Although directed by Jeon Jae Hong, helmer of the superb and criminally under seen “Beautiful”, whether fairly or not, “Poongsan” will probably be pushed as and seen by many as a Kim Ki Duk film. Having written the script and acting as producer, Kim certainly has his fingerprints all over his protégé’s film, bringing to the table his usual brand of grim drama, cynicism and poetic pain. Offering another take on the effects of the North-South Korean divide, the film stars upcoming actor Yoon Kye Sang (“Lovers of Six Years”, “The Greatest Love”) as a cross-border smuggler, with Kim Gyu Ri (“Portrait of a Beauty”) as his latest package. The film also features Kim Jong Soo (recently in “Sins of Fathers”) amongst its cast, with Japanese star Odagirie Joe following up his role in Kim’s “Dream” with a brief appearance as a North Korean soldier.
Yoon Kye Sang plays the titular Poongsan, a silent man nicknamed after the brand of North Korean cigarettes that he smokes, who acts as a courier for people separated by the North-South divide, contactable only through memorial messages left on the fence marking the DMZ between the two countries. After his skills bring him to the attention of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, he is given the dangerous task of bringing across Ok (Kim Gyu Ri), the lover of a high profile North Korean defector (Kim Jong Soo). En route, she starts to develop feelings for Poongsan, and when her arrival in the South doesn’t result in the planned happy reunion, tension and violence soon ensue.
As with Jeon Jae Hong’s debut “Beautiful”, and Jang Hoon’s “Rough Cut”, the shadow of Kim Ki Duk certainly looms large over “Poongsan”. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, and Kim has of late shown that he works very well in the writer producer role, using the talents of his protégés to turn out films which are true to his themes, but far more commercial and accessible affairs. That’s definitely the case here, as whilst “Poongsan” shows Kim’s trademark distrust of authority, search for identity and emotional violence, it’s markedly less abstract than his own recent outings, coming across almost like a politically charged version of Kim Jee Woon’s “A Bittersweet Life”, sharing the same silent, ambiguous protagonist and the same kind of tragically inclined melodrama. The film’s plot is a mixture of different elements, throwing together drama, romance, action and symbolic intrigue into an interesting and engaging whole that thankfully sees Kim’s script largely holding back on ever getting too heavy and meaningful. Although things do get a little exhausting with all its bouncing back and forwards across the border, there are some very effective twists and betrayals along the way, and the packs a great deal into its running time.
The whole concept of having Poongsan as a speechless, stoic type fits well with the overall themes, with Yoon Kye Sang putting in a powerful and expressive performance, managing to convey a real sense of confusion and tormented humanity, as well as an all important good heart. His relationship with Ok is reasonably affecting and moving, and Kim Gyu Ri is solid in what could have been the kind of thankless female role often seen in Kim Ki Duk films, despite a few awkward scenes of rather jarringly pseudo-poetic dialogue. The rest of the characters are all more interesting and fleshed out than usual, and though the security forces on both sides are mainly faceless brutal villains and lapdogs, Kim Jong Soo is great as the tortured defector, a lost, impotent and pitiable man without a country and consumed by a growing sense of anger.
Visually, Jeon Jae Hong is very much his own director, and the film enjoys an impressive modern noir look, with some beautiful use of light and shadow that perfectly brings to life the half-world in which Poongsan exists. At the same time, there is a definite gritty feel to the proceedings, and Jeon shows a willingness to really drag his characters through the mud and dirt. This edge is furthered by a respectable amount of violence sprinkled throughout, including some fairly rough torture scenes and bloody beatings, and this helps to keep things moving, as do a handful of chase scenes and set pieces.
It’s these, along with the emotional core which really set “Poongsan” apart from most of Kim Ki Duk’s own outings, and which allow Jeon Jae Hong to carve his film out an identity of its own. The film is certainly one of the best and most searching to take on the weighty issue of the North-South divide of late, and is both gripping and thoughtful, with a human side and a few glimpses of hope that balances well with some of its more pessimistic aspects.
Juhn Jaihong (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Kye Sang Yoon … Poongsan
Gyu-ri Kim … In-ok
Han Gi-Joong … Section chief
Choi Moo-Seong … Team leader