2014/02/15 | 697 views | | Permalink
Why do missionaries in hostile environments keep trying? Surely it becomes obvious pretty quickly that whoever's persecuting them is taking that work very seriously. Cheol-ho (played by Kim In-kwon) knows this all too well. The first scene in "Apostle" depicts Cheol-ho in North Korean custody. The officers in charge are not...pleasant people. The tone soon takes a turn for the brutal and vicious. The message is clear. Don't proselytize again.
And yet that's what Cheol-ho continues to do. Now, make no mistake, even if he is a man sent by God, Cheol-ho is all too mortal. He has fears, anxieties, and worries. Cheol-ho can't do the messianic thing and just nobly stand in front of his accusers, accepting a brutal fate as horrible as the human imagination can design. Neither are the members of his little church any more steadfast. When disaster falls upon them, sooner or later, all of them are reduced to mere whimpering.
"Apostle" doesn't do much in terms of inspiring confidence in evangelical missions. The claustrophobic scenery and the general atmosphere of numb terror in this town just a step away from China is palpable. With all this clear evidence of hopelessness right in front of them, how do the members of this congregation keep going? Why do they keep going?
The simple answer is because they don't have any choice. I don't mean that they're forced into this circumstance of having to believe in hope, like it's some kind of drug. Rather, it's the idea of their having a real community. Other people who they can help, and love. For the cast of "Apostle" the prospect of giving into despondency and giving up on their fellowship is tantamount to spiritual death. They have to love and help others. It's how these people understand themselves as functioning human beings. Forgiveness is not some noble sacrifice, not some victory over the bloodlust of vengeance. For them, it's just life. Just as so many people cling to life in the face of death, so these people cling to religion in the face of spiritual bankruptcy.
There was another North Korean escape film last year, "48m". It bears lots of similarities to this one, namely in the cinematography and general malaise of the environment. I felt ambivalent about the movie, noting a lack of clear emotional connection with the characters and their goals. Seeing "Apostle", I realize now that this was because the people in "48m" were, for the most part, just animals straining against a brutal system. This was through no fault of their own- the North Korean government treated them as animals, and so they were.
By contrast, "Apostle" is a story about animals who desperately strive to be human, by choosing to give in to their emotions instead of killing off those terrifying feelings to numb the pain and despair in their lives. This is not a congregation of complicated people. But their commitment and acceptance to their faith makes for an all too beautiful ending, even as it's clearly scarred in the face of tragedy. Because this is what people of faith. They have a vision of paradise. They weep for the fallen. And then they move on to continue spreading their faith across the Earth. Because that is the task for which God sent them.
Review by William Schwartz
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53rd Baeksang Arts Awards 2017