26 년

I haven’t seen a lot of Korean films lately, in part because not much has appealed to me. However, if you’re like me, and you like good Korean films but haven’t seen many for a while, the film you should check out is called 26 년. (Which, for those of you who speak just a little Korean, translates as “26 Years,” not “26 Bitches.”)

Here’s a video on Youtube with some animations made straight from the original art:It’s the long-awaited awaited cinematic adaptation of a popular webcomic by a Korean artist called Kangfull (강풀); readers of my series on Korean SF will recall that this is the same person who wrote the script for the sequel to The Host (2006), a sequel that never got made. This is not the first film adaptation of Kangfull’s work: his 순정 만화 was also adapted for the screen, though it did poorly. (I haven’t seen the 2008 film; I tried to read the latter comic, but didn’t get too far: the creepy story of a 30-year-old businessman falling in love with a high school girl was too much for me. On the other hand, 26년 is one series of graphic novels (a 3-parter) that I made sure to buy, as I want very much to read them someday, yes, in the original Korean.)

I don’t know how well 26년 is doing, either, though I can say that the timing of the release was controversial. Here’s why: it’s basically the story of a group of people who lost family member/loved ones during the Gwangju Massacre. For those who don’t know about that event, Wikipedia is a place to start, but I’ll summarize it for you to the extent of my understanding: South Korea’s dictator in 1980 was Chun Doo-hwan, who’d taken over after Park Chung-hee was assassinated by his bodyguard.In May 1980, the democracy movement in Gwangju started to really raise hell, and since Chun was a dictator, this was bad news for him. He dispatched national army troops, who were told that they were quelling a communist uprising in Gwangju. And what do you know, most of the soldiers went along with it… and since they were brainwashed to hate and fear the “reds”, they massacred people.Not just armed students. Anyone in the street. It was a bloodbath. There’s a reason it sometimes gets called a “massacre.” And if you haven’t seen the Korean movie Peppermint Candy (박하 사탕), I recommend it highly. It is the best of the Kwangju Massacre films, and a moment in that film seems to recur in Kangfull’s backstory as well…Chun stepped down in 1988. He was sentenced to death in 1996, but was pardoned by Kim Young-sam, then-president. And Chun is still alive, somewhere in Seoul. Actually, I’ve been (relatively) close to his house: the House Concert series I attended years ago was in his (fancy) neighborhood. Chun lives with a contingent of bodyguards of his own, rumor has it. When I discovered this, my reaction was shock and horror. It’s not often a former dictator who carries out a massacre and a regime of torture and repression is allowed to live out the rest of his days in relative opulence in the middle of the nation’s biggest city.

Now, here’s the thing: Park Geun-Hye was running for President when this film came out. Park had clear connections to Chun, throgh her father (who was succeeded by Chun) but also directly, in that Chun gave her the equivalent of six million dollars US after he took over the country. This was apparently a major issue in the campaign: the left criticized her for it, while she claimed it was contributions from megacorporations to her father, while she argued there were no irregularities and that she was planning on returning that wealth to Korean society, or something vaguely like that.

For the left, Park’s recent election was heartbreaking. It was, for many young people I know, the breaking point: the number of young, creative Koreans I know personally who spent the night she was elected planning when and how they would emigrate from Korea surprised me, to be honest. I heard people describe it as a step backwards, a step toward dictatorship. Indeed, Park apparently is working to have the rules changed about terms of office; some, pretty reasonably, find this pretty distasteful since her sole claim to political fame (and ticket to victory, really) was her dictator father who, during his rule, repeatedly extended his term of office to a total of eighteen years.

In any case, to get back to the film: 26년 is about all of this history. It’s about the horror of Chun being allowed to survive. Chun, after all, is the dictator that most love to hate: he is not adored like Park still is by many. Perhaps that is why Kangfull’s comic did not get him arrested, censured, or banned online: because nobody really likes Chun.

After all, the plot is a revenge plot., against a real person. All these characters who lost someone, they basically get together and plot to assassinate Chun Doo-hwan in retribution for the Kwangju Massacre. And while such a film has, sort of, been done for the US–Death of a President (2006) comes to mind–it wasn’t in that case done with the kind of melodramatic sympathy for the assassins that 26 년 offers.

The film is fairly heartbreaking, it’s likely to anger you, and you will not leave the theater smiling. The performances are not all masterful, though some are very good. In some senses, the film feels like a failure, in part because of the ending (though it is at least true to the original webtoon narrative). But I think it’s worthwhile watching, nonetheless, if only for the questions it raises about revenge, about power, about the question of violence and its uses, and especially its uses in the hands of civilians, in the wake of governmental evil. Hell, it got me thinking so hard about these questions that I ended up feeling even more committed to the novel project I’ve been preparing to write this coming spring.

In any case, here’s a trailer for the film: