EIFF Student Critics' Best of 2013: Day 4
Every day this week, we're sharing our Student Critics' reviews of their best films of EIFF 2013.
Today, Vivek Santayana reviews National Security (Namyeong-dong 1985) – one of our critical hits of the Fest. Directed by Chung Ji-young, the film screened as part of the Festival's Focus on Korea.
A man is dragged – bound and blindfolded – into a claustrophobic room and made to strip. He is Kim Guen-tae, a dissident against the military dictatorship in South Korea. Charged with treason, he is tortured for over three weeks until he delivers a false confession. This procedure is supervised by a trained specialist, Lee Guen-an, known to everybody as the Undertaker, who has an air of routine in the way he conducts the operation. He wears a starched, white shirt and tie at all times and whistles “My Darling Clementine” throughout the procedure. When the democratic civilian government takes over, Kim is faced with the challenge of reconciling with the past. Because of the scale of the trauma he has suffered. In a shocking ending, he gives Lee a vicious, menacing glare while whistling “My Darling Clementine”. Bearing sinister resonances with Polanski’s adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, this semi-biographical film of a real political figure and his struggle is a powerful exploration of the use of torture as a political weapon and of the precarious tension between the victim’s thirst for retribution and the political ideals of justice.
This film is not for the faint of heart: it is based on the true story of the pro-democracy activist, Kim Guen-tae, being captured and tortured for three weeks under the military dictatorship in South Korea in the 80s. This procedure is administered by an expert, the Undertaker. Most of the film is confined within a dingy bathroom that has been re-modelled into a torture chamber. The camera is invasive. Close, graphic shots of violence are accompanied by a bludgeoning score and sound design. This immediacy and sharp texture set a tone of suffering and claustrophobia. Kim’s agony is a nerve-wracking spectacle, but the violence is appropriately measured. It is planned and restrained, enough to create a dramatic interest in and sympathy for Kim’s fate, but not violent for the sake of it.
This dark tone is interrupted by the flashbacks to Kim’s happy past. He dreams hallucinates, as a result of being deprived of sleep, that his wife and children ask him to give in and present a false confession. The framing of these flashbacks as dreams and hallucinations seems clumsy. Although they are intended to heighten his sense of suffering by their stark contrast, these punctuations break the momentum of the incessant, escalating pain that he is subjected to. The same can be said about his captors’ comedic buffoonery with their drunkenness and failed romance. Because it is a film about relentless torture, a linear, relentless build-up would have been more arresting, more impactful and ultimately more powerful in the moment of final release.
While the vicious mutilation of Kim’s body is visually arresting, the various subtexts of this torture raise provocative questions about the nature of torture as a political tool. Torture is presented as a science. Kim is deprived of sleep till he goes mad. He is treated like a dog, dragged by the neck with a belt. The Undertaker tortures Kim with surgical precision, giving him greater control over Kim and his body. Moreover, the symbolism of the body and the acts of torture also take on a ritualistic, quasi-religious meaning. As Kim is being water-boarded, the Undertaker and his henchmen surround him, muttering threats and insults as if they were chanting incantations. This transforms the corporeal body into a spiritual entity. Pain and torture are directed not towards the body, but towards his spirit. Kim’s pain is more than just what his body goes through: it is a systematic demolition of his psychology and sense of self. Nothing can be more prominent an example of this than the way Kim gradually grows more convinced of his own false confession. Torture validates the lies as truth.
Even more perplexing is the question of how culpable Kim’s captors really are. They are merely following orders. Some of their families are being held ransom. With the exception of the Undertaker, they are portrayed with some sensitivity and pathos. Some of them even help him during his captivity, giving him ideas for his false confession. Their compassion, however, is never strong enough to make them defy orders and resist. They remain passive, and it is never clear how much of this exactly is out of coercion and how much out of choice or selfishness. The vexed moral questions the film raises lie in the deep ambivalence of the minor characters. They are coerced into following orders, but at the same time their sense of morality seems to be in abeyance.
In the epilogue, the film tears asunder the ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation. The scale of Kim’s trauma is unimaginable. He has suffered a systematic violation of his body and spirit. The damage is irreparable. Many years after his release, under a democratic civilian government, his wounds are re-opened as the Parliament debates the abolition of torture. In a very public trial, the Undertaker is persecuted for his atrocities. Kim grows increasingly concerned about this trial, and it becomes increasingly clear that the judicial procedure and its constitutional penalties would never really alleviate his trauma or compensate for his suffering. Borrowing from Dorfman’s play, Kim “suffocates from his equanimity”. Distinctions between the oppressor and oppressed gradually come apart. In the end, Kim is faced with his greatest challenge, to forgive his oppressors and reconcile with his past.
Missed out on Days 1-3? Check out the rest of the Student Critics' reviews here.