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By Heesun Wee When reports of food shortages, starvation, and even cannibalism began to leak out of communist North Korea in 1997, award-winning South Korean filmmaker Kang Je-Gyu committed to a movie that would explore the issues around the divided countries. The result: A political thriller, Shiri, that offers a rare, nuanced look at North-South Korean relations -- particularly the underworld of South Korean intelligence agents and North Korean commandos.
The film, released in Korea in 1999, finally opened in select U.S. cities in early February after finding a U.S. distributor in Samuel Goldwyn Films. The timing couldn't be better. In February, following his declaration a month earlier that North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, formed an axis of evil, President George Bush traveled to the demilitarized zone that still divides the peninsula and declared that the U.S. has no intention of attacking North Korea. Kang, speaking through an interpreter, says the film's U.S. release in early February was purely coincidental.
BEYOND IDEOLOGIES. Shiri, which Kang also wrote, takes its title from a freshwater fish that swims in both North and South Korean streams and can survive only in clear water. During spawning season, the fish travels upstream against strong currents, emblematic of the longing and struggle for reunification expressed by the movie's characters.
Kang isn't the first filmmaker to take a stab at relations between North and South Korea, which remain technically at war despite a 1953 cease-fire. But unlike past efforts, in which actors merely spouted stilted political ideologies, Kang's characters are multidimensional. They articulate their longing for the rejoining of the two nations, and some even express a hint of shame about the countries' current separation. This is a major breakthrough in a society that generally doesn't like to talk honestly and openly about such matters.
The movie's plot centers on a soccer match in Seoul between the two nations, which the Presidents of both countries will attend. As the game draws near, the South Korean intelligence agency learns that an elusive North Korean terrorist is in the South and has organized a group to steal an experimental explosive. Two South Korean agents (a nod to U.S. buddy-cop movies), are assigned to track down the North Korean commandos.
SEPARATION ANXIETY. In a particularly touching scene, Park, a North Korean commando (adroitly played by award-winning actor Choi Min-Sik) philosophizes about the contrast between starving North Korea and its capitalist Southern counterpart. "His speech touches a kind of collective guilt the Korean people have kept at bay," says Jinsoo An, a Seoul-based lecturer on Korean film.
And you don't have to be a South Korean agent or North Korean commando to get an idea of what that guilt might feel like. Indeed, as an American of Korean descent, when I visit Seoul's rich shopping districts and tony neighborhoods, which outdo Madison Avenue in designer handbags and luxury cars, I feel a bit uneasy. I've been to the demilitarized zone and looked past the armed guards to the barren North Korean hills, devoid of grass or trees because of successive droughts. Kang has managed to give voice to the discomfort that such disparity inspires.
The yearning for a unified Korea is indeed heavy subject matter. But the film never veers into pat, grandiose explorations of good vs. evil or individual freedom vs. duty to society. Instead, the themes are subtly developed in carefully calibrated performances infused with vulnerability. Even the commandos are believable when expressing dreams for lives that don't revolve around their sharpshooting skills. In preparing the script, Kang drew on interviews he conducted with North Korean agents who defected.
Since Shiri is an action flick, be prepared for plenty of violence -- some of it quite gory. But even during the worst of it, I was able to appreciate the elaborately choreographed, yet surprisingly raw, shoot-and-chase scenes. They were a refreshing contrast to the more stylized action of Hong Kong films.
COMING OF AGE. The director also manages to embed an accessible love story in Shiri. While Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu), one of the South Korean agents, is busy chasing the North Korean terrorists, he falls in love with a recovering alcoholic, played charmingly by former Korean soap star Kim Yun-Jin. Ryu struggles to accommodate his soon-to-be wife in his secret agent life.
Only a few decades have passed since South Korean filmmakers who broached the topic of reunification found themselves in jail, so Shiri marks both a coming-of-age for Korean cinema and proof that the South Korean government has loosened its grip on the movie industry. That doesn't mean, however, that authorities weren't keenly interested in Shiri. During shooting, Kang says he had an ongoing dialogue with government officials. The director, whose next project is about the Korean War, adds that he has heard North Korean officials weren't happy about his portrayal of renegade North Korean commandos breaking away from their government.
Shiri's slick production values also illustrate the maturing of Korean cinema. The movie is a well-executed action thriller, complete with sophisticated special effects and sharp cinematography. Its fully developed characters and complex theme are especially welcome at a time when many of the country's films focus on gratuitous sex and/or violence or awkwardly dramatize Korean fables. For American audiences to be able to enjoy the pleasure of Shiri is a rare treat. Wee is a New York-based reporter for BusinessWeek Online