South Korean documentary film “Our President” comes to its main audiences at a point which cannot possibly be more appropriate. As the country went through two lousy presidents during last 9 years and then managed to get some possibility of hope and change early in this year, I and many South Korean people came to miss President Roh Moo-hyun more than ever, and the documentary reminds us again that he was a good president who did not deserve his tragic ending at all. He strenuously and diligently fought for us as well as democracy for many years, but many of us did not treat him well especially after his presidency, and I still feel guilty whenever I think about a mean, crude remark on him I made in 2004.
The documentary mainly focuses on President Roh’s remarkable political rise during 2002. In the beginning, he was merely a lawyer who had been known mostly for his human rights activities during the 1980s, and the record of his political career during the 1990s was not so stellar to say the least. He went through several failed election campaign before finally becoming a congressman representing a district of Seoul, and then he experienced another defeat when he boldly ran for a congressional seat in a district of Busan, which was not exactly his party’s home ground but looked like a worthwhile challenge to him at that time. He simply wanted to bring changes into the local political system as an outsider, but the system turned out to be too solid to be cracked, and we get a painful moment showing his campaign people quite depressed by the election result despite his sincere words of consolation.
Nevertheless, this failed campaign drew considerable public attention, and then there came a turning point for Roh when his party tried a popular election system for the first time in deciding its candidate for the 2002 presidential election. This allowed a considerable number of common party supporters to participate in the process which had been exclusive to a group of core party members, and Roh and his people saw the slim but undeniable possibility of getting enough votes to make him the presidential candidate of his party.
Although his approval rate was initially no more than 2%, Roh soon became a dark horse candidate as he won in several key regions of South Korea to the surprise of many people, and this certainly alarmed his main competitor Lee In-je, who was deemed to be the leading candidate before the election. Several archival footage clips in the documentary show how Lee gradually looked uncomfortable as Roh continued to advance while other major candidates left the race one by one, and I heard some chuckles from the audiences around me during these rather amusing moments.
Not so surprisingly, Lee attempted vicious accusations against Roh as the race became more volatile than before. He openly accused Roh of being a communist, and he even tried to smear the reputation of Roh’s wife just because she was the daughter of a left-wing partisan member. In addition, the opposing conservative party joined this despicable political attack mainly because Lee was deemed to be a less threatening presidential candidate than Roh, and several notable conservative newspapers also went along with that as throwing lots of sensational headlines aimed at Roh.
Nonetheless, Roh endured and prevailed, and he eventually won not only his party election but also the following presidential election. While he did stumble many times during his presidency, he was honest and reliable as the leader of our country, and that aspect was something I came to value more as infuriated and horrified by the greedy hypocrisy of President Lee Myung-bak and the sheer incompetence of President Park Geun-hye.
Besides vividly presenting the high and low points of that dramatic year, the director Lee Chang-jae shows us various people who knew or worked with President Roh, and their interview clips tell us a bit about President Roh’s human sides. While they often point out Roh’s personal flaws including short temper and stubbornness, they all fondly remember him with respect and admiration, and one of the most poignant moments in the documentary comes from a former government agent who monitored Rho during the 1980s but then somehow came to befriend him. As they helped each other from time to time, they got closer to each other, and this odd friendship of theirs was continued until Roh’s death on May 23rd, 2009.
Every interviewee in the documentary cannot help but be emotional as talking about how they felt about his death, and that takes me back to when I heard the news on that sad day. After I got on a taxi for going to a movie theater, the taxi driver told me that President Roh killed himself, and I was shocked and angry while thinking about how much he had been humiliated by President Lee and his cronies. They unjustly grilled him during his last months just because of bribery allegations, and they virtually drove him to death in the end.
Although it does not show me anything new about its subject, “Our President” works as an earnest tribute to President Roh. During the screening I attended on last Sunday afternoon, many audiences around me showed audible emotional reactions at times, and they were probably touched a lot by the archival footage clip shown at the end of the documentary. No matter how hard and difficult it was for him, he always tried for changing our society, and I hope many people in South Korean keep remembering his hope and ideal.