From Seoul With Love

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Depicting that simple-sounding conflict may stand as Swiri's greatest innovation. For years Korean movies have been subject to the same stringent thought control as other media: North Korean agents are portrayed as fanatical buffoons, goofy in their thick, dimwitted accents and murderous in their actions. Yet both Kim and Choi hold their own with the dashing Han--the former as a convincing lover whose loyalties are never entirely resolved, the latter as a thoughtful communist patriot. I have seen parents eating the flesh of their dead children, he says when confronted by Han at the soccer stadium. How can you, who grew up eating Coke and hamburgers, understand that? Previously censors would never have allowed such words on-screen, let alone Han's response--a stunned, penitent silence.

Certainly no one, least of all Kang, would hold up the movie as a harbinger of reunification. The message is that no matter how much people talk about love, understanding and reconciliation being the answer to North-South relations, says the director, the hard political and military realities of the division limit how much all that talk can achieve. But as Seoul film professor Gina Yu points out, the last director to attempt a sympathetic portrait of North Koreans, Lee Man Hee, was jailed in 1967. That Kang's vision has instead been embraced marks a newfound confidence among South Koreans--not to mention the NIS.

The shift could have far-reaching implications. The success of Swiri has revived spirits in the South's battered commercial film industry. Even though theaters are required by law to show domestic products at least 106 days a year, those films accounted for only 25% of ticket sales last year; studios hit by the country's financial crisis produced a mere 43 new movies--the lowest number in decades. The U.S. has pushed hard for Seoul to abolish the quota system, and some have argued that Swiri has proven that Korean product can compete at the same level as Hollywood blockbusters. Yet many of the film's boosters claim its success makes a case for continued support for the industry. When the quota system disappears, every movie distributor will give up on Korean movies, warns Kang. In many ways the argument is typical of Swiri itself: the only black-and-white is in the bottom line.

Reported by Stella Kim/Seoul