ContactSales: Aura Pictures, Goyang ([email protected])
Premiere: Busan Film Festival (Gala Presentation), 6 Oct 2012. Theatrical release: South Korea, 22 Nov 2012.
Produced by Aura Pictures (SK). Producer: Jeong Sang-min.
Script: Lee Dae-il, Jeong Sang-hyeop, Gang Min-hui, Jeong Ji-yeong. Essay: Kim Geun-tae. Photography: Seo Min-su. Editing: Go Im-pyo. Music: Shin Min. Art direction: Choi Yeon-shik. Costumes: Han Hye-suk. Sound: Kim Hyeon-sang, Kim Seok-won. Action: Lee Hong-pyo. Visual effects: Seo Sang-hwa.
Cast: Park Won-sang (Kim Jong-tae), Lee Gyeong-yeong (Lee Du-han, "The Undertaker"), Myeong Gye-nam (Park Nam-eun), Kim Ui-seong (Gang Su-hyeon), Seo Dong-su (Baek), Lee Cheon-hui (Lee), Kim Jung-gi (Kim), Mun Seong-geun (Director Yun), Wu Hui-jin (In Jae-eun, Jong-tae's wife).
National Security 남영동１９８５
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 106 mins
Directed by Chung Ji-young (정지영 | 鄭智泳)
By Derek Elley
Fri, 19 October 2012, 09:30 AM (HKT)
Despite impeccable liberal credentials, this repetitive state-torture drama is a tough sit. Asian events.
Seoul, 4 Sep 1985. Kim Jong-tae (Park Won-sang), 37, a prominent activist against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan and onetime commissioner of the Youth Federation for Democracy, is arrested and taken to a special interrogation facility in Namyeong-dong, a district in the centre of the city. During the first three days he is allowed no food or sleep and told to write an exhaustive essay on his life to date. On the fourth day, in order to find out why he resigned from the YFD, head interrogator Park Nam-eun (Myeong Gye-nam) starts water torture, and on the next day waterboarding. On the sixth day, torture specialist Lee Du-han, known as "The Undertaker" (Lee Gyeong-yeong), starts a deadlier form of water torture, trying to get Jong-tae to admit he is a communist in league with North Korea. By the 11th day Jong-tae writes whatever they want him to, but Lee says it's full of inconsistencies and unusable in a court of law. The next day, after finding Jong-tae tried to smuggle out a note to his wife (Wu Hui-jin), Lee resumes a more painful version of water torture, as well as electric shocks.
Best known for his Vietnam War drama White Badge 하얀전쟁 (1992), veteran director CHUNG Ji-young 정지영 | 鄭智泳, 65, who last year returned after a 13-year break with the powerful courtroom drama Unbowed 부러진 화살 (2011), tackles another hot constitutional topic with National Security 남영동１９８５ (2012), also produced by Aura Pictures and using several of the same cast. Where Unbowed focused on the country's corrupt judiciary, Security looks back to the dark days of South Korea's military dictatorship, here the '80s regime of Chun Doo-hwan (전두환 | 全斗焕) and the torturing of suspected communist activists under the National Security Act. Set almost entirely in grey interrogation rooms, in a special facility in Namyeong-dong, central Seoul, it's a tough ride for the average viewer, despite its impeccable liberal credentials, as one man is subjected to three weeks of beatings, water torture and mental abuse in an attempt to break him.
Like Unbowed, the movie is based on a true case, here that of the late Kim Geun-tae (김근태 | 金槿泰, 1947-2011), a famous pro-democracy activist who underwent torture during the period specified in the film. (Interviews with other victims were also used to beef up the script, based on an essay by Kim, and the film ends with several on-camera testimonies.) However, unlike Unbowed, which was basically mainstream, Security makes no concessions to viewers — especially to those who have already had a bellyful of the physical and verbal abuse that's become so commonplace in South Korean cinema.
As day follows day, and one means of water or electric torture follows another, the film loses any sense of dramatic shape or development and starts to dilute its own message. The hapless suspect, as played by PARK Won-sang 박원상 | 朴原象 (the lively lawyer in Unbowed), emerges as little more than an anonymous slab of meat, impossible to empathise with or understand, despite a couple of brief fantasy sequences involving his wife and family. In the event, the most characterful character is torture specialist "The Undertaker", whose arrival always signifies another bout of cool, clinical business, and who is played with a clever mixture of cruelty and practicality by LEE Gyeong-yeong 이경영 | 李璟榮 (the first judge in Unbowed, as well as a veteran from White Badge).
The four scriptwriters, including Chung himself, do a good job in giving each of the six interrogators distinct personalities, as they sit around chatting about girls, basketball, salary cuts, promotion and time off, and veteran MYEONG Gye-nam 명계남 | 明桂南 is especially good as the aged chief interrogator. Two cameo appearances by the always watchable MUN Seong-geun 문성근 | 文盛槿 (the second judge in Unbowed), as the facility's boss, briefly bring some variation. But all of this is still decoration around a dramatically static, very repetitive core — and not a particularly edifying one to watch. Some political discussion surfaces near the end, but otherwise it's largely just anti-communist ranting by the interrogators, or remarks like "It used to be all right under [previous dictator] Park Chung-hee, but now we have to be more careful [in not bruising victims]."
Technically, the film is cleanly and plainly mounted, with occasional soothing music that deliberately plays against what is happening on screen. Significantly, the main story ends with a coda not in the present day but in 2004, when the National Security Act was almost annulled by the more liberal Uri Party, then briefly in power. Introduced in 1948, the Act still remains in force, with additions, and there's no mistaking the reason why Chung has chosen to make the film now, with a presidential election looming.