Chung Ji-young’s NATIONAL SECURITY takes no time at all in getting straight to the heart of its tale—beatings, brainwashing, and, most of all, torture. Similar to his 2011 efforts in UNBOWED, Chung has once again chosen to dabble in creative nonfiction, taking creative shortcuts where and if he pleases. The result is a horrific account of one man’s captivity and torture during the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan in 1985. The film’s aloof message of nationalism and self-determination is in there somewhere, but for the most part the film is a 110-minute long and painful testament to human creativity in cruelty.
Kim Jong-tae (Park Won-sang) is an ex-advisor to the Democratic United Party, and is subjected to 22 days of cringing torture and psychological berating at the hands of the ‘undertaker’ (played by Lee Doo-han). Kim is quite obviously innocent, but under the thug-rule of the current government, he is pressed into writing a false testimony claiming his role in a communist conspiracy. Our protagonist is determined not to give in to their continuous harassment, enduring excessive water-torture, electrocution, and a few beatings in-between to keep him limber. Stripped naked, humiliated and constantly kept under ‘guard’, Kim is pushed beyond what any normal human beings would ever be asked to endure. His grit and courage is inspiring, a point that is quickly diluted when his torturers are as dull and incompetent as these were.
Korean cinema has a persistent knack for portraying police (or any real authority figure for that matter) as incompetent, goofy, and otherwise as a source of comedic-relief. Such stereotypes will be familiar to any K-cinema fan, but its inclusion in “National Security” is ill placed, and rather counter-productive. As a film that is, as noted after the end credits, “Dedicated to all the torture victims around the world”, its handling of its subject matter was highly questionable. The film opens and closes by linking events to real-world incidences during that time. Chung even throws in interviews with victims that play out during the end credits. Such ambitions and honours are perfectly acceptable, however I believe there is a level of commitment, or responsibility, that comes attached to such an approach; one that Chung fumbled and failed on miserably.
Viewers might find it difficult, as I did, for example, to watch a man being psychologically and physically broken down into his most basic components, only to have his assailants clap after, or make jokes, perhaps even goof around with each other. The Korean police stereotype may be used as flecks of humour in other films, but here their acts were outright ridiculous and inappropriate. Indeed, the film does confine much of its dealings to a small room, rather bland dialogue, and perhaps a chuckle or two was needed. But at the expense of a much needed sympathetic angle on these human travesties? Chung missed the chance here to really drive home a serious message with believable characters plotted against real-world events.
Instead, the film assumes that its messages were self-evident; giving the viewer only glimpses of subject matter that would otherwise bolster or index its aims. Kim’s family, for example, becomes one of main reasons he chooses to fight with his captives. It’s a fair enough thought with a universal hook. However, Chung only gives us one scene with his family, and all that his loving wife gets during it is a simple squeeze on the shoulder. No signs of cinematic love here, not even a second glance; but her dreamy words later down the line are suppose to bring this broken man up from his personal abyss? It’s all rather placid, with even the film’s dénouement skims over the film’s lofty efforts in heartbeat. Rather than spend the screen time on weaving such important human connections into his tale, Chung zooms-in, obsessively, on the torture of an innocent man and the buffoons who are set to guard him.
I enjoyed Chung’s pervious efforts in “Unbowed”, however his return to bending the bonds between reality and fiction in “National Security” was, well torturous. When Korean films showcase the darker side of human life I think the results are generally pleasing (such as can be found Korea’s psychological or ‘revenge’ thrillers). Here, however, the mash-up of serious human suffering and ill-placed humour destroyed whatever sense of seriousness there was to begin with. The result is a single-ply protagonist at the mercy of his equally thin captives. “National Security” tries to be claustrophobic, tense, and cathartic; instead Chung drags the viewer kicking and screaming through an exhausting portrayal of human suffering, in service of a blunted rubber blade.
Review by: Christopher J. Wheeler
Cast: Park Weon-sang, Lee Kyeong-yeong, Myung Gye-nam, Kim Eui-seong, Lee Cheon-hee, Seo Dong-soo, Kim Jung-gi , Moon Seong-kun , WOO Hee-jin
Director: Chung Ji-young