The abduction and attempted murder of South Korean opposition leader (now president) Kim Dae-jung in Tokyo in August 1973 is the subject of “KT,” a political procedural that’s less interested in thrills than in the complex machinations behind the real-life event. Lengthy running time engenders a kind of slow-burning fascination for Asiaphiles, but pic’s only real commercial chances lie in Japan and Korea, the two countries involved in the event (and the movie’s production). Some festival play may be gained on the strength of director Junji Sakamoto’s name, though the film is very different from his best-known title, the black comedy-drama “Face” (2000).
Title refers to the Japanese codename for Kim, who narrowly lost out to General Park Chung-hee in a (rigged) election in April ’71 which saw Park get a third term as president. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, in which his car was forced off a road, Kim led a life shuttling between Japan and the U.S. In fall ’72, while Kim was in Tokyo for medical treatment, Park declared martial law in South Korea and a crackdown on all political opposition, overseen by the country’s ruthless secret service, the KCIA. Worse, Japan came out in support of the Park government.
Bulk of the movie is set during April-August ’73, and centers on a Japanese intelligence officer, Major Tomita (Koichi Sato), who’s fluent in Korean and is involved in surveillance of Koreans in Japan. Tomita falls for a young exile, Lee Jeong-mi (Yang Eun-yong), who was once tortured by the KCIA, and manages to save her from being kidnapped by KCIA agent Kim Chang-won (Kim Kab-soo).
Meanwhile, KT (Choi Il-hwa) arrives in Japan to meet with supporters and builds a relationship with sympathetic journalist Kamikawa (Yoshio Harada). Panicking, the KCIA orders the capture or assassination of KT at any cost, an operation in which Kim Chang-won enlists the help of Tomita.Though it will alienate general viewers, the mass of characters and name/date captions is acceptable, given the film’s procedural approach. However, neither the script nor Sakamoto’s cool direction generate much tension, and it is not until 90 minutes in that the fateful day of the kidnap — Aug. 8, 1973 — arrives.
Eschewing both rough, doculike and slick commercial thriller looks, Sakamoto opts for a casual, almost anti-dramatic style, with the kidnap and subsequent events even bereft of any music. His yakuza drama “Another Battle” (2000), which also included Korean-Japanese, suffered from the same script faults, lack of well-defined characters and casual approach to action.
This pic’s main problem is that its characters are either underdrawn or confusingly sketched. Tomita remains an enigma, and his relationships with both Jeong-mi and KCIA operative Kim — which should form the heart of the film — never develop an emotional head of steam. Likewise, another conflicted character — a young Korean-Japanese (Michitaka Tsutsui) hired as KT’s bodyguard — is soon relegated to the sidelines after being introduced.
Film reserves its biggest punch for the end: right hooks to both the Japanese government and its security service, both portrayed as spineless puppets of U.S. foreign policy. It’s Washington’s last-minute intervention — when it decides the Park government, which it originally supported, has gone too far — that saves KT’s life.
Performances are largely OK within their structured limits, with Harada best as the journalist. In an obviously sensitive role, Choi is a believable lookalike as KT, drawing him as a driven politician who trusts no one. As Tomita, however, Sato is as uninflected as his character.
For the record, veteran Korean director Shin Sang-ok tried to set up a film on the same subject soon after the actual events, with Japanese finance. This is widely believed to have further alienated him from the South Korean authorities and hastened the end of his career, which he later continued in North Korea after reportedly being kidnapped in 1978.