As grueling as it gets, “National Security” relentlessly depicts the torture of a political prisoner in the twilight of South Korea’s military dictatorship. Based on the 22-day ordeal of Kim Geun-tae, a pro-democracy advocate who later became a government minister, pic is made with the utmost sincerity and succeeds in its mission of making auds extremely uncomfortable from beginning to end. This very well-acted chronicle of pain and degradation is set for local release in November despite failing so far to secure a domestic distributor. International outlook appears confined to fest engagements and possibly play on niche broadcasters.
Breaking a 13-year helming hiatus in 2011 with the provocative courtroom drama “Unbowed,” respected director Chung Ji-young appears to have made “National Security” in the national interest. Unsparing in its re-creation of appalling practices that took place in his homeland until just 25 years ago, the pic conveys a blunt message: “This happened before and must never happen again.”
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It’s Sept. 4, 1985, with Kim (renamed here as Kim Jong-tae, and played by Park Weon-sang) standing before an interrogation team in the notorious compound used by South Korea’s central intelligence agency, in Seoul’s Namyeong-dong neighborhood. A prime mover in the Youth Federation for Democracy movement and suspected of links with North Korean communists, Jong-tae is stripped naked, beaten and humiliated by his captors.
Refusing to yield, Jong-tae is handed over to Lee Guen-an (Lee Kyeong-yeong), also known as “The Undertaker,” a master torturer who arrives with a suitcase full of implements in much the same way a doctor would make a house call. Based on the real-life figure of Lee Du-han, the Undertaker greets Jong-tae kindly before dislocating his shoulder and subjecting him to repeated waterboarding. That’s just a warm-up.
Narrative consists overwhelmingly of Jong-tae suffering the most excruciating pain, followed by brief respites for collaborating with his captors on an almost entirely fabricated confession that will stand up in his subsequent show trial. A couple of short dream sequences in which Jong-tae meets his wife (Woo hee-jin) and children at a beach, and a fleeting moment of pity from low-level goon Biak (Seo Dong-soo) rep the only minor relief before the final wrap-up sequence set in 2004.
As worthy as the movie’s intentions are, scripting lets the team down with too many cliched speeches from accusers and accused alike. What’s not in question are the outstanding central perfs by Park and Lee. In what must surely be the toughest acting assignment he’ll ever encounter, Park is charismatic and utterly compelling as the defiant victim. Lee matches him as the smiling monster who wants to “kill as many commies as I can” and whistles “My Darling Clementine” while he works. Standout in a rock-solid supporting cast is Moon Seong-geun as the torture squad’s reptilian supervisor.
Lensing is plain and simple, as befits the subject matter. The rest of technical aspects are pro.