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Hanbando 한반도 2006

hanbando.jpgThe man who brought us the reasonably enjoyable cop flicks Two Cops 투캅스 I, II, III, the overly nationalist action drama Shilmido 실미도 and the action blockbuster Public Enemy 공곡의적 is back. This time Kang Woo-suk tells a story set in the not-too-distant future in which North and South Korea are planning to reopen the Kyungui Railway that once connected the southern tip of the peninsula with its northern top. But alas, in an act worthy of Emperor Ming the Merciless (and about as plausible), Japan throws a spanner in the works by conjuring up a 100-old treaty, signed under duress, that gave away all rights to the railway to Japan. This is a slap in the face of the Korean nation and taken as such by historian Choi Min-jae (Jo Jae-hyeon 조재현), who was removed from academia on account of his uncompromising (and unacademic) ultranationalism. But Choi turns out to be the only one who knows and can prove that the treaty was signed with a faulty national seal and hence not valid (not too sure about the legal niceties of this conclusion). As it turns out, however, with the exception of the South Korean president (played by the otherwise great Ahn Sung-ki 안성기), just about everybody in the government is afraid of Japan and willing to meet the Japanese demands, especially when the Japanese Self Defense Naval Forces steam up to Korea’s maritime borders in an uncharacteristic show of gunboat diplomacy. While Choi hunts for the authentic national seal (and does so with shockingly little subtlety), the government is taken over by the pro-Japanese “realist” faction, headed by the PM (Mun Seong-keun 문성근 who in real life is not only an excellent actor, but also a political activist for the progressive party) and a scenario unfolds that is eerily similar to the one played out a century ago when Korea was annexed by Japan. The frequent flashbacks to that period and the more or less seamless transitions from shots of contemporary politicians changing into their Joseon counterparts are the less than subtle way the director drives his point home.
And then full-scale paranoia is unleashed. Residual feelings of pain, hatred and trauma with regard to Japan are understandable; Korea was colonized and suffered much at the hands of the Japanese empire. The unabashed way in which paranoia, xenophobia and distrust of anyone and anything not clearly ultranationalist depict and exploit such feelings in such a high profile, high budget movie is nothing short of amazing, though. Despite some good ingredients (a maverick historian chased out of academia on account of his crackpot theories, the search for a fabled treasure, slick action scenes and nice-looking if completely stupid historical flashbacks) the uncompromising and aggressive tone of the movie leaves one with a bad aftertaste. The Korean public must have thought the same. Despite the enormous production costs and advertising campaigns, Hanbando bombed at the box office. People favored The Host, released at the same time and an infinitely more eloquent statement about Korean identity. And a much better, funnier, smarter and more enjoyable movie, of course.
The acting in Hanbando is incredible. It must have been a while since these actors (who include some of the most accomplished Korean actors) stumbled through scene after scene by just reading aloud their lines with such obvious distaste. Mun Seong-keun in particular has a sad part to play. The last scene between him and the president is of such shockingly stupidity and ends so abrupt, I thought my DVD player had stopped working. Alas, it valiantly plodded along until the end of the credits. As for the dialogues, to say that they are contrived would be an understatement. They seem primarily aimed at instilling a historical lesson in the audience. Combined with the paranoid plot which makes the X-files pale in comparison, a clear message is served up: the makers of this movie do not take the public seriously and they haven’t read a proper history book.
Hanbando is only interesting as a cinematic outgrowth of the popular mass-marketed cheap paperback serializations of far-fetched and bloody scenarios in which Korea is pitted against Japan, China, Russia and the US and in the end emerges victoriously. Such paperback novels sell well because they play into the still difficult international position of the two Koreas. Another interesting aspect of Hanbando is its portrayal of the large group of historians and other academics who have on account of their extreme views not been able to find gainful employment in academia. There are literally thousands of small research centers (sometimes consisting of only one person) in South Korea occupied with questions (or answers) not current in mainstream society. Some of this research centers are progressive, many of them are reactionary and likely to harbor historians of the caliber of Choi Min-jae. To put it in other words, Hanbando is only interesting as an expression of pathological nationalism, an affliction which usually does not make it into mainstream media. This time it did and the results are not pretty. The producer must have called in a lot of favors, given the stellar cast he had at his disposal and so ruthlessly abused. An insult of the viewer and an embarrassment to pulp, especially given its huge budget and star power. Master Lee is pissed off.

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