“The Bridge at Nogunri”, which also played international festivals as “A Little Pond” is a 2009 Korean film charting the events of the No Gun Ri Massacre, one of the most tragic incidents in the country’s modern history, in which refugees were gunned down in cold blood by the US military in 1950. The events and their details are still highly controversial, with neither the Korean nor the US government officially agreeing on the number killed or the reasons why the soldiers opened fire on the civilians, who were fleeing south from the North Korean army. The story made headlines again in 1999 when the Associated Press published a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reports, and the issue is still a unsurprisingly a very raw and emotional one.
The film was directed by Lee Sang Woo, marking his feature debut after having scripted the controversial “Beauty” and the Ahn Sung Ki and Park Joong Hoon starring social commentary drama “Chilsu and Mansu”, one of the key films of the Korean New Wave. Although a fairly low budget affair, the film has a mightily impressive cast of famous faces, all taking small and unnamed roles as the villagers, including Song Kang Ho, Moon Sung Keun, Jeon Hye Jin, Shin Myung Cheol, Kim Seung Wook, Lee Dae Yeon, Kang Shin Il, Park Won Sang, Moon So Ri, Jeong Seok Yong, and Yu Hae Jin.
“The Bridge at Nogunri” is quite a different film to what might have been expected, with Lee aiming simply to report events, rather than hanging a story off them. Clocking in at just an hour and twenty minutes, the film is quite neatly split into two halves, the first following its characters around in passive fashion, being content to offer snapshots of everyday life, most of them defined only by their basic roles as families, teachers and farmers. The war itself is a distant concern at best, and is only raised as the subject of idle gossip by chess playing grandfathers. Lee doesn’t attempt to work in any subplots or emotional hooks, and this works very well, eschewing the kind of melodrama which usually dominates Korean tragedies. Even though the cast is filled with famous stars, none have showy or pronounced roles, and so thankfully their presence never detracts from the overall sense of believability. Although it would be going too far to label the film as employing an overtly documentary style, Lee does keep things grounded, apart from a few instances of odd symbolism involving huge whales flying through the sky.
Around the halfway mark, things move on from these idyllic scenes, as the villagers are told to flee by American soldiers and their Japanese interpreter, a fact which itself results in communication problems. From here, things abruptly descend into hell, as the refugees are forced off the road by US troops, where they wait patiently, unsure of what is going on, until they are suddenly fired upon. The following scenes are devastating and difficult to watch, with Lee determinedly depicting the massacre in horrifyingly graphic detail. Punctuated with terrifyingly loud bullet noises, the film never flinches as it shows people being literally blown apart and cut down where they stand, blood filling the air and limbs being shredded. Even more shocking is what follows, as the survivors huddle under the bridge, only to be picked off in cold and calculating fashion, shot down as they cry for help.
Even then, Lee maintains an even handed approach, with the American soldiers remaining largely faceless and never being overly demonised, aside from the fact that it is made clear that they are fully aware they are firing on unarmed civilians. This serves to effectively emphasise that the true horror of the massacre lies in its utter senselessness, as does the film’s refusal to delve into issues of blame, never providing any post-script explanations.
This sits well with Lee’s aims, and ensures that “The Bridge at Nogunri” remains objective and free from melodrama throughout, standing as an admirable, if gruelling effort to bring more attention to a truly appalling incident. Never attempting to be controversial or manipulative, the film is a sterling piece of work which will hopefully be seen by as wide an audience as possible, and will help to shed official light on the events at No Gun Ri and the reasons behind them.
Lee Sang-woo (director) / Lee Sang-woo (screenplay)
CAST: Moon Seong-geun