, Chief of Staff Lee Hui-seong, Second Army Commander Jin Jong-chae, General Noh Tae-woo, and General Jeong Ho-yong.
The article goes on to say that while investigators have suspicions as to who gave the order to fire, no definitive evidence had been found. This isn't really surprising, considering the fact that those involved in the highest levels of the military at the time refused to testify. It's good that more documents were declassified, however. Other articles and editorials about this can be found, as can this article about a planned military operation to arrest pro-democracy leaders - in 1989, a year after the first democratically elected president, former general Roh Tae-woo, took power.

As I was reading these articles, it dawned on me that the movie May 18 was coming out today, which is certainly fortuitous timing for the release of the truth commission's report. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, right? Or is a relative of someone at CJ Entertainment working within the truth commission?

Mark, over at Korea Pop Wars, posted a review of the film a few days ago, which is well worth reading, and which I agree with - I just got back from seeing the movie a few hours ago. Spoilers may follow, for those who aren't familiar with the events of May 1980. Also, as should be obvious to anyone who's read my many posts on the uprising, it's pretty hard for me to judge this movie primarily on its artistic merits. What follows is more a look at how the film uses, ignores, and simplifies what happened 27 years ago in the construction of its narrative.

This Korea Times article has interviews with the director and actors:
"As a director, it's challenging to reenact historical events with accuracy,'' Kim told reporters. "It's inadequate -- through interviews with survivors and family members of victims, I learned that (May 18) was much more horrific, violent and nightmarish than what the film shows. "I toned it down; rather than portraying the incident itself, 27 years since its occurrence, I wanted to give life to those who lived through it,'' he said.
I'm glad he didn't set out to 'portray the incident itself', because by stripping it down to the conflict between the citizen's army and the paratroopers, he drained the politics and complexity from it. It's not a movie that will give those unfamiliar with the uprising much insight into what happened, though it will give a bare outline. Of course, just about any historical movie will dilute the truth while telling its story. I'd predicted, based on the trailer, that this would be similar to Taegukgi in its treatment of history, and I think it's a fair comparison. While it was easy to see that it would have a similar 'idyllic' beginning, I did like that it was self consciously so in the opening, where the film's title (Which translates as 'Splendid Vacation') appears over a pastoral scene. This creates a certain tension due to the fact that the title has darker implications as the name of the military operation that sets off the uprising. As the Korea Times continues:
The story unfolds around four main characters inspired by real life victims of the tragedy. The lives of ordinary people are forever changed by May 18: Taxi driver Min-wu (Kim Sang-kyung) leads a peaceful life with younger brother Jin-wu (Lee Jun-ki), while nurturing his affection for the pretty Sin-ae (Lee Yo-won).

"In previous interviews with the media, because the subject matter is so heavy, I stressed how the film is very heartwarming and even comical,'' said veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki, who plays the role of Sin-ae's loving father and a former soldier that leads the armed citizens. "But it was devastating and heartbreaking to watch (the film) today,'' he said.
I had thought it was quite smart to have the main character be a taxi driver, as it was the taxi (and bus) driver's protests on May 20th that gave the protesters they upper hand, as it allowed them to control the streets:

Still from footage of the driver's protest, May 20, 1980

Taxi Protest

I assumed this would be how he would get caught up in the uprising, but this event never even appears in the movie. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they only reimported five Hyundai Ponys from Egypt to use in the movie, but I still think it could have been done with a little CGI and careful editing. Leaving such an important event like this out of the story that makes it easy for me to criticize it. In many ways, I think two episodes of the 1995 TV series Sandglass dealt with the uprising more accurately than this film does (showing the soldiers' assault on the bus terminal, or how they would randomly run into people's houses and attack them, for example, or portraying the effects of regionalism - "You're not from Kwangju, so you have to get out and tell people. They'll never believe us.").

As a high school student, Jin-wu, the younger brother of the main character, allows the story to depict how younger students got involved, as well as evoking this well known image:

Memorial for dead classmate

Ahn Sung-ki's character, the former soldier, seems to be based on (if I remember correctly) a former drill sargeant who began to train some of the citizen's army on May 22. The movie, however, has little or no mention of the citizen's settlement committee, who were negotiating with the army, or the militant students who eventually took it over; as a result, Ahn Sung-ki's character seems to be, as leader of the citizen's army, the leader of the entire uprising, which isn't anywhere near the truth. If I wanted to be generous, I'd just say it's very simplistic. Also, it seems that, though a machine gun was mounted on the top of a building by the citizen's army, it was never actually fired.

Lee Yo-won's character, a nurse, is well used, allowing the story to go into hospitals full of wounded and dying citizens (an interview with her is here). She later moves into a different role, of the woman who drove around and used a loudspeaker to try to rouse the people into making a stand against the army on the night of May 26-27, before the military returned to retake the city. Here is how Henry Scott-Stokes described her:
Suddenly, the silence was shattered by a female voice. Someone up at the provincial government office was using the loudspeaker system. It was a young voice, with a hysterical edge. As the girl shrieked on--her voice resounding over the darkened city--her words merged into a continuum, one continuous shriek, a wail that lasted for perhaps l0 minutes, on and on and on. What was she saying? "This is the end!" That was, no doubt, the pith of it--plus a token appeal to the citizens to come out and join the students, a few hundred students at most? I wish I could convey to you the passion in that voice... imagine that famous painting by Munch, the Norwegian painter, called "The Scream", with the mysterious face and hollowed mouth, and imagine that painting suddenly wired for sound, at tremendous volume, in a black studio. Then you may have some idea of the power of that voice. There is no moment in Shakespeare's entire tragic oeuvre that calls for a "scream" of that power. I listened, I waited. There was no sound of doors opening, no scuffling of shoes in the street. Where were the people of Kwangju? Locked inside their homes, with their doors barred. There was no sound of doors being unbarred, no sound of steps in the street...nothing. All of a sudden the voice cut off.
In the movie, her calls have an effect, and most of the main characters (all male, except for two) come to the provincial hall to fight to the end. In reality, as described above, no one answered her call. In fact, the remaining defenders sent away many of the high school students (and women) who were still there. When the assault comes, the soldiers storm in the front doors, but that's not how Terry Anderson remembers it (not to say that it didn't happen):
Just before dawn, I watched paratroopers filter quietly around the hotel, then begin their assault on the headquarters building. In classic urban warfare tactics, one unit swarmed up the outside of the building to the top, then began working its way down, floor by floor. The soldiers threw stun grenades into each room, shooting at anything that moved.
There are little details in the final battle I noticed, like in one scene a stack of folding chairs can be seen in the background, reminding me of this footage taken on the morning of May 27, after the battle at the Provincial Hall:

Despite such details, I actually thought the final battle was a little too brutal and over the top, in that the soldiers are shown killing everyone they find, when in fact there were many survivors, and some surrendered, as related here:
Armed fighters in the provincial building with Yun were dispatched to the front of the building, but the military approached from the rear. The soldiers ordered the rebels to throw their weapons out into the hallway and crawl out to surrender, or they would be killed. Some complied with the order and surrendered.
Officially, 26 died in the final battle, out of perhaps 150 people who remained in the provincial hall - though it was likely higher. Terry Anderson, in an interview, thought perhaps more than 50 were killed (more on the official numbers here). Of course, surrendering isn't tragic, and tragic and dramatic was what the filmakers were going for. As the Korea Times reported two week ago,
The film was screened in special premieres in Seoul, Busan and the fateful city of Gwangju Sunday. According to Yonhap News, some 3,000 Gwangju citizens -- including family members of victims -- saw the film, and most were unable to suppress tears and gave a long applause. "It's a film that makes us look back to Gwangju," said Yun Seok-dong, 80, whose son Sang-won lost his life as a citizen soldier.
I wonder if the 30 second close-ups of characters crying onscreen contributed to people being "unable to suppress tears". The movie really, really goes for the tear ducts, almost sadistically so. I was starting to wish that I had a stopwatch to keep track of all the crying scenes. That's not to say that there shouldn't be sad scenes, of course, just that there's no need to hit people over the head with it. On the other hand, I didn't know how I felt about a lot of the comic relief in the movie. I doubt the demonstrators were performing a 'gag' show in front of the soldiers before they opened fire - a lot of it just seemed out of place, kind of like how I felt when I watched the foreign characters in Please Teach Me English, who were acting like a Korean would imagine a foreigner should act - very strange.

That said, I liked the final scene, which reminded me of this story by Norman Thorpe:
Some of my memories of Kwangju are like photographs. One is a moving photograph--a slow motion picture of a scene I saw. In it, a man, perhaps middle-aged, steadily pedals a bicycle down a Kwangju side street. Like most Korean bikes in those days, his bike had a strong cargo rack built over the rear tire. Strapped onto this rack and extending out behind his bike was a pine coffin. Someone in this man's family was dead--most likely the victim was one of the many people who had been killed by the soldiers--and the man had gone by bicycle to fetch a coffin.

It is this bicyclist's solitary journey that has stuck in my mind as one of the most poignant images. As the rider leaned forward to get leverage on his pedals, I was reminded how each family had had great hopes for whomever had died, especially for those who had been students. I had just met some of those students in hospitals - lucky ones whom the bullets had only wounded. But here was something I hadn't thought about. Some of the families were so poor that they could only bring a coffin by bicycle. And now in a wrenching upheaval, the focus of their hope was gone.
I was thinking of how the final scene made clear what had been lost, and then remembered Mark's comparison of this film to Titanic, which is a pretty good comparison, now that I think about it. In the end, it's an entertaining tragedy set during one of modern Korea's most tragic historical moments, and is a pretty typical movie made in Korea these days, what with the simplification of history, the ridiculous comedy, the scenes designed to make viewers cry, and well done action set pieces and strong production values. But it's not going to tell you much about the Kwangju Uprising other than lay out the barest outline.

I'm not sure how popular this film will turn out to be. The theatre was less than half full (at a 10 pm showing on a Wednesday (opening) night). When I brought this up in some of my classes, a number of students said they wanted to see the movie, but one told me that though she was interested in it, she didn't want to see it. When asked why, she said, "It'll be too sad."

(At the top of this search, below the poster at the top, are several photos. If you want to see a four minute encapsulation of the film, click on the one titled M/V. If you want to see night vision camera shots of viewers crying in the theatre during the movie, click on 'Making')


Mark Russell said...

I just found Don Kirk's CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR story on the film here:

Don, of course, was one of the journalsts in Gwangju at the time. CJ actually brought him on board to give a talk about his memories of the Gwangju Massacre for a seminar they sponsored as part of the marketing for MAY 18.

matt said...

Thanks for the link - I'm planning to post a few reviews I've found soon. I hadn't known about CJ's seminar...