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Posted : 2008-11-06 15:34
Updated : 2008-11-06 15:34

Imagining Life Behind Heroic Act


A scene from “26 Years Diary,” a film about the late South Korean student, Lee Su-hyun, who died while trying to save a drunk man on the tracks of the railways in Tokyo

By Joon Soh
Contributing Writer

In January 2001, a South Korean student named Lee Su-hyun was waiting for the subway in Tokyo when a Japanese man fell on the tracks. Lee and another Japanese man jumped onto the rails in an attempt to get him out of the way before an oncoming train reached the station. Sadly, they were unsuccessful and all three men were killed.

Lee's death made headlines in both Korea and Japan, and the 26-year-old's act of unselfishness struck a deep chord with people from both countries. His heroism resonated all the more given the long and bitter history between the two countries, and may have even made people in both nations reconsider their long-held prejudices and suspicions regarding their neighbors.

The Japanese film "26 Years Diary," which was released in Japan last year and is currently showing in Korea, is a cinematic tribute to the late Korean student. Rather than focusing on the final spontaneous act of heroism, the film presents the young man's life in Tokyo in the years prior to his death.

No one, however, would mistake "26 Years Diary" as being completely factual. Rather, the film is pure melodrama, the kind of sweet and sentimental story that is immensely popular in both Korea and Japan. And as with all melodramas, it needs a certain suspension of disbelief to be enjoyed.

The film begins in 1996, with Lee Su-hyun finishing his mandatory military service and returning home to the port city of Busan. A few years later, Su-hyun (played by actor Lee Tae-sung) decides to go study in Tokyo to pursue his interest in Japanese language and culture.

Once in Tokyo, his love of rock music draws him to Japan's thriving live music scene. While watching street performances, he meets and falls for Yuri, an aspiring Japanese singer with a powerful voice but a troubled family life. Yuri (played by J-pop singer Maki Onaga) is in constant conflict with her divorced father, a bitter man who owns a small run-down rock club.

The majority of the film revolves around Su-hyun and Yuri as their relationship grows from mutual curiosity to friendship and finally romance. Su-hyun becomes an anchor for Yuri, helping to get her music and family life in order, and providing her with the support and love she needs.

As may be expected, the film goes out of its way to cast Su-hyun in an idealized light. Athletic, popular and good with the guitar, Su-hyun is portrayed as an extremely well-adjusted young man with strong family values and a firm sense of morality; there are several scenes in which he steps in to help someone in trouble.

In addition, the movie carefully establishes Su-hyun's Korean identity with scenes of Korean-style family meals, ancestral rituals and traditional music performances. While perhaps providing a cultural context for Japanese moviegoers, these idealized moments also serve to show Su-hyun as being deeply rooted in tradition, a trait that his modernized Japanese friends sorely lack.

Indeed, there is an implied criticism of Japanese society in presenting Su-hyun in such a heroic and stereotypical fashion. Particularly in scenes that highlight Japanese prejudice towards Koreans, director Junji Hanado seems to accuse his country of losing touch with important moral and traditional values still upheld by fine Korean men such as Su-hyun.

In the end, "26 Years Diary" is a curious mixture of stereotypes, melodrama and social criticism that may disappoint those looking for an authentic portrait of Lee Su-hyun. But once such blurring of fact and fiction is overlooked, there is still much to enjoy about this heartfelt, if somewhat puzzling, tribute to a heroic young man.

In theaters. 108 minutes. All ages. Distributed by Lotte Entertainment.

joonsoh@gmail.com