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'Barber' Gives Nation's History a Slight Trim

2004/05/06 Source

By Joon Soh
Staff Reporter

From remembering gruesome serial murder cases and Cold-War suicide commandoes, based-on-a-true-story films have become quite the flavor in the past year and, given this year's lineup, will probably remain so for a while. So it is a little surprising that the new film "Hyoja-dong Ibalsa (The President's Barber)," in which President Park Chung-hee and his staff members play significant roles, starts off with a disclaimer stating that all the characters and the events in its film are wholly and entirely fictional.

What the film does, in fact, is take a series of defining moments in modern Korean history and filter them through the point-of-view of the so-called "common man." The result is a blurring of fact and fiction that is at its best a poignant social commentary of the 1960s and '70s and at its worst a gross over-simplification of a complex reality.

The "common man" here is played by veteran actor Song Gang-ho, who puts on a predictably impeccable performance as Han-mo, a barber living in Hyoja-dong within walking distance of Chong Wa Dae, the residence of the nation's president.

There's something Forrest Gump-ish about Han-mo as he lives through one of the most volatile periods in South Korea's history, including the controversial election and resignation of Korea's first president Rhee Syng-man, and later the 18-year-rule of Park Chung-hee's authoritarian regime. (The film, incidentally, never refers to the presidents by their names, but it's quite clear who they're meant to be.)

But these developments all go over the head of our simple barber, whose life revolves around his shop, his new wife Min-ja (Moon So-ri) and son Nak-an (Lee Jae-eung). Even after he becomes the barber for President Park (Cho Yong-jin), a job that fills him with pride but also gives him too close a view of Chongwadae's internal battles, Han-mo never sheds his naive image of being an unwitting pawn to a larger game.

"President's Barber" takes full liberty with historical accounts for dramatic and comic effect _ such as adding the element of diarrhea to one of the more sensitive moments in the 1960s _ and as a historical lesson, the film leaves much to be desired. But as the disclaimer makes plain, "President's Barber" is all fiction and, taken as such, is a fairly entertaining look at how the personal can be connected to the political.

`President Barber' With English Subtitles
The new local film "Hyoja-dong Ibalsa (The President's Barber)," which opened Wednesday, is currently screening with English subtitles at a theater in Seoul.

The film stars Song Gang-ho as an affable but slightly na´ve barber who becomes the barber for the nation's president during the 1960s and 1970s. Actress Moon So-ri plays the barber's wife.

"President's Barber" will screen with English subtitles at Cine Core theater in downtown Seoul at 1:40 p.m. daily. The subtitled screenings are confirmed through May 11, but it is likely to continue through the film's run, according to Seoul Selection, the company behind the screenings.

Cine Core is located near Chonggak Station on subway line 1. For details about the screening and a map to the theater, call (02) 734-9539 or go to

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