I could not help but saddened as watching South Korean documentary film “KIM-GUN”, which, in my trivial opinion, should be watched by any good South Korean citizen. Starting from a photograph of one anonymous figure who recently became the main source of a virulent and preposterous right-wing conspiracy, the documentary calmly examines the human memories of 1980 Gwangju Uprising and the following massacre, and there are several plain but undeniably powerful moments whenever the documentary pays attention to some of numerous survivors who are still haunted by one of the most tragic moments in the modern South Korean history.
First, let me tell you a bit about the historical background of the Gwangju Uprising. Not long after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, who was incidentally the dear dictator daddy of President Park Guen-hye, the South Korean society went through another political upheaval due to a military coup lead by Chun Do-hwan in 1979 December, and many citizens around the country demonstrated against this another dictatorship, but Chun promptly declared the martial law all over the country for squashing any further resistance and then solidifying his political power. When many citizens of Gwangju came to rise up together against his dictatorship on May 18th, 1980, Chun ordered his soldiers to neutralize the resisting citizens of Gwangju by any means necessary, and that inevitably led to a bloody massacre during next several days.
This horrible massacre was officially investigated after the end of Chun’s dictatorship in 1988, and I and other South Korean citizens accordingly came to know far more about the massacre during next 30 years, but, alas, we cannot say that justice was done for those unfortunate citizens of Gwangju who suffered a lot during that dark time. Although Chun was arrested for his crime in 1996 and then was supposed to be imprisoned for the rest of his life, he was eventually released shortly after his sentence was considerably commuted, and that certainly exasperated many citizens of Gwangju. Furthermore, this evil old bastard has never shown any regret or repentance on his crime while also frequently justifying it in front of his equally despicable right-wing supporters, and he even impertinently tried to publish his dishonest and pretentious memoir a few years ago.
One of those right-wing supporters of Chun is an ex-military guy named Jee Man-won, who is to me as loathsome and reprehensible as, say, Alex Jones. During last several years, this guy has blatantly claimed that, through a dubious method based on digital face recognition technique, he identified more than 400 North Korean figures from numerous photographs shot during the Gwangju Uprising, and, according to him, his result proves that the Gwangju Uprising was initiated by around 600 soldiers sent from North Korea. His claim is pretty outrageous to any sensible person with common sense (For example, how the hell Chun and his cronies did not know anything about that? And, if they actually knew that, why didn’t they exploit that right from the beginning, considering that it would definitely have boosted the red scare in the South Korean society around that time?), but there are many people in South Korea who actually believe his bullsh*t, and the documentary frequently shows him enjoying his publicity in front of hundreds of right-wing people and also getting the public support from an ex-military officer who, according to many witnesses, ordered his soldiers to shoot civilians during the Gwangju Uprising – and a certain prominent right-wing politician whom I and other South Korean people saw on TV from time to time.
Jee’s loony claim about the Gwangju Uprising has definitely enraged not only the citizens of Gwangju but also many decent people who care a lot about the Gwangju Uprising, so they came to consider legal actions against Jee for defamation and hate speech, but things did not look that positive from the beginning. While some of those ‘North Korean soldiers’ in the photographs turned out to be real Gwangju citizens thanks to diligent efforts, many of them remained unidentified yet, and it is quite possible that most of those unidentified figures were killed or disappeared during the massacre.
The documentary particularly focuses on one armed young man which was labeled as ‘Gwang-soo No.1’ by Jee. Because of his unusually charismatic facial feature, this unidentified lad is frequently noticed from many photographs shot during the Gwangju Uprising, and the documentary patiently follows the search for his real identity, but, of course, the search turns out to be a lot more difficult than expected. While some of people who were with him in those photographs are located, they do not remember much about him, and they are also reluctant to remember what they saw and experienced during the Gwangju Uprising, which was not only their best time but also their worst time.
And then there comes a middle-aged woman who instantly recognizes this lad as ‘Kim-gun’, or ‘Mr. Kim’. According to her, ‘Kim-gun’ was one of those homeless guys who usually collected scraps on the street and slept under a local bridge, and that makes the search more impossible than before, as many of homeless guys in Gwangju were killed or disappeared due to their active participation in the Gwangju Uprising.
Nevertheless, the search for ‘Kim-gun’ continues, and the documentary becomes all the more compelling and poignant as it steadily expands its viewpoint on the Gwangju Uprising. Although it simply listens to some of survivors of the Gwangju Uprising, their phlegmatic recollections generate a big, vivid historical picture along with numerous photographs shot during that time, and you may accordingly become indignant whenever that aforementioned crackpot prick appears on the screen (Full disclosure: I did.).
Directed by Kang Sang-woo, “KIM-GUN” is a modest but extraordinary documentary which did a splendid job of presenting its subject with considerable respect and thoughtfulness, and it is surely one of the best South Korean documentary films of this year. Personally, I do not think it will change the minds of those deplorable right-wing nuts who are willfully sputtering bad words about the Gwangju Uprising even at this point, but it may instead make you want to throw a certain famous historical question to them right now: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Pingback: 10 movies of 2019 – and more: Part 3 | Seongyong's Private Place
I’m hoping to see the film this year. Thanks for your insight!
SC: You’re welcome.