From its touching opening scene to the dramatics of its final imagery, "Poongsan" reframes the North/South conflict with a nihilistic tone that never slackens or simmers. This post-war tragedy is written by Kim Ki-duk and directed by his former assistant director Juhn Jai-hong. Together they have sculptured an ideologically charged piece that negates difference and abandons hope. It's dark, thought provoking, and blood stained.
The film carriers Kim Ki-duk's watermark throughout as symbolic action drives the on-screen action relentlessly. Our speechless protagonist (played deftly by Yoon Kye-sang) is reminiscent of Kim Ki-duk's mute from "3-Iron" and his motives and origin are equally mysterious. Yoon Kye-sang plays a self-appointed messenger who receives and delivers personal messages across Koreas' DMZ. The skills he possesses in order to achieve this feat is somewhat superhuman, almost transcendent as he displays unbelievable physical abilities in crossing the zone. It's just one of many symbolic manifestations that can be found in the film. But like so many of Kim Ki-duk's stamps on this film, its inclusion in the spectacle raises more questions of cinematic believability and consistency than political nihilism.
Tragedy can be found in both the film's ideological statement and the narrative itself. When Yoon Kye-sang returns from the North with In-ok (played by Kim Gyu-ri), the lover of a high profiled defector from the North, he gets trapped between the two opposing Koreas in a spy saga that is like no other. "Like a dog that's lost its owner" our wondering hero lives in limbo between the two halves of himself. He is, tragically, Korean in all sense of the word.
The film presents ideas and notions that have been expressed in South Korean cinema before. The unification of Korea and the bounds that bind the two nations is a dream greater than any political suture, not matter how imposing that gap may be. "Poongsan" captured my thoughts but not my senses. Visually the film is asymmetrical and fragmented. The pace is consistent and somewhat thrilling but journey itself struggle to differentiate between its ultimate goal and the detours it takes. This is not a story of love or of political divide. It's about a debarked individual whose identity has been stripped, torn, and discarded. All that he is left with is what he can accomplish by himself as he selflessly gives what can, and no more.
It is in films like this that I sometimes get frustrated with Korean cinema. The ideas expressed are so saturated with distracting and deterring dialogue that the grace and punch of the message is stained. Unnecessary jests and stale stereotypical acting corrupt the film and taint the underling brilliance of some of the set-ups. Imagine a room where South Korean agents and North Korean spies are jailed together, almost forced to reconcile or destroy each other. Interesting for sure, but now add a handgun, a couple machine guns, and a fool with a grenade. Impact is vital but execution is the sugar pill that was lacking as I personally struggled to find a synergy between what was shown and what it all represented.
-C.J. Wheeler (email@example.com)
DVD available from YESASIA
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