In "Haewon" director Gu Jahywan takes us on a road trip to a series of sites wherein civilians were massacred in between the end of the Japanese Occupation and the close of the Korean War. Really, the opening subtitles spell the situation out pretty well. Everyone thought it was great that the Japanese were gone, but that hope didn't last long. The more the citizenry tried to express themselves democratically, the more the South Korean government became determined to stomp out dissent by any means necessary.
Much of the significance of "Haewon" is just in the sense of having this information be public knowledge. Time was, the South Korean government simply denied that any of these massacres took place. Or worse, they insisted that all the people murdered, women and children included, were Communist fifth columnists and they had no choice. After a certain point, you really have to wonder. A government that faces this much widespread revolt can't be a very good government to begin with.
What's especially creepy is the detached distant way the remaining witnesses look and act while recounting these events. A lot of what we know about the massacres is at this point oral tradition, because they happened long enough ago that most of the survivors have already died from other causes. Still, the veracity of their knowledge is not in dispute. Director Gu Jahywan even takes us to an excavation of a mass grave, which was located via said testimonies.
That scene is the main viscerally uncomfortable one in the documentary. For most of the other sites we have to settle with stories discussed at historical markers across the country. The material is somewhat dry. There's also plenty of interviews with relevant professors on the background of these events. Weirdly enough "Haewon" is actually most effective aesthetically as a travelogue, because the sites visited encompass an extremely broad range of South Korea's topography. The documentary is one of the most accurate pictures you're likely to see of what the country as a whole looks like.
The political content is also more subdued than this review is probably making the documentary sound. At the end we get to see a full map of all the massacres committed by all the various factions at work before and after the Korean War. There's the South Korean government, UN Command, the North Koreans, the Chinese Alliance...there are a lot of colored dots on that map. The whole thing looks like a rainbow all put together.
The emphasis left is unmistakable. Those eight years after the Japanese surrender were absolutely miserable for the Korean Peninsula, in ways seldom acknowledged unless postfaced by a condescending statement like oh, but South Korea is so rich now, as if that somehow makes it better. I watched "Haewon" in a theater with a whole delegation of elderly Korean citizens. Was the recollection painful for them? I'm sure it was- but more painful than that was spending a whole lifetime where their traumatic younger years were whitewashed for dubious political purposes.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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