New South Korean movie “National Security” is a fiction based a true story, but the reality glimpsed from its fiction gave me and the audiences an unforgettably uncomfortable moment at the screening room at last night. We all knew what depicted in the movie really happened during that dark era depicted in the movie, but the movie deeply disturbed us as an uncompromising and unflinching observation on that frightening licensed brutality stomping on basic human rights – and its consequences still lingering on the minds of unfortunate people who had to go through such dreadful ordeals at that time as well as South Korean society which has remained haunted by its unpleasant memories of violent past.
When Kim Jong-tae(Park Won-Sang) is taken to the police station, he knows the reason for his arrest at least. Because he has been involved in the political activities calling for democracy against the dictatorships for many years, the police have been watching on him even when he decides to take a rest for having some free time for thoughts and his dear family. When cops suddenly come to him, he expects he will come back soon to his family because he has not done anything ‘wrong’ recently at least.
But, unfortunately, he was incorrect. As soon as he arrives at the police station, he is immediately taken to somewhere by the security police agents without proper procedure. It is September 4th, 1985, and it was the time when many South Korean activists were unjustly incarcerated and then ruthlessly tortured under the dictatorship. When Jong-tae finds himself locked up in some shabby room, he knows well where he is; he is brought to the infamous interrogation center at Nam-yeong dong in Seoul where agonized cries from interrogation rooms are frequently heard along the corridor outside every day.
Because the police know everything he has done or said through secret wiretapping and any other means available to them, he really has nothing new to tell about his political activities, but that does not matter to them at all, for they can make him tell anything they want through tortures. At first, it is just forcing to write everything about himself and his life while not giving him any chance to sleep, but the intensity and barbarity in their cruel process increase day by day to extract ‘confession’ from him.
The authorities in the film are determined to make him into a North Korean spy/sympathizer, and I thought about how easy it was for them to make a big case of ‘spy organization’ whenever it was necessary for the dictatorship at that time – especially when big election is coming. There were surely North Korean agents trying to undermine the security of South Korean society(one of my uncles did lots of things to catch such dangerous people during his classified years at the National Intelligence Agency, and I respect what he did for our country although he was called to several recent hearings on the injustice committed at his agency during his time), but there were also lots of innocent people suddenly finding themselves labeled as the enemies of the state even though they were not as politically active as Jong-tae, and they were forced to make false confessions which would initiate another process of tortures and false confessions in the other interrogation rooms.
Like them, Jong-tae becomes humiliated and broken in a sadistically systemic process by the authorities in front of our eyes, and there are many grueling scenes in the movie which will make you wince and squirm a lot(I saw a couple sitting next to me leaving the screening room at one of its most intense moments), but the director Chung Ji-young firmly maintains a calm, honest, and objective attitude in these brutal scenes along with sincerity and passion pulsating behind the screen. His movie could have been easily degenerated into an exploitative torture flick, but it handles its subject effectively while not going too far, and its true horror comes not from the graphic depiction of tortures but the banality of evil shown from Jong-tae’s captors. Even when they are tormenting him, their minds are occupied with the details of their mundane daily life including sports game or date or promotion just like your average South Koreans in the 1980s, and this realistic depiction makes them more chilling. They are plain guys who really lived and ‘worked’ during that time, and it is rather scary to imagine how ordinary they would look outside their workplace.
As a good man trapped in a hopeless situation, Park Won-sang stays true to his unpretentious performance well even when he bravely puts himself into many difficult scenes including the one featuring that notorious waterboarding torture(they even mix red pepper powder into water at one point, by the way), and I sometimes worried about his safety during its production at time even though I knew they made this film with care and caution. Jong-tae’s mind sometimes recedes into his memory or hallucination, and that provides a few respites for the audiences although they are not really necessary except providing the background for the hero we worry and care about.
On the opposite, Myeong Kye-nam, Moon Seong-guen, and other actors support Park Won-sang well as the bullies very good at their barbarous work. The special mention must go to Lee Kyeong-yeong, who is truly terrifying with his phlegmatic professionalism a la “Marathon Man”(1976) as a torture expert who does know a lot about how to extract confessions from his subjects with maximum physical pains and minimal visible injuries. You think he goes far enough, and then he will stomp on you far more ruthlessly than you have ever imagined. To him, Jong-tae is merely another guy he will work on by any means necessary, and he has lots of works to do around South Korea. He even casually whistles “Oh My Darling Clementine” during his waterboarding sessions, and that makes the song sound as horrific as “Singin’ in the Rain” in “A Clockwork Orange”(1971).
In the end, this is not a spoiler, the happy ending comes to Jong-tae though he is eventually sent to the prison for his forced confession, because he is released few years later when the democratization is finally started in South Korea. Although the story and the characters are fictional, the movie is mainly inspired by the painful experience of a real-life political figure Kim Geun-tae, who later became a cabinet member in the South Korea government and sadly died in last year due to Parkinson’s disease, which was probably originated by that darkest time in his life.
You may think a torture expert in the movie is a composite fictional character, but he is also based on a real-life figure infamous for his tortures. After hiding from justice for a while, he eventually surrendered himself to the police and got a prison sentence, but he later got out of prison as a born-again Christian and pastor, although he was divested of his title because he behaved as if he had completely forgotten every atrocity he committed in the past. I recently read an article about him, and he remains as impertinent as before, but that is not shocking to me and others much, considering that the dictator who was above him and others at that time is still alive and guarded well in his big house in Seoul even at this moment. That former dictator argued in public at one time that only around $250 is in his possession, but, what do you know, he still can manage to go to an expensive golf club with his close friends, who remain influential and powerful at the top of South Korean society.
“National Security” is not a pleasant experience, but this is a hard but engrossing experience for it vividly evokes one of the darkest chapters in the modern South Korean history. In spite of some flaws including the occasional stiff dialogues in the screenplay, the movie effectively and earnestly reminds South Korean audiences how much their society have advanced since that era – and, as revealed in its powerfully resonant ending, how much its painful memories of violence has not been resolved yet.