Director Chung Ji Young delivers another no holds barred look at Korean justice and politics in “National Security”, following up his multiple award winning “Unbowed”, which starred Ahn Sung Ki as a real life professor who falls foul of the legal system. Again based on a true story, the film charts the imprisonment and torture of late democracy activist and politician Kim Geun Tae, on whose memoirs the script was adapted from, during the military dictatorship in the mid-1980s. For the leads Chung turned to two of his “Unbowed” stars, with Park Won Sang as Kim and Lee Kyung Young as his chief tormentor, with supporting cast member Moon Sung Keun, also featuring Lee Cheon Hee (“Barbie”) and Myung Kye Nam (“Do the Right Thing”).
The film is set in September 1985, when democracy movement leader and opponent of the ruling dictatorship Kim Jong Tae (Park Won Sang) is grabbed off the street by the authorities and taken to the infamous Namyeong-dong interrogation facility in Seoul. Accused of being a communist collaborator with North Korea plotting a violent revolution, Kim is beaten, starved and tortured by head interrogator Park (Myung Kye Nam) in the name of confession. When Park fails to get the information he wants, the regime’s torture specialist Lee (Lee Kyung Young), nicknamed ‘The Undertaker’ is brought in, and over the next 22 days Kim is subjected to ever worsening torments.
Despite having premiered at the prestigious 2012 Busan Film Festival and having received a great deal of critical acclaim, “National Security” didn’t have the same box office impact as Chung Ji Young’s “Unbowed”. Although it’s perhaps easy to see why, as the film is a far bleaker and less crowd-pleasing affair, this is a real shame, as it’s a bold and powerful effort, and a passionate cinematic document that successfully throws the spotlight on a dark period of modern Korean history. The film is certainly grim from start to finish, pulling no punches in its graphic depictions of torture, showing Kim being beaten to a pulp, given electric shocks, half-drowned and more. This is made all the harder to watch by Chung’s matter of fact treatment of the subject matter, the film going for a wholly realistic approach and fixing an unwavering eye on its horrors rather than trying to turn events into an inspiring tale of one man struggling to resist authoritarian brutality. Taking place almost entirely in one room, there’s very little escape for the viewer, and the film is intense throughout, and whilst never exploitative, it’s likely to be a bit hard going for some tastes.
Though tough, the film thankfully also has substance and a point, and it’s clear that Chung feels earnestly about the subject matter, his passion coming through very strongly. The story is an important one, both as a historical document of things which should not be forgotten and as a reflection of current events and practices both in Korea and around the world, and on these grounds, the film is very effective indeed. This is due in part to a solid script which humanises Kim without cheap sentiment, highlighting his awful situation with both unflinching openness and a degree of Kafka-esque absurdity, including scenes with him being forced to falsify his confessions without having any clue what he is owning up to, his torturers telling him what to write and then beating him further for not being able to remember the lies later.
The film’s effectiveness is also thanks to Park Won Sang’s gripping central performance, adding depth to the portrayal of an everyday man being terrifyingly persecuted for his beliefs, and generating immense sympathy without becoming too much of an obvious figurehead or symbol. The film is all the harder to watch thanks to the believability and vulnerability he brings, and Lee Kyung Young is similarly excellent and on chilling form as The Undertaker, their exchanges and scenes together having a real punch.
Though far from being fun or enjoyable, “National Security” is another top effort from Chung Ji Young, and a film which delivers a vital message without fuss or pretentiousness. Well written, directed and acted, it deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and serves as s stark reminder of the human cost of the abuse of power and authority.
Ji-yeong Jeong (director) / Lee Dae-il, Kang Min-hee, Chung Sang-Hyup (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Eui-Seong
Kyeong-yeong Lee … Lee Guen-an
Won-sang Park … Kim Jong-tae
Dong-soo Seo … Biak