`May 18’ Remembers Heroes of Gwangju
By Lee Hyo-won
May 18, 1980 is forever engraved in modern Korean history as the beginning of a fateful series of events. Its tragedy is relived on screen as director Kim Ji-hoon pays homage to the victims of the Gwangju Democratization Movement in his latest offering, ``May 18.'' The film traces the suppression of a popular uprising that became a bloody 10-day conflict between soldiers and ordinary citizens.
Before the film's release June 26, the director and cast members gathered last Thursday at a Seoul theater, to speak about the nation's first film to directly depict the Gwangju ``massacre.'' As much as ``May 18'' is among the most highly anticipated works this summer, the press conference received much media spotlight.
On May 17, 1980, Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88), a ROK Army general wielding much power who would shortly become president, enforced martial law. He disbanded the National Assembly and had many politicians arrested, including left-wing liberal Kim Dae-jung, a political bigwig from Jeolla province. Though sentenced to death, Kim would survive to become president, 1998-2003.
Students of Chonnam (Jeonnam) National University organized a protest in front of the campus gate. By May 21, about 300,000 people formed civil militias and looted police stations for weaponry. Maintaining control over the city, the ``Citizen Army'' carried out negotiations with the government.
On May 27, Chun dispatched some 200,000 airborne and ground troops to stem the rebellion, defeating the militias in the downtown area under just 90 minutes. As of 2003, records tally 207 dead, 2,392 wounded and 987 miscellaneous victims, but exact figures remain undisclosed to this day.
The military repression was carried out under an ironic code name that can be roughly translated as ``Lavish Holiday'' (the Korean title of the film).
``As a director, it's challenging to reenact historical events with accuracy,'' Kim told reporters. ``It's inadequate -- through interviews with survivors and family members of victims, I learned that (May 18) was much more horrific, violent and nightmarish than what the film shows.
``I toned it down; rather than portraying the incident itself, 27 years since its occurrence, I wanted to give life to those who lived through it,'' he said.
The story unfolds around four main characters inspired by real life victims of the tragedy. The lives of ordinary people are forever changed by May 18: Taxi driver Min-wu (Kim Sang-kyung) leads a peaceful life with younger brother Jin-wu (Lee Jun-ki), while nurturing his affection for the pretty Sin-ae (Lee Yo-won).
But when hell breaks loose, Min-wu and others arm themselves to defend their loved ones.
For actress Lee Yo-won, ``May 18'' was emotionally and physically demanding, as she constantly shed tears and had her hair yanked. ``It was absolutely terrifying as if it were a real situation, rather than filming action sequences,'' she said. ``It was also my first time being around guns.''
Lee Yo-won and Lee Jun-ki both cited the scene in which the lovers Sin-ae and Min-wu bid farewell at the tunnel, the young woman asking her lover, ``You will pick me up again tomorrow, won't you?''
Lee Jun-ki explained that the dialogue ``expresses the spirit that reigned amid the oppression and violence of the times.'' The star of the hit film ``King and the Clown'' (2005) added, ``It's tragic how people who used to see each other everyday were forced to separate.''
Director Kim said that the tunnel scene had also been his favorite part of the movie, until his daughter was born during the course of the filming.
``May 18'' also features the heart-wrenching bond between father and daughter, and Kim said the separation of the two characters was particularly touching for him.
``In previous interviews with the media, because the subject matter is so heavy, I stressed how the film is very heartwarming and even comical,'' said veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki (``Radio Star,'' 2006), who plays the role of Sin-ae's loving father and a former soldier that leads the armed citizens.
``But it was devastating and heartbreaking to watch (the film) today,'' he said.
Yet the makers of the film all stressed how ``May 18'' is sprinkled with humor. Particularly notable is the director's hilarious appearance in the film.
``To be frank, we were running short on the budget, so our staff members and even bus drivers and actors' managers had to play small parts, and Ahn Sung-ki directed the scene,'' the filmmaker explained with a chuckle.
``That's not true!'' Kim Sang-kyung jokingly protested, ``He coveted the role, and also was the one to make the most mistakes.''
During Chun's presidency, the incident was masked as a rebellion by Communist sympathizers. But after civil rule was reinstated, the incident received recognition as an effort to restore democracy against military rule. The government made formal apologies and erected a national cemetery for victims.
The film was screened in special premieres in Seoul, Busan and the fateful city of Gwangju Sunday. According to Yonhap News, some 3,000 Gwangju citizens -- including family members of victims -- saw the film, and most were unable to suppress tears and gave a long applause.
``It's a film that makes us look back to Gwangju,'' said Yun Seok-dong, 80, whose son Sang-won lost his life as a citizen soldier. Twenty-seven years since its occurrence, ``May 18'' revives on the screen the haunting events of Gwangju and celebrates the human spirit.