Sunday, April 25, 2010

MAY STORY (Soon-ji, 2009)

On May 18, 1980, the Gwangju (or Kwangju) Uprising broke out against South Korea's military dictatorship. In 2008, the city of Gwangju staged a mass re-enactment of the events that are now celebrated as a milestone of South Korea's quest for democracy. While the uprising itself has been dramatized in Korean cinema, director Park Kwang-man used the re-enactment as a backdrop for a story that suggests that, for some people, history hasn't been as neatly reconciled as the civic commemoration might proclaim.

The Korean title names the film after its main character, a chicken farmer who runs a roadside restaurant. While she's attractive, she was unpopular in school because she was a bit of a hick who, as one classmate says, smelled of chicken shit. Her father disappeared during the 1980 uprising, and she goes to the nearby big city on every anniversary date to see if the authorities have fresh info on his fate. In a way, she's stuck in the past, sneered at by the same classmate who moved out and up in the world. That woman gets a plate of food dumped on her head for her trouble, while Soon-ji has to catfight another female customer who thinks she's flirting with her husband. Jung, a local cop, has his heart set on her, but she's about to be swept off her feet by an unlikely suitor.

Jang Se-yoon as Soon-ji.

One night, three guys in grungy period costumes drive up to the restaurant in a jeep just after closing. She sends them away, but after listening to the radio, which is rebroadcasting its original coverage of the uprising (much as American TV reprises its 2001 reporting every September 11) she decides to whip up some poultry and take it to where the three knuckleheads are camping out. They're reenacters, two of whom are in it for fun. The third, Jagu, is either quite the amateur Method actor or barking mad. He talks about the Uprising as if it's happening now. His passion on the subject, on top of his good looks, attract Soon-ji, and after helping them break into a police armory (and beat up Jung) to get weapons for the re-enactment, she makes love with Jagu. There's an eerie quality to these scenes; Jagu's confusion of past and present, perhaps provoked by the radio broadcasts, seems to make the past present, so that what unfolds is not so much reenactment as recurrence.

"When the lying Buddhas stand up, a new world will begin." Soon-ji discusses a dream with Jagu (Kim Yoon-seong). We will only see the dream itself, sort of, at the end of the film.

After promising Jung to make up for her misdeeds, Soon-ji travels to Gwangju, where her own mental balance is challenged by the disorienting blend of serious reenactment and public celebration. Jagu and his cronies are in the front line of the reenactment, ready to take fake fire. But when one goes down, Jagu freaks out, despite the obvious ritualistic activity going on around him. He really thinks the government has killed his friend, and his panic, if not his delusion, spreads to Soon-ji. Before long he's out looking for revenge -- and his gun, unlike most others, has live ammo in it....

Jagu and company recon the scene in Gwangju before hitting the street with dire consequences (below).

Some of the story details are a bit contrived -- do these guys really need to break into an armory to play their parts better, and are some people going to be staging their own private reenactment games inside of buildings away from the main action? -- but that doesn't compromise the tone of Park's picture. He had a brilliant idea to exploit a massive public event and the idea of historical reenactment itself. Reenacting a recent event like the Gwangju Uprising creates more opportunities for a meaningful collision of past and present than, let's say, a Civil War reenactment would. Park intuited a possibly inevitable consequence of an entire society's insistence on pretending that the present had become a past that's still painful or provocative for many Koreans. It put me in mind of William Faulkner's quote: "the past isn't gone; it isn't even past." The fact that Jagu has no rational backstory motive for his delusion that we know of may dilute the impact a little, but Park may be saying that the re-enactment itself may be a mild act of collective insanity, and that people like Jagu or Soon-ji are a kind of collateral damage from events that can't substitute for the closure she needs (regarding her father) and he may not be capable of feeling.

Above, a scene from the Gwangju reenactment. Below, Soon-ji and Jagu's private drama nears a bloody conclusion above the celebration.

Soon-ji is no classic -- the early part before Jagu arrives is often inane -- but Park's inspired use of the uprising reenactment and good performances from Jang Se-yoon in the title role and Kim Yoon-seong as Jagu make it worth a look for anyone interested in Korean cinema or Korean history, or for tourists through the wild world of cinema in general.

Here's a pretty long trailer for Soon-ji, uploaded to YouTube by m2m129:

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