Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - Page 12 News List

South Korea’s new film heroes

South Korean cinema is increasingly depicting North Korean agents as conflicted action heroes whose personal struggles embody a divided Korean peninsula

By Jung Ha-Won  /  SEOUL, AFP

Director Jang said that top young actors are now vying for North Korean spy roles, as opposed to fearing the impact such parts might have on their image.

Since 2010, five high-profile spy films have been released and three more are in production, including Red Family by acclaimed director Kim Ki-duk, whose anti-capitalist tale Pieta won the best movie at the Venice Film Festival last year.

The popularity of such spy films marks a sea change from the past, when casting North Korean characters in any positive light was a grave offence against state censors and the notorious National Security Law.

Late legendary director Lee Man-hee was arrested and charged in 1965 with portraying North Korean soldiers as “humane and merciful human beings” in an anti-communist film he was making.

Even casting good-looking actors as North Korean characters was frowned upon by Seoul’s infamous intelligence agency, which often warned producers against “giving wrong impressions about communists” to youngsters.

Now the tide has turned.

The protagonist of Secretly, Greatly was played by one of Seoul’s most popular TV heartthrobs, Kim Soo-hyun, with the screams of fans rocking cinemas during initial screenings when the actor emerged on screen.

“He looked so gorgeous in the North Korean military suit ... the hottest North Korean spy ever!” one fan gushed on an Internet chat room overflowing with praise for the protagonist.

But film critic Kim cautioned that the recent batch of spy movies tend to “overly humanize” communist spies who in reality still make headlines in Seoul as menacing force.

“Most of the recent spy films are skewed too much to the opposite end of the anti-communist films we saw back in the 1970s,” Kim said, calling the trend as part of efforts to “balance things out from the past.”

Jang dismissed the criticism, saying today’s young audiences are too smart to confuse movie characters with real-world spies.

Jang Ce-yul, the North’s ex-senior military officer who defected to Seoul in 2008, called such films “a fantasy” for showing spies who hesitate to kill.

“Secret agents are thoroughly trained and waste no time killing those who notice their identity, whether you are a little girl or a nice old lady,” Jang, the head of the group of ex-North Korean soldiers in Seoul, told AFP.

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