New South Korean movie “26 Years” is not the worst South Korean film of this year, but it is the most disappointing South Korean film of this year. Its story has a very interesting historical subject, and it also daringly features one of the most controversial figures in the modern South Korean history who is still alive well in his country in spite of his infamous dictatorship in the past, but the result is a sloppy execution of a sensational story which could have been made into a far better film.
In the movie, the name of the figure in question is never mentioned, and he is only referred to as “the man” in the end credit, but I and the other South Korean audiences know too well about who he is. Before he was elected as the 11th President of South Korea, he overthrew the government with coup d’état, and he also squashed the demand for democracy from South Korean people in the name of national security. One of the atrocities committed under his regime was the bloody suppression of Gwang-ju Democratization movement on May 18th, 1980, and it is estimated that 4,122 people were killed by his soldiers in this brutal incident.
While the Gwang-ju Democratization movement is now officially recognized by the South Korean Government as a democratization movement, its tragedy left painful scars to many people who were directly or indirectly involved with it, and they especially are hurt by the fact that the man responsible for their pain is leading a luxurious life with no repentance or remorse about what he did(he argued at one point that all he had in his account was around $250 when the government demanded him to pay for his tax evasion). There are still the people supporting him, so it was no wonder to us that he was eventually released from jail even though he was found guilty at his trial.
The movie, based on a popular web graphic novel by Kang Pool(I have heard many good words about it), is an entirely fictitious story about the people who decide to something about that injustice. Kim Gap-se(Lee Kyeong-yeong, far different from his recent chilling turn in “National Security”(2012)), the chairman of a respectable security company, has devised a plan as his repentance for what he committed in Gwang-ju during that time as a soldier, and, with the help from his loyal secretary(Bae Soo-bin), he recruits three ordinary people who lost their loved ones because of that man: a tough and cocky mobster(Jin Goo), an expert shooter(Han Hye-jin), and a rookie policeman(Im Seul-Ong).
The most effective moment in the film is a striking prologue animation sequence which shows us their respective hurtful memories from that tragedy. The people only demanded democracy through their non-violence demonstration, but the soldiers shot as ordered by their high commander, and many people, including innocent bystanders, were wounded or murdered while the media and the government labeled them as a violent mob manipulated by North Korea.
The movie spends considerable time on how they are assembled and what they plan for their mission, but this progress is not as exciting as we expect. They prepare their plan in some remote place like characters of caper movies, but the plan does not look that elaborate or compelling. In fact, the plan is completely discarded as at one point, and we get a simple sight of one character ready for her target with an air rifle in the middle of the street on broad day light. I understand they are very determined to finish their job, but what I saw was a very reckless attempt without enough consideration and preparation, and I was not so surprised by its outcome.
By the way, what exactly are the characters planning for their secret mission? I don’t know, but all we can discern is that they are just gathering the information on their target and how much he is guarded all the time. According to Kim Gap-se, the inner structure of their secret base looks exactly same as that of the big house their target lives in while heavily guarded by his bodyguards, but the purpose behind his intention is never fully explained, and I wonder whether the people behind the movie chose to make two identical sets because of their low budget. When the target, played adequately by Jang Gwang, is shown in his house, all we can see from his big house somewhere in Seoul are 1) a big gate, 2) a nice garden, 3) one empty corridor, and 4) his drawing room and office in the desperate need of more decoration. I know it costs more than $250 to live in such a big house, but his house almost looks like an empty house – or an empty studio with leftover props.
There are also lots of technical deficiencies throughout the film which I could not help but notice. I was especially distracted by a sudden inclusion of a brief shot of one character, which has no apparent purpose in the narrative except showing us that he is held at some place by someone. There is an obligatory climax sequence around the target’s house, but the editing is so inefficient that the actions in three individual places do not mesh well with each other and do not even create enough tension to engage us at all, and its unnecessary melodramatic approach further hampers the remaining intensity in the sequence. The actors in the movie are well-cast, but they do not have lots of things to do except following the plot and the outlines of their respective characters, which are not always clear because of flawed narrative and flat characterization.
I heard that the production of the movie was mainly funded by the small donations from lots of citizens as it went through difficult production process, and the movie shows gratitude to them by including every name of them in its long, long, and long end credits, which bored me as much as the movie itself. I do not deny that the movie was made with sincerity and respect toward its subject and the people involved with it, but, alas, the filmmaking usually requires a lot more than heart.