South Korean Films: How Do They Portray North Koreans? Part 2

Initially I wrote this gallery article to just look back at what films had North Korean elements in them. (I was also worried about spoiling the films) However one of our mods endeavor. wanted more!

So here it is! I don’t claim to be a film critic, although I do love watching movies. Hope you find this piece interesting, remember to leave a comment!

Swiri

In this film you have Yu Jong Won (Portrayed by Han Suk Gyu) who is unknowingly in love with the North Korean spy, Lee Bang Hee. (Portrayed by Yunjin Kim) The twist of the movie is that in fact he has been searching for Lee Bang Hee for a while now.

All of the North Koreans in this film are spies. Park Mu Young (Portrayed by Choi Min Sik) is fiercely loyal to North Korea and feels contempt towards South Koreans who he believes are corrupt. Lee Bang Hee on the other hand has fallen in love with Yu Jong Won. Her character is more complex because she is torn between her love and loyalty towards North Korea.

A memorable scene in the film was the faceoff between Park Mu Young and Yu Jong Won towards the end.

Park Mu Young, “We’ve waited for 50 years under those politicians but unfortunately they don’t’ want reunification. It’s like we’re watching a well written plan.”

Yu Jong Won, “You’re not the only one that wants reunification. Now is just not the right time.”

Park Mu Young, “Our hope is reunification. We dream about it. While you leisurely sing this song, our North Korean citizens are dying on the street because of malnutrition and disease. They barely manage to live with roots and barks. Our sons and daughters are being sold off for f*cking 100 dollars! They are being sold off like dogs! Have you ever seen hungry parents eat the flesh off their dead kids?”

Choi Min Sik, “You wouldn’t know, you who eat diseased cheese, coke, and hamburgers. A soccer game to unite the nations? It’s bs.”

Verdict: The North Koreans in Swiri are shown to be emotional and passionate people faced with difficult choices.

Silmido

This film doesn’t really have any depiction of North Koreans because they never really appear in the film! The Silmido agents are only training to assassinate the North Korean leader. This film really focuses more on the agents who were trained at first but then discarded by the government.

Taegukgi “The Brotherhood of War”

The first time I watched this film was back in 2010 which was 6-7 years after the release and it was very entertaining! The story is about two brothers who become estranged because of the Korean War.

The two brothers are Lee Jin Tae (Portrayed by Jang Dong Gun) and Lee Jin Seok (Portrayed by Won Bin). In the midst of the war anti-Communists kill Lee Jin Tae’s fiancée. Also, Lee Jin Tae even ends up switching sides. Throughout the film, North Koreans are only shown as the enemy. While back in South Korea, the anti-communist movement is also shown to be ruthless.

Verdict: There really isn’t much room for in-depth North Korean characters as the main focus of the film is the story about the two brothers.

Poongsan

This film featuring a silent Yoon Kye Sang is ruthless in its portrayal of both North and South Koreans. Yoon Kye Sang’s character delivers letters between North and South Korea. He is given a mission to bring back a North Korean woman for a North Korean politician that has defected. However, he begins to develop feelings for the North Korean woman.

The South Korean agents that use Yoon Kye Sang’s character and the North Korean spies set out to assassinate the North Korean politician are shown as opportunistic. They are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their mission.

Verdict: This film doesn’t really portray North Koreans as being any different from South Koreans. Both can be corrupt, greedy, and inhumane. I guess in a sense, it also depicts a truth about people, that we are all the same in the end.

Secret Reunion

This film was quite interesting. An agent of Korean Intelligence Lee Han Gyoo (Portrayed by Song Kang Ho) gets discharged after a failing to prevent an assassination caused by North Korean sleeper assassins Song Ji Won (Portrayed by Kang Dong Won) and Jun Gook Hwan a.k.a “Shadow” (Portrayed by Jung Gook Hwan). Even though the assassination was successful, one of the sleeper agents betrayed the team. Song Ji Won is thought to have betrayed North Korea.

From the onset of the film, Song Ji Won is portrayed as a North Korean sleeper agent that is hesitant about killing young women and children. He even has a wife and son waiting for him back in North Korea. On the other hand, “The Shadow” is shown to be a ruthless killer.

Lee Han Gyoo and Song Ji Won end up having a strong bond that surpasses their previous animosity and political affiliations.

The most memorable scene of this film is when Lee Han Gyoo confesses to Song Ji Won that he knows he is from the North. Frightened Song Ji Won cuts him with a knife and demands to know why Lee Han Gyoo has lived with him, and when he is going to turn him to the police. Lee Han Gyoo says to forget that, to finish paying his respects to his parents, that they will continue their business and become successful and do good deeds in the future. Song Ji Won sheds tears of happiness.

Verdict: Once again we have a North Korean agent that is torn because of different motives. For Song Ji Won though, the most important aspect in his life seems to be his family.

South of the Border

Although this film did not do well in the Korean box office, it holds a special place in my heart as a compelling Korean film. The story is about Cha Seung Won’s character who flees with his family down to South Korea. He lives a new life and tries to get his girlfriend down with him but he ends up getting conned. He is despondent and depressed until he ends up meeting a new lover and gets married. However, things take a shocking turn when his North Korean lover ends up in South Korea. She had been trying to flee North Korea this whole time to meet Cha Seung Won’s character.

This film depicted North Koreans as being no different from your average Korean family, except for a few things about North Korean culture that they could not brush off. For example, Cha Seung Won’s character truly believes that Kim Jong Il is more handsome than he is.

Verdict: Once again, the North Koreans in this film are depicted as being virtually the same as South Koreans. The focus in this film is Cha Seung Won’s character placed in a predicament. He has a new South Korean wife, but he also sees his previous lover from North Korea.

Welcome to Dongmakgol

This film was a box-office hit and had an interesting premise. North and South Korean troops end up in a town that is ignorant of the Korean War going on. In the end the two sides work together and sacrifice themselves to protect the town.

A memorable exchange in the film is between a North and South Korean soldier.

SK Soldier, “I would be in Jongno looking good right now. But those fools (North Korean soldiers) had to invade. Now look at me!”

NK Solder replies, “You’re the ones who put the U.S. up front and invaded us!”

SK Solider, “If you don’t know anything shut up!”
NK Soldier replies, “You mean we invaded the South?”

North Korean commander, “We invaded the South.”

NK Solder, “Really we invaded the south? I just went South because they told me to.”

Verdict: The prevailing theme in this film like many of the others once again is about there being no differences between the North and the South.

Joint Security Area:

Both North and South Korean troops stationed at the DMZ become friends. Many of the exchanges between both sides are memorable. In one scene the North Korean sergeant chastises his South Korean counterpart because his shadow has crossed the border. In another scene a South Korean soldier pretends that his girlfriend is Jeon Ji Hyun and the North Korean troops believe him.

Here, both the North and South Korean sides are shown as being innocent as school boys. However, their friendship has a significant limit. It is shattered when they are faced with fear.

Verdict: Once again there is no difference between both sides. (Seems like most of these films have that theme no?)

The Front Line:

Basically, this film shows both North and South Korean troops fighting an endless battle for a hill. The two sides go back and forth as they conquer and lose the hill. The situation is absurd and is a Catch-22, which is probably a commentary on the Korean War itself.

Verdict: In this film, we don’t really get to see too much of the enemy that are the North Koreans. However, the absurdity of the situation and the helplessness of both the North and South Korean troops show that they are just pawns of a diabolical war-game.

Final Remarks

As you can see through the different films, the North Korean characters depicted in South Korean films have complex motivations and a set of emotions. So far however, most of the North Korean roles are either spies or military personnel.

There is a prevailing theme throughout most of the films that contain the relations between South-North Korea as a backdrop. It is this sentiment that the two countries being split up isn’t something the people want but inevitable because of the government or outside forces. I would like to describe it as “Han.”

“Han” is strongly prevalent within themes of Korean culture. (In literature, TV, and Films) “Han” describes a Korean cultural trait which can be described of a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds and also a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustice. Of course, the reason for “Han” stems back to the annexation of South Korea by Japan and North and South Korea being spilt up.

Almost every film on this list has “Han” expressed in some way:

Swiri: The doomed relationship between Yu Jong Won and Lee Bang Hee is juxtaposed against a backdrop of the clash between North and South Korean agents. Both sides wants reunification, albeit through different means.

Silmido: The situation that the Silmido inmates/agents are placed in is a perfect representation of “Han.”

Taegukgi “The Brotherhood of War”: Because this film is based during the Korean War, the film is really a more literal expression of “Han.”

Poongsan: The character Poongsan himself is a vehicle to alleviate “Han.” He travels back and forth between North-South Korea to transport letters between estranged families.

Secret Reunion: The main character Song Ji Won is placed in an impossible position. On one hand, he has to do his duty as a North Korean spy for his family’s safety. However, on the other hand he has this newfound friendship with Lee Han Gyoo.

South of the Border: For me personally there are two moments of true “Han.” One is when Cha Seung Won’s character ends up in South Korea and can’t do anything about bringing his lover down to South Korea. The other is when the past lover does return but their relationship can’t go anywhere.

Welcome to Dongmakgol: This film took a lighter approach and you can’t really feel the “Han.” Due to the North and South Korean forces working together, it does make the war going on outside of the town absurd.

Joint Security Area: Friendship is made between North and South Korean troops. However, in the end there is an element of mistrust that can never go away.

The Front Line: The

“Han” depicted in this film is expressed in the mindless back and forth that goes on between the South and North Korean forces. A big question asked is, “Who is the war meant for?”

Anyways, here was my not-so-in-depth look at these films depicting the situation between North and South Korea. Please leave comments about what you think!