Seen in Jeonju

May 18 (2007)

9th January 2010

may 18Originally posted July 27, 2007–Last night I watched Director Kim Ji-joon’s latest film, May 18, which opened in theaters across the country this week. The story of the film is the Kwangju Massacre of 1980 in which the government sent in the armed forces to deal with protests against Jeon Doo-hwan’s coup on December 12, 1979.  The army and the nation at large were told that the incident was a communist uprising and that story persisted for more than a decade after the event.  After democracy was restored in the mid 90’s, the goverment apologized for the incident. The citizens of Kwangju who died in that week of fighting and seige are now considered heroes of democracy–although the exact number who lost their lives remains uncertain. More information about the incident can be read here:

The movie begins on the day before the tragic events. Taxi driver Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyeong) spends his time taking care of his younger brother Jin-woo (Lee Joon-gi) and nuturing a crush on a young nurse named Shin-ae (Lee Hyo-won). Although there are signs of something building–scenes of riots on unwatched televisions in the background for example–nobody is really paying attention and it is life as usual.

In fact, all of the main characters are so unaware of what is happening that they decide to go to a movie downtown (see note).  This puts them in the middle of everything when the soldiers are ordered to go on the offensive. It did not matter that most of the citizens of the city were not involved in the protests, they were deemed communists and were put down with deadly force. The scene of the audience fleeing the movie theater is incredibly powerful and their confusion and terror kept me on the edge of my seat. 

Besides the movie itself, I found the people in the theaters interesting to watch as well. Perhaps it was the time that I chose to watch it, but most of the audience were older- Every once in a while when a certain scene appeared or a particular shot struck a cord, their would be a murmer through the audience with people remarking to each other, “that really happened” and similar phrases. Normally, I don’t like any talking during a movie, but this actually hightened the feeling of dread and unease. 

I arrived in Korea in 1995. Shortly thereafter, the citiizens of Kwangju began a campaign to reveal what they had actually been through and part of that was a touring display of photos and even more information was provided at the city’s bi-annual art show. I wish I had never seen those pictures. They were images of death aimed at showing the brutality of the soldiers and to counter the official death toll (which after the event was set by the government at about 200 people–actually it could be as high as ten times that number).  As brutal as the movie is in parts, I was grateful that it was never as gory as it could have been. In fact, the film does a great job at showing enough violence to provide an emotional response while avoiding sensationalizing the violence a la Saving Private Ryan or Taegukgi. 

If I had to find fault with the movie, it might be in the budding romance between Min-goo and Shin-ae.  Their subtle flirting and unspoken feelings are nice in the first few minutes of the film, but once the Kwangju situation exploded, I had a very hard time caring whether or not their love would come to fruition. The events around them were too big for me to worry about that.

All-in-all, this is a powerful film–one of the best that I have seen in a long time.

trivia note:  The movie in the theater that they main characters are watching is Let Me Show You Something (1980).  However, this is a small mistake on the part of the film-makers. That comedy did not open in theaters until early June while the events of the movie occur in May–they could not have seen this film

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