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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — After being turned down by many investors over the last four years, South Korean film producer Choi Yong-bae said it feels strange and exciting that his revenge film about a notorious South Korean president blamed for the massacre of democracy protesters is finally coming to life through online donations.
Finding film investors is a tough shot even for a seasoned producer such as Choi, the chief executive of Chungeorahm Film, who made his name in South Korea's film industry with several box office hits.
But Choi argued that it was for more than business reasons that corporate investors shunned the movie "26 Years."
"Some said their companies can't invest in such a politically sensitive movie ahead of the presidential election this year. Others initially said yes but then changed their mind without giving any reasons," he said.
Taking inspiration from a popular online cartoon released in 2006, the action thriller blends fiction and recent South Korean history as its protagonists try to assassinate former strongman Chun Doo-hwan who took power through a coup against a rival military faction in 1979. The movie is set 26 years after soldiers used deadly force to crush an uprising in Gwangju city against Chun's authoritarian rule in May 1980.
Since then, the country has been remade as a thriving and prosperous democracy but not far beneath the surface of South Korea's success story is a tale of justice not fully served. Many of those viewed as responsible for the massacre are still alive today and occupy privileged positions in South Korean society.
After buying the film rights in 2006, Choi said he made unsuccessful investment pitches to the top four entertainment companies in South Korea, which together account for more than 90 percent of the country's film investment and distribution. Investment funds and venture capitalists also refused to back him. It was earlier this year that Choi's production company set up a crowdfunding website for "26 Years."
"I was certain that people who read the original cartoon and people who were aware of the history wanted to see this movie," Choi told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "So I wanted to actually confirm that and resume the movie making through their support."
In less than three months, more than 12,000 people gave nearly 450 million won ($404,000) in exchange for movie tickets and small gifts, helping the film finally get off the ground. The donations continue to grow by word of mouth and social media.
Even though donations are only a small portion of the 4.6 billion won ($4.1 million) budget for the movie, the crowdfunding project created enough buzz to lure some deep-pocketed individuals and nearly 90 percent of the entire budget has been secured. The movie is set to be released at the end of November, just a few weeks before South Korea's presidential election.
The amount raised through the online donations is comparable with other movies financed by other crowdfunding websites. Kickstarter, a popular website where people ask for many to finance creative projects in areas from technology to theatre, lists an animated film by Charlie Kaufmann as the most-funded movie, raising $406,237 from 5,770 backers.
Choi's "26 Years" is not the first movie about the bloody pro-democracy movement in Gwangju, in which more than 150 were killed, according to the May 18 Memorial Foundation; the date in the name marks the start of the uprising. CJ Entertainment, which provided nearly one third of the money invested in South Korean commercial films in 2011, was a key investor for a hit 2007 movie about the Gwangju movement.
The earlier movies have focused on the suffering of the families of victims while the main theme in "26 Years" is retaliation against those responsible for the Gwangju massacre.
"One of the biggest reasons that it isn't easy to find an investor is that the movie is about punishment," said Kim Nak-ho, a Korean comics researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "While other Gwangju-related movies focused on victims' suffering, this thriller shows people who retaliate against Chun and his collaborators."
In real life, Chun was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court for mutiny, treason charges over the coup and the Gwangju crackdown. After receiving a presidential pardon in 1997, the 81-year-old lives in a heavily guarded house in northwestern Seoul.
Chun's refusal to return hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly collected from slush funds and news reports about his extravagant golf trips stir anger among many South Koreans. Whether taxpayer money should be used to protect Chun's residence is a subject of heated debate and also a reminder that South Koreans have not fully come to terms with Gwangju.
Choi said the original cartoon struck a chord with those South Koreans who believe that Chun showed no sign of repentance.
"The cartoon criticizes the current society. Because South Korea did not fully punish those responsible for the massacre, victims have no choice but to take revenge into their hands," Choi said.
Some "26 Years" donors said they felt indebted to Gwangju citizens who risked their lives for democracy.
"Gwangju citizens made the biggest contributions but they have not won recognition," said South Korean Song In-keun who lives in Cambridge, Mass. "I made a donation believing that it was a way of paying back my debt to Gwangju."
Follow Youkyung Lee on Twitter at http://twitter.com/YKLeeAP