May 18

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/13/08 00:24:47

"A passable story against fascinating history."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I don't know if mentioning the date of May 18th even without including a year has the same immediate, nearly-universal effect on South Koreans that bringing up September 11th has on Americans, but it must strike a chord in some - "May 18th" became one of the biggest home-grown hits of all time in Korea, even more than twenty-five years after the 1980 anti-government demonstrations and subsequent massacre in Gwangju.

Though the movie starts on an ominous note - soldiers on a plane, initially believing that they are finally going to invade North Korea, until one points out that that the sun on that side of the plane means they must be heading south - things initially seem relatively calm in Gwang-ju. The people we're introduced to don't seem to be giving too much thought to much outside their own personal lives: Cabbie Kang Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyung) is dropping off an obnoxious fare before giving college student Jin-woo (Lee Jun-ki) and his friend Shin-ae (Lee Yo-won) a lift to choir practice. It's not just because Jin-woo is his younger brother; he's also smitten with Shin-ae, though unaware she's the daughter of his boss, Park Heung-su (Ahn Sung-kee). He does finally get the nerve up to ask Shin-ae out, albeit with Jin-woo tagging along, so the lot of them are at a downtown movie theater when the army comes down hard on a group of protesting students.

That the government cracks down on the students and a number of people in the area who had nothing to do with the demonstration is despicable enough. What makes Gwangju something of an unusual and bloody case is that that South Korea has compulsory military service, and you don't forget how to handle a gun just because your service time is up. Min-woo has served his hitch, for example, and Heung-su is a decorated veteran officer who served in Vietnam. If some weapons were to fall into civilian hands, you have the beginnings of a militia, and once they fire back, the military dictatorship has little choice but to escalate.

This is not to suggest that the military dictatorship in power was in the right. It does suggest that at some point, tragedy was inevitable, and the specific circumstances of this time and place conspired to make things far worse. Exactly how bad isn't exactly known; the government destroyed records and denied any wrongdoing for years, claiming they were putting down a Communist uprising until democracy was restored (the official count is 200 dead, but some estimates put the number at ten times that). May 18th does a nice enough job of portraying how these dominoes wind up falling, with Heung-su probably knowing well enough how it will end from the beginning, such that it weighs on him throughout.

The film's original audience knows how it will end, in the grand scale, so the filmmakers use mostly fictional characters and pump up the melodrama and play a fair amount of the second half as action/adventure. At some points, it's kind of tacky: The first half of the movie perhaps plays up the lightweight romantic comedy elements too much; most people going to the movie aren't getting ambushed, and it's often too cutesy to really establish things as being normal before things fall apart. For the most part, once the shooting starts, the pauses for wailing over good people dying for no reason doesn't usually cross the line into mawkish, although it's a thin line that people set in different places.

The action is well-done, as well, generally more horrifying than fun, although it does create a thrill of danger as it's going on. It's well-staged, with a number of impressive set pieces. Director Kim Ji-hoon does a good job of presenting the situation as a siege, drawing the situation out even while not making it look like the rebels are beating the military back.

The high gloss on the action scenes also applies to the cast, most of whom have been in a notable movie or two. Kim Sang-kyung was the younger detective in Memories of Murder, and as much as the movie calls on Min-woo to act kind of silly early on and overwrought toward the end, he makes a good reluctant soldier in between. Lee Jun-ki was tremendously impressive in King and the Clown, but doesn't have quite as complex a character here, but he plays it well. Lee Yo-won does nice as the ingenue who is able to be brave if not exactly tough, and Ahn Sung-kee is quietly authoritative as Heung-su.

Of course, it's possible that if I knew more about this event or had some personal connection to it, I might view this movie differently, as a watershed moment transformed into entertainment. Even without that, I could see where it sometimes plays its hand none-too-subtly, though I did find the history as engrossing as the story.

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