"The Road Taken" (2003)
Two new films opening this Friday deal with the anguish of the Cold War from the perspective of two countries that experienced it most tragically through division: "Good Bye, Lenin!" from Germany and "The Road Taken" from Korea.
Both films look back at troubled national histories and try to sort out the values and emotions gone awry in the whirl of ideological confrontation through the wisdom of time. Indeed, time is a dominant theme in both films, marking both past sorrows and hopes for a better future.
"Good Bye, Lenin!" humorously highlights the changes that have shaken Germany since unification in 1989. Loving teacher and devoted Communist Party member Christiane (Katrin Sass) suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma after witnessing her son Alexander protesting against the East German regime and getting beaten up by the police.
When she regains consciousness eight months later, unknown to her, the Berlin Wall has fallen and the country she cares so much about no longer exists. The doctor warns Alexander that any kind of surprise will harm his mother's health, so he embarks on a project to recreate her own little East Germany in the small room where she is confined.
Alexander is forced to adopt increasingly complicated methods to keep up the deception. The charade reaches its delicious climax when he tapes a fictitious news segment for his mother about West German refugees joyously pouring east to escape the evils of capitalism and enjoy social justice, complete with footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Eventually, the film paints a picture of an idealized version of East Germany that was Christiane's dream. Despite the ironic comedy, "Good Bye, Lenin!" is ultimately a moving tribute to one woman's dream of a socialist Germany, a dream that never came to be.
"The Road Taken" is also about the passage of time in a small room, although this tale spans over 45 years and the small room is an actual prison cell. Based on a true story, the film intently gazes at the ordeals of the world's longest-serving political prisoner Kim Sun-myung (Kim Jung-ki), who was behind bars from 1951 to 1995 for trying to keep his freedom of conscience.
Kim and other likeminded inmates maintain their own little North Korea in the prison cell, calling each other "comrade" and communicating their emotions by tapping Morse code on the walls. Their lives are not much different from the lives of other convicts until Park Chung-hee decides to compel them to write letters renouncing communism. A new warden (Ahn Suk-hwan
) arrives to accomplish the mission through a combination of cajoling and torture.
Regrettably, compared to the savvy German film that scans bygone passions and errors through multiple angles, the Korean film strikes the viewer as a bit amateurish. While better films like "Peppermint Candy
" examined the difficult past through a more agonized and hesitant lens, the "The Road Taken" is often clownishly basic like student activist drama.
The last scene of the film, with footage of the real Kim's release from prison and his reunion with his 94-year-old mother, is enough to bring tears almost immediately. "You never listen to adults", she tells her errant son. It reminds the viewer what a complicated and powerful tale lies behind the film, and how simplistically and powerlessly the film narrated this tale.
Now, 14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and eight years after Kim's release, the Cold War is mostly over. Attempts to deal with its legacy on film, however, will likely go on for a long time - especially in Germany and Korea where it still flickers in our theaters and in our consciousness.
By Kim Jin