An unheralded surprise at this year’s Pusan fest, “The Road Taken” takes the true-life story of South Korea’s longest serving political prisoner and etches a modest but powerful portrait of conviction triumphing over the odds. Positive critical reception at its unspooling — where it co-won the audience award in the New Currents section — looks likely to propel this onto other fest platforms, and thence into cable slots. Specialized distribution in some countries is also possible.
Helmer Hong Gi-seon previously directed a film (“May 80: Dreamy Land,” 1989) about the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, in which South Korean troops suppressed student protests against the military government. Current pic is only Hong’s second feature.
In July 1953, following the Korean War, Kim Seong-myeong was sentenced to death by the South for “joining the rebels (i.e. North Korean army) and breaking the National Security Law.” In a retrial the following year, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and, after being shuttled round the country he settled down, as Prisoner 3596, in a single jail.
Shot in a very precise, clean style, dominated by blues (the prisoner’s clothes) and grays, film plays as a kind of political “Birdman of Alcatraz,” with Kim’s sole comfort being his beliefs rather than any feathered friends. The outside world is only briefly glimpsed through windows, and even fresh air exercise is lensed from above, as if stressing the self-contained world in which he’s chosen to live.
Initially drawing succor from clandestine conversations with other inmates, he later becomes isolated within himself and the four walls of his cell, as other prisoners vanish or commit suicide. His only human relationship is with the prison boss, Oh Tae-shik (Ahn Seok-hwan), a hectoring anti-Communist during the early years who later mellows into almost an admirer, as Kim refuses to recant or crack.
As played by Kim Jung-gi, Kim emerges as a stubborn but surprisingly sympathetic figure, despite the script’s failure to explain exactly what fired such strong convictions in the South Korean laborer. It’s Oh who comes over as more of a bigot. One scene in which he blurts out why he hates commies so much, is very powerful, laying the groundwork for their later scenes, as two men who’ve grown old together under a rigid system.
Pointedly, it’s Kim who gets his “freedom” from the jail first, following pressure from human rights groups after the country got its first civilian government in 1988.
Film could do with a couple of date captions for foreign auds, especially during a B&W docu sequence sketching the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979 and the takeover the following year by another general-president, Chun Doo-hwan. (Film leaps forward here, to the final act showing Kim as an old man.)
It’s during the latter stages that pic finally clicks on an emotional level, capped by footage of the real character leaving prison in August 1995, aged 71. A simple but moving footnote says Kim moved to North Korea in 2000.
Modest chamber music is used throughout, with the tone lightening in the final stages. Other tech credits are fine. Korean title literally means “The Choice,” a rather better one than “The Road Taken.”