“Hanbando” proved to be one of the biggest box office draws of the summer in South Korea, pulling in more than 4 million viewers, no mean feat considering the film’s controversial subject matter and overtly political content, dealing with the country’s reunification in the face of an attempted present day Japanese economic takeover. Of course, director Kang Woo Suk is no stranger to such acerbic material, having dealt with police corruption in his classic “Public Enemy” films and government betrayal in the smash hit “Silmido”. With “Hanbando”, Kang really nails his colours to the mast with a heartfelt nationalistic statement of a film, which combines big budget spectacle and an all star cast with a bitter history lesson, blended cleverly with a host of present day issues, making for thoughtful and gripping entertainment.
The film begins with North and South Korea on the verge of reunification, symbolised by the re-opening of the Gyunghuiseon railway line which links the two nations. However, Japan interrupts the proceedings by claiming historical ownership of the line and opposing the reunification, using official documents produced by the last Korean Emperor to support their position. After the South Korean president (played by Ahn Sung Ki, recently in “Duelist”) challenges the Japanese, they threaten first with the withdrawal of an impending financial loan, and later with military force.
With the fate of the country resting in their hands, a handful of loyal citizens led by a nationalistic teacher called Choi Min Jae (Cho Jae Hyun, who starred in Kim Ki Duk’s “Bad Guy”) desperately search for the long lost real imperial seal which will prove that the Japanese documents are fake. They are opposed not only by the schemes of politicians from Japan, but also from within the South Korean government itself, in particular the traitorous Prime Minister (Moon Sung Keun, “Princess Aurora”) and a pro-Japanese agent called Lee Sang Hyun (Cha In Pyo, “Hong Kong Express”), whose conscience gradually forces him to re-evaluate his loyalties.
“Hanbando” is a real rarity in that it is an unashamedly political film, with director Kang attacking his targets without compromise, graphically depicting Japanese aggression both past and present, and touching on subjects such as the altering of historical facts and the often sinister economic methods employed to control and undermine other countries. Whilst some may feel that this gives the film an anti-Japanese stance, the fact is that it generally deals with real life incidents, most of which remain unresolved to the present day, and many of which may come as a shock to those Western viewers without knowledge of Asian history.
What balances the film, and thankfully prevents it from descending into propaganda is the fact that Kang is equally scathing of the Korean government, and indeed the population as a whole, whom he generally portrays as unaware of their history or national identity and in many cases willing to trade dignity for money. Of course, the film is if anything even more contentious given recent developments in North Korea, though its convincing historical backdrop, played out through a number of flashback scenes which are used to mirror current events, makes for fascinating and horribly plausible viewing.
Interestingly, Kang makes an obvious attempt to show the events from the perspective of the Korean people, rather than simply sticking to political intrigue, something which he explores through a number of scenes involving workers helping with the search for the seal. This again helps to ground the film, though it does bring a few unfortunate lapses into broad comedy which is somewhat at odds with the generally serious tone.
Beyond Kang’s political and social aims, the film works well as a solid conspiracy thriller, with plenty of betrayals and plot twists. Although it is perhaps a little long at nearly two and a half hours, there is plenty of drama and the proceedings move along at a good enough pace to keep the viewer hooked. Wisely, Kang keeps the action to short sharp bursts, rather than lapsing into the kind of Hollywood style excess which would have certainly detracted from the believability of the film, though things do frequently get quite bloody, especially during the flashback scenes.
As such, “Hanbando” works well on many levels — as an admirably intelligent piece of blockbuster entertainment, whatever the viewer’s political beliefs might be, and again serves to confirm Kang as one of the most exciting and vital directors working in Korea today. The film is one of the few with the courage to tackle such sensitive issues head on and without apology, a trait for which it certainly deserves praise, especially in times like these, when cinema is generally dominated by bland, button pushing efforts which actively avoid controversy and risk.
Woo-Suk Kang (director)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn …. President
In-Pyo Cha …. Lee Sang-hyun
Jae-hyeon Jo …. Choi Min-jae
Shin-il Kang …. Kim Yu-sik
Soo-yeon Kang …. Empress
Sang Jung Kim …. King Gojong