Michael Robinson notes a trend in New Korean Film, especially in the wake of Shiri (Swiri, Kang Che-kyu 1998) where filmmakers were using “politically or culturally charged themes as simple plot elements or settings in their scenarios for their dramatic effect, not to make a political point”1 in a radical shift from the practices of the Golden Age of the 1950′s and 60′s and of the Korean New Wave of the 1980′s and early 1990′s and their portrayals of imperialist Americans or heroic struggles against Japanese colonists. In a recently post-colonial nation such as South Korea, this creates a complication of traditional post-colonialist ways of thinking. What happens now when a culture that has suffered a collective erasure of its memory and culture takes this position once it is no longer colonized?
2009 Lost Memories (Yi Si-myŏng, 2002) presupposes a past where Japan joins the Allies during World War II against and Axis powers consisting of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. In this timeline, Japan is thus permitted to keep her colonies at the end of the war and becomes a nuclear power, competitor in the space race, and superpower comparable in stature to the United States. Throughout the course of the film, the protagonist, JBI investigator (and ethnic Korean) Sakamoto Masayuki (Chang Tong-gŏn) investigates why a group of Korean terrorists (“Hureisenjin” [sic]) have been staging incidents at various museum exhibits. After being double-crossed by his superiors (for getting to close to the truth, of course), he is taken in by the terrorist group, who reveal to him that the history that he knows has been “tampered with” by a rogue Japanese national who used a set of various Korean artifacts (don’t ask) to go back in time and prevent the assassination of Itō Hirobumi at the hands of An Chung-gŭn which in turn set into motion this alternative continuity. This group then sends Sakamoto back in time to make sure that the assassination goes as planned in order to “right” history . However, Sakamoto’s action do more than “restore” the “actual” history2: in this version of history, the two Koreas eventually reunite in the year 2008.
2009 Lost Memories brings up questions of national identity and the representation of national identity in a post-colonial nation. After an introduction which explains the various historical differences between this world and ours, the film begins with an action sequence where the JBI is dispatched to deal with a terrorist attack at a Seoul museum. Immediately, this scene duplicates colonialist discourse: the Japanese are cultured and refined (it is their museum, after all that the black tie gala is at, which is displaying their artifacts), while the Koreans are violent and brutish; they are the ones disturbing the event with their violence.
Once the action scenes begin, the tone shifts. The Koreans are a well-organized, highly-coordinated group who have obviously put a significant amount of effort into planning the operation. Also, once the shooting starts the Koreans, despite being on lower ground against a large, heavily armed, and highly trained group of Japanese commandos, gun down soldier after soldier with little difficulty. Eventually, the JBI squad is able to overwhelm the terrorists (with the action emphasizing brutality, rather than efficiency on the part of the Japanese: after one of the Koreans runs out of ammunition for his machine gun, he is shot repeatedly by dozens of soldiers) but the last remaining terrorist takes the JBI commander hostage and begins making demands in Korean. This brings up a problematic scene, where Sakamoto (the only JBI member who understands Korean) attempts to negotiate with the terrorist. The terrorist’s demand is nothing less than Korean independence, and after a cursory attempt at a discussion, Sakamoto shoots the terrorist and frees the commander. Sakamoto has displayed both a higher level of skill than his Japanese colleagues, but at the same time was the one who killed a fellow Korean, and one who was resisting the Japanese colonization, no less. The most extreme representation of brutality on the part of the Japanese colonizers occurs during a firefight that appears towards the end of the film in which a child is shot, although this scene however partially backfires due to its extreme sinp’a3 nature as Yi intercuts.
Despite allowing the Koreans to resist the effects of Japanese colonial rule, the plot of 2009 Lost Memories cannot truly be called post-colonial, or at least is not successfully post-colonial. Susan Hayward, paraphrasing Fanon, states that
The native poet-film-maker must progress, argues Fanon, from the pre-liberation moment of denouncing his (I add her) oppressor to the liberation moment of acting as mediator joining the people to their suppressed history. The native poet-film-maker, warns Fanon, must not however dwell nostalgically on that pre-history, that pre-their-past, and erect as the cultural artefact that will stand for the nation. Instead, the poet-film-maker must negotiate that pre-history through the colonial past and call everything into question…and do so by addressing his/her own people…4
This creates a somewhat thorny situation. While 2009 Lost Memories, according to Hayward/Fanon’s definition is a failed post-colonial work, should it instead by looked at along Robinson’s lines where the setting and themes should be seen simply as plot conceits? I would be more inclined to agree that the political material here is purely to stoke nationalist fires and in turn, stimulate ticket sales. The most egregious example in the appeal to nostalgia here appears during the ending, which features a group of school children going a tour at Independence Memorial Hall. The scene lingers over photographs (which now contain Sakamoto) of previous resistance fighters, but more importantly, the nostalgic fantasy that the ending creates completely ignores the Korean War, the Cold War and the sixty-three years of division between the two Koreas.
Interestingly, one of the climactic scenes in the film where Sakamoto is taught about the true history of Korea by the Huseirenjin similarly glosses over these historical aspects. Sakamoto is told about “facts” such as that Korea eventually unifies in 2008, that a research team uncovered the time-travel artifacts, that an ultra-right wing Japanese assassin went back in time to alter history, and that the Korean resistance movement has been planning for nearly one hundred to restore the correct timeline. However, at the same time, the sequence is intercut with scenes of Saigo receiving the historical background from his superiors. Interestingly, it is the history that Saigo learns that is actually “correct”. Saigo is informed of aspects like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki5, the Korean war, and the rebirth of the Japanese economy. While the film has worked with notions of how the colonizer works to erase the collective memory of the colonized, the film unwittingly undermines its own subtext through this scene, where the colonizer’s history is the “actual” history and the colonized’s history is the fiction. This in turn is highly ironic given the current political climate where Japan is constantly under fire from Korean and Chinese figures over the distorted history regarding the Japanese colonial period that is taught in Japanese public schools.
I discuss 2009 Lost Memories in the context of post-colonialism (and its failures as a post-colonial text) and Robinson’s quote regarding post-colonial metanarratives of loss in order to directly compare it to Silmido (Kang U-sŏk, 2003), which takes an alternate approach to its representation of history during a different period of Korean colonization (in this case, the authoritarian Pak Ch’ung-hŭi government that served the American hegemony.) Silmido is a retelling of an only-recently uncovered military operation where a group of criminals and other marginal members of Korean society (“Unit 684”–”684 Butae”) were brought to a deserted island (the titular “Silmido6” ) and were subjected to brutal, dehumanizing training in order to become an elite special forces unit with the ultimate mission of assassinating Kim Il-sŏng. On the eve of their mission, they were informed that it would be postponed indefinitely due to a thawing of diplomatic relations between North Korea and South Korea. Frustrated, the men then spent the next three years on a state of perpetual alert until their commanders were given the order to execute the unit. The regular military staff of the island was naturally no match for the incredibly highly-trained Unit 684, who after taking the island proceeded to head towards The Blue House (Chŏng-wa-dae) in Seoul to air their grievances with Pak Ch’ung-hŭi. However, once word had gotten out about their mutiny, the unit was officially declared to be a group of “communist infiltrators” and the military was mobilized to stop them. After eventually seeing that they were in an unwinnable position, the remaining members suicide…
…except that that’s not actually the way that the story actually went. The actual Silmido Incident (“Operation Badger”) was revealed to the public in Paek Tong-ho’s book of the same name in 2000. In the actual account, which Paek first became aware of while serving time in prison with a man who claimed to be one of the drill sergeants on Silmido, Unit 684 consisted primarily of people such as janitors, homeless, and acrobats rather than the death row inmates of the film, and their mission was at first not to assassinate Kim but to destroy a hydroelectric power plant. The members of Unit 684 were also on relatively good terms with their “drill sergeants”–some of them were actually just privates who were given a uniform with a sergeant insignia on it7 and were not subjected to brutal, dehumanizing training as in the film. At the same time however, seven (as opposed to one as in the film) of the members of Unit 684 died during training. Finally, while the members of Unit 684 killed fewer numbers of the military staff than in the film, they killed their commander, Kim Sun-ŏng8 in the actual uprising.
There were enough liberties taken with the film that Kang placed a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that stated that because of the government censorship regarding the incident, there is precious little information available and therefore that “much of the movie’s details and background were created by literary imagination.” Kang himself stated that
Some parts have to be constructed based on the writer’s imagination. Because its beginning and ending are based the real event, I don’t think it makes much difference to have fictitious in between episodes…To tell you the truth, as I learned more about the horrible truth behind ‘Silmido,’ I began to dread making this movie. At the end, I decided revealing the fact that they were killed during the training process was important, not showing the gruesome details of the death and intimidating the audience. A movie cannot show everything. With its basis on a real-life event, the individual episodes can be crafted by the director and the writer. Too realistic details might help me get awards from international film festivals, but they might drive away my own audience.9
In fact, there were enough liberties taken with the film that fifty-nine relatives of the members of Unit 684 filed suit against both Kang and Cinema Service for defamation of character10. The suit was thrown out due to evidence that some of them actually were criminals but more importantly, because the film’s heroic portrayal of the soldiers was anything but defamatory. Still, it does highlight a division in what the “proper” portrayal of a politically contentious historical event should be.
The other important change in the film is that Unit 684 is created by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and a group of bureaucrats in the film, rather than Pak Ch’ung-hŭi. This is likely a concession due to the popularity that Pak still holds to some Koreans, especially those that were not alive during his rule and thus can see the effects of the economic growth from this period but cannot comprehend the repression and restrictions on freedoms that Pak’s Yusin Constitution created. Thus, the film creates a world where as Darcy Paquet notes “[that] these events may have emerged out of political systems, ideologies, or other aspects of 1970s Korean society is never really considered”11, which is supported by Minnie Chi’s observations that
Silmido is not Kang’s way of mediating a political statement. Kang told the Korea Times that he does not know all the political details of the story behind the Silmido Special Unit nor is interested in it (12-15-03). Kyung-hyun Kim, Associate Professor of Korean, at UC Irvine (Dept. of East Asian Languages and Literature) confirms that “Kang Woo-seok films are never politically motivated. They are just simply entertainment films that really do not have much bearing on social issues.”12
although Kang then stated a week later that “’The Silmido incident is an issue we need to take a look at, because it is as important an issue as the pro-democracy movement in Gwangju13‘ (12-24-03). “ (ibid). At the same time however, John Duncan notes that “it might prove a useful corrective to the so-called ‘Park Chung Hee syndrome,’ a term applied to a tendency among younger Koreans, disgusted with the corruption of recent South Korean administrations, to idealize Park as a strong leader free of the taint of personal corruption.” (ibid). The sensitivity regarding Pak’s reign lingers to this day, and most recently emerged over the controversial film (which also deals with trying to put together history that has been consciously erased or forgotten) The President’s Last Bang (Kŭttae Kŭsaramdŭl, Im Sang-su, 2005), where four minutes of documentary footage of protests and of Pak’s funeral were required by court order (currently under appeal) to be removed. The reasoning behind this was that the presence of documentary material would “blur the line between fact and fiction”, which then by extension could possibly cause audiences to see the negative portrayal of Pak in the film as a cowardly, drunken Nipponophile as being true (as if that was a bad thing) rather than just an invention of the film14.
The film’s active acknowledgment of the limitations of history may be its greatest strength in terms of initiating political change. While heavily fictionalized, the film’s disclaimer also points that because so much had to be fictionalized that “we desire greatly that more hidden truths about Silmido will see the light in the coming days“. However, this also creates a second debate: whether the film should prompt discussion regarding the ideology and politics of the period which prompted the creation of Unit 684 (Paquet) or whether it should prompt discussion over the erasure of Unit 684′s history and the subsequent gaps in the historical record created by this erasure (Kang). Kang’s large numbers of liberties taken with the historical details and choice to emphasize training montages and epic music over political discussions served to make the film more palatable to audiences, yet at the same time it is more difficult to figure out whether these commercial concessions actually hurt the political impact of the film. The Korea Times reported four times in the last year alone15 of governmental inquiries prompted by Silmido into not only the Silmido Incident, but regarding secret military operations to North Korea in general. Furthermore, the film prompted former members of the staff at Silmido to come forward (as in Bang’s article) as well special forces members involved in other infiltration units16.
However, despite these noble intentions, Paquet’s statement is still relevant. The film’s version of history obscures Pak’s role in the creation and role of Unit 684, instead relegating it to faceless bureaucrats and members of the KCIA. The fact that the KCIA is involved still provides the implicit statement that Pak was involved, but this is not explicitly stated and thus may be missed (either intentionally or unintentionally) by those who still respect Pak. The (fictional) scenes of General Ch’oe protesting the execution of the squad (which are the most explicitly political in the film) on behalf of Unit 684 have the same effect. Ch’oe first suggests for Unit 684 to be incorporated into the air force and sent to serve in the Vietnam War, and when he is rebuffed, asks “Does the KCIA run this country?” These scenes use Ch’oe and the government bureaucrats in order to stage a dialog on post-colonialism, with Ch’oe representing a position of dialog and acknowledgment regarding the erasure of Unit 684 from the historical record while the bureaucrats desire a policy of mimicry, going even so far as to say that they do not want to be seen by the foreign press as “savages”. Again, the political and post-colonial subtext is only implied rather than stated explicitly and thus is easy to miss.
The does however have one glaring omission, which is perhaps most important of all: the lack of discussion regarding the consequences of the mission. The discussion between Ch’oe and the bureaucrat Oh is over the proper course for Korea to take with regards to its history. It is not, however about the potential consequences for Unit 684′s mission. The entire time, both the unit and its drill sergeants voice their pride at how they will be the heroes that will reunite Korea through this dangerous mission. These patriotic and nationalist sentiments completely ignore the inevitable, devastating second Korean War that would result from the assassination. The shift in focus in the film version towards the assassination mission rather than the sabotage mission creates a need for these issues to be addressed, and while the film is still able to succeed in its ability to prompt audiences to desire a retelling of the assorted histories erased by American-backed authoritarian government, this omission taints the nationalist (although unorthodoxly nationalist) fervor that the film creates.
Lastly, with respect to Silmido‘s popularity, the film set unprecedented box office records upon its release17, all of which are even more amazing due to the fact that not only was Silmido released only a week after The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003), but then also had to compete with Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (T’aegŭkki Hwinallimyŏ, Kang Che-kyu, 2004) a month later. Silmido had the largest opening in Korean history at the time (although its assorted records would eventually fall to Taegukgi), selling 1.6 million tickets in its first week18 and was the fastest movie to sell two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight million tickets, eventually passing the eight million ticket record of Friend (Ch’in’gu, Kwak Kyung-t’aek, 2001) en route to a finish of eleven million admissions. The total economic value of the film to the South Korean economy was estimated at 400 billion Won ($344 million)19 or “seven to ten-thousand mid-sized sedans”,20. It even spawned a fad called “patriotic blind dates”21 where a couple would go on a date where they would usually do some combination of seeing Silmido, having dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant, and/or going to a Korean noraebang (as opposed to a Japanese karaoke bar). The expenses for the date would be paid for by whichever one of the two happened to have anything Japanese (such as a cell phone) on their person. It is also worth considering what the meaning is of a practice called a “patriotic blind date” when that practice involves seeing a film about an incident where the government marginalizes and kills a group of people who have devoted their lives to that country. This is complicated further by denouncements of the film as anti-South Korean and/or pro-communist22.
While earlier films such as Attack the Gas Station! (Juyuso Sŭpgyŏksagŏn, Kim Sang-jin, 1999) and 2009 Lost Memories demonstrated an ability in New Korean Cinema to successfully use sensitive cultural and political themes in commercial films, the commercial success and public reception of Silmido suggests that perhaps it is too early to claim la fin des grands récits with regards to the narratives of loss (han) in South Korean film. If anything, there appears to be a hunger for truth regarding the erasure of the collective national identity. A more appropriate way of thinking about the role of retelling history in South Korean film appears to be Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park’s observation that the “insistence not to forget, despite the pain and the shame, serves as a cathartic elixir to insure South Korea’s idea of its nationhood is enhanced by repositioning it as a remembering national community that is worthy of continuation.”23 It is this sort of sentiments, perhaps that can a film like Silmido into a source of nationalism rather than national shame.
1) Robinson, Michael. “Contemporary Cultural Production in South Korea: Vanishing Meta-Narratives of Nation”. New Korean Cinema. Ed. Chi-Yun Shin & Julian Springer. New York: New York University Press. 2005. 28-29
2) The new film Heaven’s Warriors (Ch’un’gun, Min Chun-gi, 2005) is the newest contribution to the “imaginary history” (gasang yŏksa) genre. Here, as in 2009, the protagonists have to go back in time in order to assist another Korean historical figure against the Japanese, who this time is Korea’s greatest military leader, Yi Sun-sin. Its plot, which has something to do with a a jointly developed North Korean-South Korean nuclear weapon, a rogue American scientist, and a team of South Korean commandos, also features a comparable amount of hand-waving behind the mechanics of its time travel.
3) “Sinp’a” is a loanword from Japanese that was introduced during the colonial period. Shimpa originally referred to a Japanese take on theatrical melodrama, but due to the extreme sentimentality of the plays, the term in Korean has now acquired negative connotations and is used to disparagingly refer to something melodramatic.
4) Hayward, Susan. “Reframing National Cinemas”. Cinema and Nation. Hjort, Mette and Mackenzie, Scott (ed.). Routledge, 2000. 100
5) This scene also gives the film an excuse to equate nation with the female body. The Korean resistance fighter (who also appears in visions that Sakamoto has throughout the film) that informs the Huseirenjin about the historical tampering and then goes back in time to “correct” it is a woman. Additionally, Saigo is ultimately motivated to try to stop Sakamoto when Saigo’s superior points out to Saigo during this sequence that when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, Saigo’s wife’s ancestors will die and thus she (and by extension, their daughter) will never be born.
6) The suffix “-do” means “island” in Korean
7) Bang, Annie I. “Survivors recall tragic Silmido Uprising”. The Korea Herald 24 Aug. 2005: online at LexisNexis
8) Whose character is renamed “Ch’oe Chae-hyŏn” and promoted to the rank of general in the film.
9) Lee, Dong-jin. “Silmido: Interview with the Director.” Cinema Service.
Also note that this interview is a translation from Korean, hence the stilted flow of the speech. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that these various pages were made available by Cinema Services, Kang’s production company.
10) Soh, Joon. “Silmido Lawsuit Dismissed.” The Korea Times 20 Jul. 2005: online at
11) Paquet, Darcy. “Silmido”. Koreanfilm.org
12) Chi, Minnie. “Preview of Silmido: Blowback on the Korean Peninsula.” Asia Pacific Arts. 9 Jan. 2004
13) The Kwangju Massacre was the result of political demonstrations that broke out in May 1980 after the assassination of Pak Chu’ng-hŭi and the coup lead by Chŏn Tu-hwan. Chŏn sent in the military to violently suppress the demonstrations in Kwangju, which resulted in at least 2,300 deaths. The official government statement, however put the count at a mere 207.
14) Which it is and it isn’t. While Pak’s fondness for all things Japanese is offensive to many Koreans because of Japan’s brutal colonization of Korea, even Im himself says that it was “natural” for someone like Pak who had lived during the colonial period to have absorbed some of his colonizer’s values. An interview with Im can be found at http://koreanfilm.org/imss.html
15) Jung, Sung-ki. “Panel to Investigate Military Misdeeds”. The Korea Times. 09 Sep. 2005, Jung, Sung-ki. “Military Abuses to Be Brought to Light”. The Korea Times. 28 Aug. 2005, Seo, Dong-shin “Panel to Shed Light on Military Misdeeds”. The Korea Times. 09 Aug. 2005, Seo, Dong-shin. “Digging Starts to Recover Remains of Silmido” The Korea Times. 15 Nov. 2005
16) Lee Jin-Woo. “Commandos Captured NK Commander in 1954.” The Korea Times. 23 Oct. 2005
17) Press Release. Cinema Service.
18) As a point of comparison, 2009 Lost Memories sold 2.3 million tickets during its entire run. Two million admissions is generally regarded as being a “hit” in South Korea (2009 was the 7th highest grossing Korean film in 2002), three million is a hit with considerable crossover appeal, and anything above that is typically a blockbuster which enjoyed a lengthy run in the theaters.
19) Arirang TV, “Economic Value of “Silmido” Equals 700 to 10,000 Cars”. Chosun Ilbo. 12 Feb. 2004
20) Similar to how large and areas are made easier for American audiences to comprehend by equating them with the number of football fields equal to the area, large amounts of money are made easier to comprehend for South Korean audiences by measuring the money in terms of how many Hyundai cars it is worth.
21) Lee, Yeong-ju. “Koreans Reject Japanese Culture As ‘Patriotic Wind’ Sweeps Nation”. Chosun Ilbo 27 Feb. 2004
22) “Silmido Attacked as Pro-NK” The Korea Times 19 Feb. 2004
23) Magnan-Park, Aaron Han Joon. “Peppermint Candy: The Will Not To Forget” New Korean Cinema. Ed. Chi-Yun Shin & Julian Springer. New York: New York University Press. 2005. 160