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The presidential politics of film

How films are received by the candidates, filmmakers and the people ahead of presidential poll

On the night of Nov. 12, Megabox COEX in southern Seoul was filled with flashing lights and celebrities walking the red carpet.

It was the VIP premiere of director Jeong Ji-young’s latest film “National Security.”

Among the big-name figures were top actors Park Joong-hoon and Seol Kyung-koo, and celebrated filmmakers Kang Je-kyu and Ryu Seung-wan. Then the unexpected guests showed up; four presidential candidates from the opposition bloc, including the Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in and then-independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, made their appearance to watch the graphic torture drama based on the real-life case of late politician and democracy activist Kim Geun-tae.

The year 2012 has been notably political for the local film industry. A number of politically sensitive films have been released months or weeks before the Dec. 19 presidential election. Many of the candidates attended the screenings, some bursting into tears, and openly shared their thoughts about the films.

From the veteran director’s torture drama to CJ E&M’s commercial period flick, movies have been used as a means of political activism by filmmakers and the general public this year. The act of watching films in public, and their movie selections, also reflected each candidate’s political views and their public image.

“The use of popular culture (like the cinema) in politics is nothing new (in Korea),” culture critic Lee Moon-won told The Korea Herald.

“Many politicians in the past have tried to develop a certain image by talking about popular culture or being close to pop culture figures since about 1997. Lee Hoi-chang, a conservative politician, would very often make his movie-goings public. Former president Kim Dae-jung often mentioned (and praised) popular musician Seo Taiji.”
A scene from Cho Keun-hyeon’s ‘26 years.’ (Cheongeoram Films)
A scene from Cho Keun-hyeon’s ‘26 years.’ (Cheongeoram Films)

One of the films released in time for the election is director Jeong’s “National Security.” Last month, it became the first film in local cinema history to be seen by four presidential candidates at its VIP premiere.

The film is based on late Kim Geun-tae’s arrest and torture at the infamous Namyeong-dong detention center during Chun Doo-hwan’s military regime. At the center, he faces the false accusation of being a pro-North Korean communist and eventually endures all sorts of hard-to-watch torture, including waterboarding and electrocution, for 22 days.

The film was premiered at this year’s BIFF in October, and Jeong drew a lot of attention from the press for openly inviting presidential candidates to see the movie. “I don’t know if they’ll accept my invitation,” he told reporters at BIFF. “But I’d really like them to watch this movie. It deals with the history that we must overcome in order to move on to the future.”

On Nov. 12, four candidates ― Moon, Ahn, Lee Jung-hee of the minority United Progressive Party and Sim Sang-jeung of the Progressive Justice Party ― accepted Jeong’s invitation and showed up at the screening. Moon openly shared his thoughts on the movie via Twitter, while other candidates did the same through the promoter of the film.

This year’s biggest box-office triumph, “Gwanghae: the Man Who Became the King,” has been also discussed in a political context. An ambitious, expensive project by the country’s major moviemaker CJ E&M, the film is one of two movies that surpassed the 10 million mark in attendance, along with the star-studded heist film “The Thieves.”

The strictly commercial film features Gwanghae, the 15th ruler of Joseon (1392-1910), and the fictional Ha-sun, a street actor who ends up standing in for the ruler when he is poisoned and taken ill.

An entertaining yet moving account of a stand-in ruler who strives to serve the people and their interests, the movie was calculatedly released just a few months ahead of the presidential election. Moon and Ahn each made their own time to watch the film in October.

Moon, in particular, reportedly decided to see the film after many viewers suggested the role of Ha-sun reminded them of late President Roh Moo-hyun. The DUP candidate, who served as the former chief of staff to late Roh, was moved to tears after the screen went black.

“We didn’t really have any plan to have a political influence with this movie,” said Won Dong-yeon, the producer of the film, who accompanied Moon and Ahn when they each watched the film in theaters.

“We didn’t even know who the candidates were going to be while preparing this project. Our goal was to ask the question of what makes a great ruler. And as the producer of this film, I’d be grateful if this movie makes any audience member to think about this issue.”

Meanwhile, local moviemaker Cheogeoram’s upcoming film “26 Years” is the product of activism by the people. A highly political work by director Cho Keun-hyeon, the film tells the story of five ordinary people who together make a plan to assassinate the former President Chun Doo-hwan, for the massacre of innocent civilians while crushing a pro-democracy movement in May 1980.

The movie, slated to open on Thursday, is causing much buzz about its politically sensitive content. The production of the movie was paid for by online crowdfunding, as its initial pitches had been turned down by investors for the past three to four years. Its ending credits roll for more than 10 minutes, as they include all 15,000 donors’ names.

“When one does something terribly wrong and hurts others, they should at least apologize,” said director Cho during a press conference last week.

“And even if he or she chooses not to, they should be punished for what they’ve done. This is common sense, not some political idea.”

Critic Lee, however, said he doesn’t think movies like “26 Years” or “National Security” will make a notable difference in the election results, regardless of their cinematic quality and political values.

“We all know that American filmmaker Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’ which directly criticized and mocked the presidency of George W. Bush, did really well in the box office; in fact it was the highest-grossing documentary of all time in the U.S.,” he said.

“But Bush got reelected in that year. It’s the same with this year’s anti-Obama documentary ‘2016: Obama’s America.’ The film did really well in the box office, but Obama still got elected. The chances are, those who pay to watch these political films in theaters already have a very strong political view of their own; their views are unlikely to change by watching a film or two.”

By Claire Lee (
Korea Herald Youtube