Grappling with Silmido

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By Shlomo Porath

This month at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a film festival of films from South Korea has been held. Although I have not had time to attend most of the films, I did attend the opening of the festival, and had a chance to converse with people from the South Korean embassy at the reception that was held before the screening..
  The film chosen to open the festival was Kang Woo-Suk’s ‘Silmido’. Upon its release in 2003, the film was a huge success in its homeland, though enjoyed only very limited festival exposure world-wide. The experience of watching it was fascinating. I see plenty of non-English speaking films, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more baffled by the cultural values of a nation as presented in a film.
  Taking place between 1968 and 1971, the film is a highly stylized account of an actual episode in South Korea’s past. It plays, however, like a gung-ho “Men on a mission” war movie, like ‘The Guns of Navarone’, the William Holden section of ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, or ‘The Dirty Dozen’. In fact, it has obvious parallels with ‘Dozen’ in its set-up: A bad-ass officer is charged with getting together a unit made up of criminals condemned to death, training them, and sending them off on a near-suicidal mission, with the promise of a pardon should they return. As opposed to killing Nazis, the unit in this story (which is comprised of several dozen men) is trained to assassinate Kim Il-sung, the ruler of North Korea (and father of Kim Jong-il). ‘Silmido’ is the name of the island that serves as the training facility for the men.
  The pulpiness of the story was the first element that made me wonder about the cultural divide. Not only was the film upon its release the highest grossing film in South Korea, but from speaking to embassy workers and the ambassador of the Republic of Korea (The country’s official name- one of the many facts gleaned in talking to embassy workers), I understand that the film was also deemed to be of great historical significance- an exposé on a dark period in the country’s history. Not exactly what one expects from a commando movie.
  The film’s first half or so stays close to the genre. It opens with a breathless sequence that juxtaposes an earlier failed attempt to kill Kim with our (nominally) main character’s successful assassination of a mob-boss. It has a brief sequence of the bad-ass officer -I called him Lee Marvin in my notes- recruiting said main character, followed by several scenes of the Marvin character proving that he means business (like throwing a grenade on his own boat to scare the men), and training montages. A lot of training montages. Although the film does occasionally slow down to show some particularly painful training method, the overall impression of the first half of the film is that of a filmmaker who is following training montage clichés to a tee, complete with gradual progression and power-anthems (Stolen, like much of the film’s score, from the score to ‘The Rock’).
  Once our trainees are as fearsome and soldierly as they’re going to get; the film changes pace. It’s still plenty violent and full of important-sounding ham-fisted dialogue, but the crux of it becomes political, about loyalty and patriotism and responsibility.
  It’s here that the film’s messages become increasingly alien to me. (Major spoilers ahead).
  You see, Kim Il-sung was not assassinated. The unit was never sent to Pyongyang. In the middle of the film, peace talks break out between the North and the South, and the Marvin character is given orders to destroy all evidence of the operation, including the members of the unit. When he protests that the men deserve better, the head of Intelligence fires his pistol, has Marvin beat up, and says that either he takes care of it, or the army is going to assault the island and kill the training staff in addition to the unit itself. The film is thus a tale of brave and loyal soldiers betrayed by their county. I’ve seen many films about soldiers sacrificed for nothing, but the film actually sets the soldiers in question as loftier than the army high command, the government, even the country itself.  That then President Park Chung-hee was villified in Korea once he left office, explains some of the ambivilance the film has towards the government. However the notion that the filmmakers place these soldiers above their country, even if the country was under questionable leadership, was a bit hard for me to grasp. I fail to see why a collection of murderers -who at best choose bravery and loyalty as an alternative to execution- are elevated to such a pedestal.
  The story itself strains credibility as we see our commandos kill all their guards and trainers (Marvin leaked it to the men and killed himself), escape the island and commandeer a civilian bus intent on making their story known. Eventually, after being shot at rather extensively, they are cornered, and commit suicide by grenade. Even if factually correct in its smallest details, this climactic sequence is excruciatingly drawn-out, full of ridiculous jingoism, and is not helped by some laughable slow-motion.
  As a capper, we have a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ style ending, where the report of the whole episode is never read and left in some anonymous filing cabinet in some anonymous archive. This is supposed to serve as a rebuke to the people who let this essential bit of history be forgotten for so long. I could not understand why this story is at all important. I could understand it as well-photographed pulp (it has dome lovely wide shots, and some of the action scenes are quite well-done), but the overall impact of it is, to these western eyes, is that although the film is on its surface about people fighting Communism, in its delivery it takes its notes directly from Communist propaganda, and its message, as far as I can tell, is one that could fit comfortably in ‘Battleship Potemkin’. I was baffled by it.