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:

12 thoughts on “26 년

  1. The Korean Film Council should hire you, because I had nearly given up on any big screen productions, unless it was a legit entry in the PIFF – not just the mass market crap shoved in for profits.

    1. Well, you may not like it… no, that’s the wrong word, you may not get as much out of it as I did, because as anyone who’s read my work knows, a lot of the issues of this film are also issues that preoccupy me in my writing. But I’d say it’s worth a watch.

      I’ll also say that the acceptance patterns for Korean festivals are a little weird. Our film was good enough to win an award at its first screening overseas, and to have been personally invited to send to other film festivals, but PIFAN–supposedly Korea’s premiere film festival of the fantastical–turned its nose up at it… even despite it being the first Korean adaptation of Lovecraft, and having been shot in the same city the festival happens in.

      (I was told by someone who knows more than me that PIFAN tends to be much less willing to accept Korean submissions unless they’ve already gotten awards overseas, or the director has gotten noticed overseas. In that, it seems, Korea has another parallel with Canada, in that many Canadian musicians and actors tend to get nowhere in their careers unless they emigrate south… and then, people start “claiming” them as Canadian once they achieve success in the US.)

      Which is all just to say that PIFF, PIFAN, JIFF, and the other festivals are not foolproof arbiters of quality. Which I’m sure you know, but I figured I’d mention it for the benefit of other readers…

  2. Nice write-up. I quite want to see this film, when I get the chance (iTunes, perhaps).

    Just a couple of random notes:
    – Host 2 is supposed to come out next year. An f/x demo reel was leaked onto the Internet recently. But there is no sign of Kang Full on the credits now.
    – 26 Years was produced by Cheongeorahm Films, the company that did The Host and is doing The Host 2.
    – A whole bunch of Kang comics have been made into films: Apt, Ba:bo, etc. They were all pretty bad, though: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_Full
    – Irony alert – Chun Doo Hwan was not a fan of comic books, or at least his gov’t wasn’t, and generally worked against comic book publishers. But Chun’s eldest son owns Sigongsa Publishing, which included a comic book division.

    1. Hey Noah,

      This comment got caught in spam, and I’m not sure why beyond having installed a new spam filter. Hopefully it learned from my marking this comment as Not Spam and will remember for next time!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the write-up. Yeah, I remember when I first heard this film was being made, and I was excited about it then. I was determined to see it in the cinema while I could… Wish I could watch anything via iTunes, but having only a Korean credit card (sigh).

      Thanks for the notes. I’m glad to hear that The Host 2 is supposed to come out after all. I’ll have to look around for the f/x demo reel, or stills from it. Was it still set around Cheonggyecheon prior to it’s being “rehabilitated” into a semi-pretty waste of electricity? I also heard it was originally slated to be directed by someone from outside Korea, which was weird but interesting… I’ll have to look all that up. Makes me sad that I won’t be in Korea to see the film in the cinema… but I’ll live.

      It doesn’t surprise me that the films were done with the same production company; also, it doesn’t surprise me how many of Kangfull’s comics were made into films. I didn’t think Apt. was so much bad as it was just not very good. Never bothered with (or heard about) Ba:bo.

      And yeah, I remember you (I think it was, or maybe Matt) mentioning that Chun was a hater of comics, but his son being involved in comics publishing. It’s a funny irony, though not that surprising… times change, and I’m sure part of Chun’s opposition to comics came down straight to their subversive potential.

  3. Case in point for the subversive potential of comics – the 1982 series Most Terrifying Baseball Team:

    Host 2 demo reel is here:

    As you can see, there is no sign of the Cheonggyecheon at all. Seems to be further down the Han River, between Seoul and the ocean. Looks really bad, imho.

    No worries about the spam filter. Although, fyi, the type size is really, really small on my computer (using Chrome). Like smaller than 8-point. If others are having the same issue, you might want to enlarge.

    1. Noah,

      I hadn’t heard of that comic, is it available somewhere online? I’ll be reading the comic 26년 this spring, but after that I might be up for trying to read a subversive baseball comic. (And did you see the link for my essay on RPGing and its subversive potential in Korea? I basically argue that role-playing games can act as a kind of memetic viral medium for a notion of self-directed agency that I think most young Koreans don’t often seem to get a lot of chances to experience these days, given how micromanaged their lives are, and given how absent agency is from Korean literature.)

      The Host 2 — yeah, the demo reel doesn’t look so hot. Then again, it might be better than it looks, but that demo reel looks a little cheap… and I wonder, why is color correction included as part of the FX being demoed? And yeah, bleah: the same monster? Just elsewhere on the Han? It misses the whole socio-political/historical point that made the first movie zing. Am I surprised, though? Hell no. Bong Joon-ho downplayed that side of it so much–disingenuously, if you ask me–that they have every excuse to have turfed it, though that was the whole point of the film.

      As for this site’s current template, thanks for the tip. Yeah, it needs some work. I just changed themes from something even more unsatisfying, and I’m pleased with the layout and stuff, just not with the fine details of the font-related stuff, basically. Just for reference, are you using IE on some form of Windows? Just curious… I’ll be doing a little surgery on the template here and there soon, and though I don’t have time to do a total overhaul, it’s trivial to make a child theme and change the font sizes globally. (TYhe font color, too: the grey is just a bit too hard to read, I want something more slatey grey, though not quite black.)

        1. Ah, OSX, the one OS I haven’t looked at this site on. (My next computer will be a MacBook Air, so that I can do music stuff, but for now I’m limited to Windows and Linux.) The fonts are all small on my Linux Chrome as well, though.

          IMDB is weird. We’re supposed to have a profile page for “The Music of Jo Hyeja” (they’re automatically generated once you successfully submit a film to a festival via Withoutabox) but nothing has shown up at all. Quite frustrating, really.

          1. Personally, I would recommend getting a regular 13″ Mac laptop – more power and more memory. And, at 4.5 pounds, not that heavy. Retina display laptops are even lighter, but they cost a lot more.

          2. Huh… I dunno. I’ve thought about a regular Mac laptop — I mean, a powerbook — but I feel like, anyway, the Air will do everything I need for now. Besides, if I need more power for the music stuff, I could probably snag Miss Jiwaku’s for a few hours, as she’s getting a PowerBook as well.

            I dunno, though. I’ll probably have to drop by one of the Apple dealers and look around a bit. I want something that I can use for a long time (ie. like the next 5 years or so), but at the same time, I want something very, very portable. (My HB1000, apparently weighs just shy of 3 lbs, and it seems heavy to me, though, mind, that’s probably the weight of the machine without a supersized battery…)

            Is the performance quality that much better on the PowerBook as compared to the Air?

          3. I’m no expert on the Macbook Air … But from what I have seen, the specs are pretty low for your modern workload. Especially since you are a budding film producer. Depends on your needs, of course … and if the wife has a good computer, then you can always scrimp.

          4. Huh, I dunno. I guess the real question for me is whether I could do music recording/sequencing on it, since that’s one thing I plan to do more of this year. I’ve seen people talking about gaming on their Airs, and they say it gets hot but can handle a lot… and that’s way more intensive than music, I think. Still, I’ll do some more research before I dive in. Still, for me at this point it’s still mostly about the writing, so I’d be willing to err on the side of ultraportability at the moment.

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