|Soon-ji 2010 South Korea May Story|
In 2008, the city of Gwangju staged a re-enactment of the events of May 18, 1980 known as the Gwangju Uprising, a demonstration against South Korea's military dictatorship which is seen as a pivotal moment in the country's march to democracy. The re-enactment is used as a backdrop to a character study of a young woman, Soon-ji, and a twisted romance she gets involved in. At first I thought the title of the film referred to the May uprising but in a nice duality move it simply refers to the title character.
Ambiguous duality is a prime plot mover in the film. Soon-ji's object of affection has come to participate in the re-enactment but has a few screws loose and thinks it's the real thing. I think the guy is just supposed to be good looking but it's his passion for the cause that's attractive to Soon-ji who lost her father during the real uprising. Soon-ji is being courted by a police officer whom she uses to help her lover get some real weapons for the re-enactment. The director seems to be illuminating an essay on the different meanings and memories the uprising, and its re-enactment, might have for different people. I like that he simply explores the idea without insisting on making any definitive political or social declarations.
The film starts out developing Soon-ji's character as a loner, someone who was ridiculed and ostracized when she was younger. That part, and some of the standard drama of the ensuing romance are the weaker parts of the film from most angles—acting, storytelling, direction. I may give this film another chance. My initial reaction was that overall the film is weak. The vision is not fully realized or consistent. There's some standard drama, reaching almost melodramatic levels, and some standard storytelling that seem at odds with the more surreal elements that are introduced throughout. The latter are quite effective and a second viewing might flesh them out a little more. I'm happy to enjoy a film for it's stylistic methods as much as its content but the two things seem to fight one another here.
I can't begin to pronounce on how this film plays to a Korean audience, how much more would be gleaned from it. For example a couple characters in the film are wearing period costumes from 1980. I'm not sure many western audiences would recognize that. But for non-Koreans interested in Korean history and culture I do recommend this film, both for it's content and its style, though not as an introduction to Korean cinema. I also recommend a brief review of the events of the Gwangju Uprising before watching this if you are not familiar with them.
Summary: On May 18, 1980, the Gwangju (or Kwangju) Uprising broke out against South Korea's military dictatorship. In 2008, the city of Gwangju staged a mass re-enactment of the events that are now celebrated as a milestone of South Korea's quest for democracy. While the uprising itself has been dramatized in Korean cinema, director Park Kwang-man used the re-enactment as a backdrop for a story that suggests that, for some people, history hasn't been as neatly reconciled as the civic commemoration might proclaim.
The Korean title names the film after its main character, a chicken farmer who runs a roadside restaurant. While she's attractive, she was unpopular in school because she was a bit of a hick who, as one classmate says, smelled of chicken shit. Her father disappeared during the 1980 uprising, and she goes to the nearby big city on every anniversary date to see if the authorities have fresh info on his fate. In a way, she's stuck in the past, sneered at by the same classmate who moved out and up in the world...