South Korean filmmaker Chung Ji-young has followed Unbowed, his powerful film on judicial misconduct, with a searing look at repression under the military rule of Chun Doo-hwan in the 1980s. Released in its home country at the end of last year, National Security is among the most remarkable films to come out South Korea in recent years. Since South Korea’s film industry ranks among the most vibrant and creative, that is another way of saying that National Security is a major event in world cinema.
Based on actual events, the film tells the story of a pro-democracy activist arrested in 1985 for violating the nation’s National Security Law, in which to advocate communist ideas or manifest sympathy with North Korea were defined as crimes. Under military rule, the vaguely worded law was interpreted so loosely that any expression of opposition to dictatorship or any work done on behalf of democratization could – and quite often did – result in arrest, torture, and even execution.
The law remains on the books, and under the conservative rule of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, it has been applied with increasing frequency to crush opposition to conservative policies. In recent weeks, the government filed a motion with the Constitutional Court to dissolve the Unified Progressive Party, the nation’s third-largest party, for violating the National Security Law by supposedly advancing socialist ideas. One of the party’s members of the National Assembly, Lee Seok-ki, was arrested on trumped up charges, along with several other party members. The Ministry of Justice has expanded its task force for hunting down activists and promises many more arrests to come. Prisoners are no longer tortured in South Korea, but Chung’s film is highly relevant in today’s environment of escalating political repression, which has even extended to stripping the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union of legal status, and launching raids on the Korean Government Employees’ Union.
The Korean name for Chung’s film, Namyeong-dong 1985, is the Seoul neighborhood in which the prison was located and the year in which the person whose experience the film is based was imprisoned and tortured. “My movie is titled National Security in English,” Chung explains, “because wrongdoings have been perpetrated under the slogan of national security and still are.”
The bulk of the film takes place in a single dark interrogation room, heavy with an air of oppression. The interrogators are out to extract a signed confession that would falsely link the Youth Federation for Democracy to North Korean control, and it is evident they had orders from higher up as part of a broader effort to smear the entire pro-democracy movement as a North Korean plot.
The film is unsparing in its approach. It is easy to imagine the ways such a film would have gone wrong in Hollywood hands, even granting the improbable assumption that Hollywood could be capable of making a film like this in the first place. Chung will have none of that: the movie is brutally honest about the abuses that took place in South Korea’s recent past and their echoing effects today. There is no “inspirational” saccharine triumph over adversity, nor is there an anodyne portrayal of characters and political questions.
The characters are all complex human beings, with a mixture of motivations and emotions. For the police interrogators, torture is part of their ordinary daily routine. Low-level torturers occasionally exhibit fleeting moments of empathy, quickly suppressed by an awareness that promotion opportunities depend on the successful extraction of false confessions. The victim is torn between defiance and fear, and his determination to not to provide names conflicts with his no longer being capable of enduring further torture.
The most chilling portrait is that of a man the others refer to by the nickname ‘the Undertaker.’ Driven by a mad passion to extirpate every trace of communist sentiment from South Korea, in which anything left of center qualifies, the Undertaker is regarded as an expert craftsman. When reporting to work, he brings a briefcase of torture implements. This is a man who takes a quiet pride in the quality of his work, and he calmly whistles while inflicting unspeakable pain on his victim. Late in the film, the Undertaker undergoes a religious conversion and expresses apparent remorse for his actions. The viewer is left wondering how real that remorse was, and the answer comes during the closing credits.
The scenes of torture are unrelenting. We see waterboarding, beatings, and electric shocks in all their brutality, and the film is explicit in demonstrating how the process dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrators. It is impossible to watch the scenes of waterboarding and not feel outrage over the bland assurances by U.S. officials that the practice does not constitute torture. Chung said his aim was to “really make the viewer feel how torture destroys the human soul,” and in this he succeeds with devastating effectiveness. I was struck by how the physical effects of torture at some point began to seem secondary to the emotional impact on those at both ends of the experience.
Actor Park Won-sang plays the tortured activist, and his performance is astounding, conveying his character’s inner torment in a powerfully moving way even when sitting quietly huddled, wrapped in a blanket. Each time, his terror is palpable when faced when another round of torture. Park experienced extraordinarily harsh conditions in making this film, and the intense realism of the torture scenes must have been physically and emotionally challenging for him.
During the closing credits, short clips of interviews with 24 former victims of torture are shown, to moving effect.
“National Security was the most difficult film in my thirty-year film career,” Chung remarks. “My purpose was to make the audience feel the pain. Many of our people remained silent while witnessing democracy being harmed, and this continues to this day.”
Not surprisingly, the film remains without an American distributor. Do not look for it at your local multiplex. The movie, however, is available on DVD by mail order from South Korea, and is in region-free NTSC format and therefore playable on all North American units. National Security is a film not to be missed for those who care about the political state of the world and those who appreciate quality cinema. Emotionally overwhelming, it will haunt your thoughts long after viewing.