Korean Films in Review: National Security
‘National Security’ (also known as ‘Namyeong-dong 1985’) is a hard-hitting film set in 1985 and based on the horrifying ordeal Kim Geun-tae (renamed as Kim Jong-tae in the film), a pro-democracy activist went through in his time at the notorious Namyeong-dong detention centre. The film is made even more distressing as its plot is based on true events.
The film immediately opens with Kim Jong-tae (Park Won-sang) in a cell at Namyeong-dong after being kidnapped by government agents. The story follows Kim Jong-tae’s 3 week stay in this room and all of the torture he endures within it. The camera very rarely leaves this room except for flashback scenes or hallucinations of Kim Jong-tae. Occasionally it will follow the torturers down a corridor within the main building but other than that, we as an audience are as trapped as Jong-tae. The torturers aim to get a confession out of Jong-tae (which everyone involved knows is false) for conspiring with North Korea to undermine the South Korean government.
The torture is a key aspect of the film and it is not for the ill-prepared. Whilst some reviews have said that the film contains prolonged scenes of torture, I would go so far as to say that the whole film is a prolonged scene of torture with several short interruptions from other scenes.
What makes the torture so different from other recent films with torture in them is the realism, the character known only as ‘The Undertaker’ (Lee Kyeong-yeong) tells his comrades that they must not leave marks on Jong-tae’s body. Therefore scenes of torture which are usually easier to watch due to their tendency to be over-the-top (dismemberment, cutting etc) are barely seen on screen. Instead, more intense and disturbing methods are used to coax a confession from Jong-tae; water-boarding, electrocution, introducing chili powder to his lungs, arm dislocation, sleep deprivation and starvation. There are only 2 types of torture that left marks, two scenes of Jong-tae being traditionally beaten up (kicks and punches) and a horrifying scene in which he was made to kneel on the floor with a baseball bat between his thighs and calves whilst a torturer jumped on his knees.
Reading about these methods, unpleasant though they may be, do not come close to the upsetting experience of watching them onscreen. The scenes are very heavy and extremely difficult to watch. During a press screening of this film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I noticed several people leave the cinema after only 20 minutes in, a few others followed less than 10 minutes later – the film is nearly 2 hours long.
Having said this, the torture scenes are shot with a sense of keen precision and an unnerving calm. The direction of director Chung Ji-young (who honed his directorial skills by working as an assistant director to Kim Soo-yong) is always dignified and s never sensational – whilst the exploits on-screen are alarming, they are never onscreen for shock value and never seen as unnecessary. Instead, Ji-young attempts to engage his audience’s curiosity for the actions of all of the characters. The film really shows the mechanics of torture. It is not pretentious, nor does it go overboard with its portrayal of true events. It accurately and relentlessly depicts the real, ruthless methods of torture that real human beings were forced to endure.
The exploration of Jong-tae’s state of mind during his torment shows that at times, due to his suffering, sleep deprivation, starvation and an intense desire to be free, seems to believe the lies he is asked to tell and confess to.
Despite the obvious turmoil on-screen, the camera work is shot with beautiful and impressive techniques. At times, due to cleaver camera angles, it feels as though you are not only in the room with the captors and captive, but also taking part in the torturing yourself. The camera placement, for the most part, keeps the audience at eye-level with the actors or in such a position that the audience acts as an unheard and unseen person in the room.
The character development is remarkable and realistic. The inter-relationships between the hunters and their prey are like a vicious ballet: precision movements and extreme emotion. The evolution of both the torturers – who start out malicious and unremorseful but become encouraging and prompting towards the end, and Jong-tae – who initially holds his resolve not to betray his country but becomes reduced to a nervous wreck who will say anything to avoid any more cruelty is both convincing surprisingly lifelike.
‘National Security’ is a trying viewing experience and in order to get through it, you constantly remind yourself that “It’s just a film”. Whilst the actions on-screen within the film are staged – carefully and meticulously planned out by cast, crew and director, the knowledge that the events on-screen really happened to many real people keep you troubled throughout. The acting is superb and all the actors give highly memorable performances which are made even more astounding by how small the cast is. At the end of the film when the tone finally relents you think that you can breathe a little again – until during the credits where there are snippets of heart-breaking interviews with several real victims of torture during the 1970’s and 1980’s in South Korea.
Even with the almost unendurable torture sequences, ‘National Security’ surpasses the risk of being a mere account of physical torment and is a genuinely captivating and deeply gripping work of Korean cinema.
National Security will be screened as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Focus on Korea strand on 23rd and 30th of June. For more information about Focus on Korea and all the film times and details, click here.
Have you seen this film? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments.
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