A Walk Back in Time: Finding History in Korean Film

A Walk Back in Time: Finding History in Korean Film

Korean films interpret many social and political topics whenever there is a chance to do so. Sometimes hidden, sometimes straight up, the message can get the viewers to better understand the culture and its people. For those of us who get lost in reading long chapters of history, this is a perfect way to learn visually. Let’s look at some movies that bring light to issues that happened in modern Korea:

  • Welcome to Dongmakgol

Written and produced by Jang Jin, this movie takes place in the 1950s Korean War period in a mountain village where none of the residents are actually aware of the gruesome situation going on throughout the country. Heartwarming and at times funny, the story meets soldiers from both the North and the South in this peculiar village and follows the development of their friendship as well as mutual overcoming of the memories they have from the war they were forced to fight.

We are reminded that behind history there are the faces of real people who have their own lives and feelings and more importantly that our background does not matter as we are all equally human. The Korean War results in the division of people of the same nation which makes the message of the movie relevant to this day as it represents the vanish of the border “north” and “south.”

  • Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War

You will notice that the Korean War has a strong presence in Korean film in very different concepts which usually have one commonality – they are always heartbreaking and brutal. The director of Taegukgi, Kang Je-gyu, makes no exception and doesn’t shy away to present the horror of the war the way it was in reality. Broken families, power abuse, chaos – everything blends in a swirl of events that break the peaceful life in Seoul on June 25 and drags down many unfortunate fates.

During war, climbing up the ranking system is easier than ever and Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun) seizes this opportunity so that his brother Jin-seok (Won Bin) can be sent back home. Of course, war can give but it takes twice in return and Jin-tae has to sacrifice his human side in order to achieve his goals. At some point, the two brothers are faced against each other on the battlefield, as Jin-tae joins the North Korean Army after he thought his brother died in a South Korean prison. Their reunion on the field on death and what’s after that will leave you with many thoughts about the way history can shape human lives.

  • May 18

Based on the massacre at Gwang-ju in 1980, this piece is definitely not an easy watch. Following the rising of General Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship, there were a lot of university student protests and demonstrations against the government throughout the country, but especially in the South Jeolla Province. Probably the most massive one occurred in Gwang-ju for about a week between May 18 – May 27, and over 600 victims were reported dead. 

The plot of the movie follows the normal lives of two brothers who eventually get caught up in the dramatic fight between Gwang-ju residents and the martial law soldiers who were using brutal violence to seize power. It’s unique to witness the power politics can have on the lives of people of the same country who support different views, and after seeing May 18, you will definitely realize why the Gwang-ju Uprising is one of the turning points in Korean history that still carries controversial opinions and debates today.

  • Memories of Murder

Based on a true story of Korea’s first serial killer murders in history, the plot of this movie is incredibly frustrating to watch. Everything takes place in a small rural town, Hwaseong, between 1986 and 1991. As you can imagine, to deal with a crime on that scale at that time was extremely hard, especially for detectives who have never encountered such a case. Representing some social issues like violence and power abuse throughout the investigation, the movie keeps you on the edge every time the detectives seem to be this close to catching the killer. Not to spoil the ending, just keep in mind that life doesn’t always have a “happily ever after.”

Update: On September 19, 2019 the South Korean police believe they have finally caught the serial killer responsible for the murders almost thirty years ago. The DNA tests link to Lee Chun-jae, 56, who is already serving a life sentence in prison for fatally assaulting his sister-in-law in 1994. He cannot be prosecuted, but at least now the case won’t remain a secret forever.

  • 1987: When the Day Comes

The June Democracy Movement in 1987 in South Korea is what ended the military regime of Chun Doo-Hwan. Students and citizens organized massive protests in Seoul, demanding the government to hold elections and establish democratic reforms. Things began to escalate on January 14, 1987 when a student from Seoul National University, Park Jong-chol, died during a police interrogation and law enforcement made an attempt to cover up the case. A Yonsei Student, Lee Han-yeol, is another symbol of the 1987 protests as he gets injured by a tear gas canister on June 9 and later dies from the injuries.

From then on, people’s passion tells them that enough is enough and these events inspired them to take more serious actions, until the government was pressured to give them the right to vote. Eventually, Roh Tae-woo, the new president of South Korea, issued the June 29 Declaration. This movie will take you on a journey through the fates of both students and help you understand the behind-the-scenes of one dictatorship-like government, and what makes people unite and act when they see a common cause to believe in.

Movies have the magic to help us reflect on the lives of past and present-day in different perspectives. What is your favorite movie and why? Leave a comment below and go watch the movies mentioned above if you want to be taken on an emotional roller coaster through time. 

Cover Image: Welcome to Dongmakgol
Written by Monica Boyadzhieva

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