Top Korean director Im Kwon-Taek follows the lyrical, award-winning “Sopyonje” with this impressive saga of life in a small town in the period leading up to the Korean War. Combining sweeping drama with intimate portraits of ordinary people caught up in bitter ideological conflict, the film’s strong plea for a sensible middle way to solve Korea’s problems is a potent one. A strong entry in this year’s Berlin fest competition, pic should increase international respect for Korean cinema in general and Im’s work in particular.
Film spans the years 1948-50, and the little southwestern Korea town of Bulkyo is the center of the drama, which focuses on four characters. Bumwoo (An Sung-Kee) is a moderate anti-Communist who nevertheless despises the vicious excesses of the more fanatical government supporters. Sangku (Kim Gap-Soo) is one such fanatic, while his brother Sangjin (Kim Myung-Kon) supports the Communists and spends much of his time waging guerrilla war from the mountains surrounding the town.
Representing traditional Korean values is the beautiful Sohwa (O Jung-Hae), a “shaman” who is supposed to possess mystical powers.
Control of the town shifts from faction to faction during this two-year period. First, it’s taken over by Communist guerrillas who set about executing landlords; then it’s recaptured by government troops who carry out a vicious campaign against suspected Communists and leftists; then the advancing North Korean army takes control of the town, with policies even more hard-line than those of the local Communist leaders; then the South Korean government regains control. Every time control of the town changes hands, ordinary civilians suffer from the reprisals, rapes and executions that follow.
Violent and grim at times, the film paints a vivid portrait of grassroots Korean life in the period leading up to the brutal war that pitted the U.S. against Communist China. But these wider issues are just a backdrop as the people of Bulkyo try to survive in a climate of suspicion and terror.
One of Im’s greatest achievements here is that he keeps the intimate details in focus even during the large-scale, handsomely staged scenes of guerrilla fighting and aerial attacks on the town. The personal dramas always take center stage.
Production credits are all first-rate, and there’s a magnificent score by Kim Soo-Chul.