National Security: Busan Review

Torture is the subject and the graphic, non-stop scenes make this serious film stomach-churning.

Park Weon-sang and Lee Kyeung-yeung shine in Chung Ji-young’s South Korean torture drama.

BUSAN – The topic of torture recurs in films from around the world at regular intervals, as though reminding state authorities to curb their arrogance and respect the most basic human rights. National Security is one such picture from South Korea, an entirely sincere and dignified effort by Chung Ji-young, who directed the courtroom drama Unbowed last year. He and his small, on-target cast are so successful in depicting the horrors undergone by young pro-democracy political prisoners that the film is virtually impossible to watch, and unlikely to escape from the ghetto of local art house release and scattered fest bows after its gala presentation in Busan.

Though illustrious predecessors like Marco Bechis’s Argentine drama Garage Olimpo  and Ibrahim El-Batout’s recent Winter of Discontent set in contemporary Egypt inevitably spring to mind, Chung is far more focused on the physical and mental anguish inflicted on Kim Jong-tae (ParkWeon-sang), a stand-in for the real-life Kim Geun-tae, who became a well-known politician after surviving three weeks of torture in the infamous Nam Young-Dong detention centerunder South Korea’s military rule in the 1980s. Opening on Kim being thrown into his cell, the film never leaves him for a moment through his ordeals, which begin with being beaten and kicked by a group of low-level bullies.

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Next their chief comes in and asks Kim to write his life story – no sleep or food until he finishes. Four days pass. A slightly higher boss arrives wearing a suit, and still other falsely civil figures who ask him to confess he is a Communist. Scripting is predictable in the extreme, with Kim refusing with dignity to betray his ideas. Then the Undertaker is called in.

The Undertaker (Lee Kyeong-yeong) is a calm-looking gentleman carrying a black case full of electrodes and a timer to keep his victims from dying. He sinisterly whistles My Darling Clementine while he water-boards them and applies electricity to their naked bodies. It is hard to imagine what kind of audiences will be interested in watching the cruelty and sadism of the graphic scenes that follow. Certainly they are not pleasant to contemplate.

Only the bravura of the cast, first and foremost Park and Lee (both veterans of Unbowed), generates sufficient interest to see the film through to its surprising conclusion, recounted in a respectful coda many years later. Park in particular should be well positioned for acting awards this year. In contrast, the spare, essential camerawork and claustrophobic sets do little to transcend the subject.

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Venue:  Cinema, Busan Film Festival (Gala Presentation), Oct. 5, 2012

Production companies:  Aurapictures

Cast: ParkWeon-sang, Lee Kyeong-yeong, Myung Gye-nam, Kim Eui-seong, Lee Cheon-hee, Seo Dong-soo, Kim  Jung-gi , Moon Seong-kun , WOO Hee-jin

Director: Chung Ji-young

Screenwriters:  Lee Dae-il ,Chung Sang-hyup, Kang Min-hee

Producer: Kim Ji-yeon

Director of photography: Seo Min-soo

Production designer: Choi Yon-sik
Editor: Ko Lim-pyo

Music: Shin Min

No rating, 110’ minutes.