“May 18” deals with the Gwangju Uprising, a dark episode in Korean history when in 1980 the city attempted to stand up against dictator Chun Doo Hwan, who had taken control of the country after his 1979 military coup. Directed by Kim Ji Hoo, who previously gave audiences the popular comedy “Mokpo”, the film revolves not so much around the politics of the time as it does around the powerful stories of the local citizens who suddenly found themselves at violent odds with their own government.
A big budget effort boasting an all star cast and with no expense spared in evoking the look and feel of the period, the film unsurprisingly proved to be one of the biggest hits of 2007 at the Korean box office, managing over 7 million admissions. The film follows laid-back Gwangju taxi driver Min Woo (actor Kim Sang Kyung, recently in “World of Silence”), whose student brother Jin Woo (Lee Jun Ki, “King And The Clown”) becomes involved with the democracy movement. Life becomes more serious after reports start to filter through that the government has begun a violent crackdown on so-called rebels and that innocent people are being beaten and even killed by the army.
Soon the city is embroiled in bloodshed, and Min Woo tries desperately to protect the woman he loves, a nurse called Sin Ae (Lee Yo Won, also in “When Romance Meets Destiny”), whose father Heong Soo (played by top Korean actor Ahn Sung Ki, who starred in the likes of “Hanbando”, “Radio “Star” and “Silmido” )is a respected retired officer. As riots rage and the military attempts to crush all resistance, Min Woo joins a newly formed civilian army under Heong Soo’s leadership, hoping to bring peace and freedom back to the town and country.
The main theme of “May 18” is that of everyday people being caught up in momentous and tragic events, and the film gets off to a relatively slow start, with Kim spending the first half hour or so on character development. As a result, it works as more than a simple recreation of history, packing in plenty of individual stories of courage and nobility in the face of injustice and vicious oppression. The downside to this is that Kim does take what for many viewers may be an overly melodramatic approach, at times giving the film the feeling of a soap opera or tawdry romance.
Although the truth itself is shocking and hard hitting enough, he goes a little too far in terms of trying to tug at viewer heartstrings and throwing in unnecessary emotional cheap shots, complete with a soundtrack that rises and swells alarmingly during supposedly moving moments. This may well make the film somewhat unpalatable for those looking for a serious examination of what actually happened or an in-depth exploration of the political context.
Still, this kind of liberal dramatisation is not entirely unexpected and is pretty much par for the course for historical blockbusters of this ilk, whatever country they are from, and as such the many scenes of heroic death speeches and tears are certainly not inappropriate and are moving enough in their own way. Similarly, although the characters are a fairly two-dimensional bunch, they are interesting and likeable, and this does give the film the impression of being heartfelt and genuine despite its occasional excesses.
Balancing out the melodrama are the well-directed riot scenes, which Kim manages to imbue with a genuine sense of chaos and panic. The first burst of violence erupts suddenly and shockingly, catching the viewer off guard every bit as much as it does the characters, and from then on the film is bloody and brutal. The tension mounts throughout as the situation escalates, and since Kim shows that he is all too willing to place his characters in the thick of things the film is generally quite thrilling and exciting. Unfortunately, the final scenes resemble too much a traditional action film style siege and are somewhat at odds with the gritty realism of the earlier riots, and this does mean that the conclusion lacks some of its intended impact.
Again, this does not come as much of a surprise since “May 18” is from the first frame an openly commercial piece of film making whose aim is to provide a generalised and highly emotive recreation of the most terrible and unforgettable event in modern Korean history. On this score it is hard to fault director Kim, who has delivered exactly that, and although viewers hoping for something with a little more depth may be disappointed, as a big budget blockbuster the film is both entertaining and affecting.
Ji-hun Kim (director) / Sang-yeon Park (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Sang-kyeong, Ahn Seong-gi, Lee Yo-won, Lee Joon-ki, Park Cheol-min, Park Won-sang