Seen in Jeonju

Testimony (1973)

20th June 2011

testimonyThere is really only one word that can be used to describe master director Im Kwon-taeks’s 1973 war film Testimony and that is ‘ponderous.’  It is a case where the topic of the film being too big for the actors and actresses. Their personal stories really do not seem to matter in the big picture and they are overshadowed by the events of the war. The  movie sets out to be told from the perspective of Soon-ah played by Kim Chang-sook.  Living in Seoul at the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, Soon-ah does not flee the city ahead of advancing North Korean forces due to her elderly mother being unable to withstand such an arduous journey and the fact that her lover, Lt. Jang (Shil Il-ryong), will be staying to fight.  However, Seoul falls quickly and Soon-ah is arrested and interrogated for her known connection with an southern army officer. Unable… and unwilling… to provide information to her captors, Soon-ah and a number of other prisoners are herded into the back of a small truck and sent to Pyeongyang where they expect they will either be placed in a prison camp or executed upon arrival. Either way, they believe they will never see Seoul again and, in the case of everyone but Soon-ah, they are right.   The truck comes under fire on the north side of the DMZ and the prisoners take the opportunity to escape.  All of them, save the film’s heroinne, are gunned down as they attempt to scatter throughtout the bombed out city the truck had stopped in. Her persuers also killed in a plane strife, Soon-ah is able to escape and begin her long, difficult and dangerous trek homeward.

Up until this point, most of the movie has been told through Soon-ah’s experiences. However, around this time, the narrative loses focus. A voice-over comes out over scenes of war explaining the horrific events and indicating the passage of time.  It is a little jarring and frankly not a very good story-telling technique. We do eventually catch up with Soon-ah again where she meets farmers or the ocassional deserter heading south towards Seoul, but you would never want to travel with her because all of her companions wind up dead. The movie loses focus again as we watch scenes where other refugees attempting to head south and escape the war and communism come up against North Korean forces.  These have little connection to Soon-ah’s story, although she does eventually stumble across the tragic aftermath and scrounges some food from the packs the corpses hold.  Instead, they seem solely designed to depict the North Korean officers as evil.  I suspect this was necessary. 

Back in 1965, director Lee Man-hee was fined and imprisoned by depicting a North Korean soldier as being compassionate in his film The Seven Female POWs.  The South Korean government at the time had very strict anti-communism laws and the humanizing of the soldier was a crime.  Censors during the sixties and seventies even objected if the actor playing a communist soldier was ‘too handsome.’  However, in Testimony, Im Kwon-taek actually goes a long way towards showing pity and humanizing some of the enlisted–or rather–drafted men of the North Korean army and, because of this, I suspect he needed to make the officers and true communists that much more evil to satisfy the censors and to keep himself safe. Im shows many of the soldiers fighting for North Korea as having no choice. They were drafted off the side of the road as they tried to flee or were captured in Seoul and forced to fight. The most touching scene of the film is that of the Seoul baseball player who dies in Soon-ah’s arms. It is not often that old war movies can have an affect on me, but that scene brought tears to my eyes.

Testimony is not on DVD. I watched it on KTV which has been showing Korean War films throughout the month of June.  However, since director Im is one of the most famous names in Korean cinema even today, there is a good chance that it will be released on DVD sometime in the future. When it is, you might want to pick it up and have a look.  Although the movie lacks polish, it is still watchable and has several good moments.

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