A monster hit on home turf this summer, with over 7 million admissions (some $50 million), “May 18” takes a horrifying event and turns it, at least to foreign eyes, into mainstream soap opera. First movie wholly devoted to the so-called Gwangju Massacre, in which troops cold-bloodedly killed anti-government protesters in 1980, takes liberties with the known facts and fails to carve fitting drama from a shameful page in South Korea’s recent history. Offshore biz looms minimal.
Providing no background on either the military dictatorship of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan or growing student unrest, the film starts with troops being flown down to the southwestern city, intercut with the story of a local cabbie, Min-woo (Kim Sang-gyeong), his student brother teen idol Lee Yun-gi, with an anachronistic haircut) and a cute Christian nurse (Lee Yo-weon) whom Min-woo fancies. Initial violence is sudden and shocking; but as the (fictional) figure of a former Special Forces head (vet Ahn Seong-gi) heroically sides with the protestors, story becomes a Korean “Alamo,” sans nuance or depth. Widescreen tech package is fine, though budget isn’t up to conveying the true scale of the event.