[Guest Film Review] "Silmido"
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
Silmido was the first Korean film to attract more than 10 million viewers in the country's cinemas. What is more impressive, though, is that it's amazing story is actually based on true events.
The Actual Case
On January 21, 1968, 13 North Korean spies broke through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and got within a few meters of the Presidential Residence. Their mission, according to a statement of one of the their members was to "Decapitate President Park Chung-hee". They were dressed as South Korean soldiers, but their Russian overcoats and the mismatched black sport shoes they wore, drew the attention of a police officer, eventually resulting in their arrest and subsequent execution. President Park was so infuriated that ordered the creation of a South Korean team of 31 members, with the purpose of assassinating North Korean President, Kim II-sung.
The men picked were extremely hard-boiled and they were even some death row inmates among them, according to testimonies from ex-guards of the camp they were situated. After their enlistment, their ID's were erased, leaving their families without a clue regarding their fates. On April, 1968, they were sent to the small, abandoned island, Silmido, west of Seoul, with the code name Unit 684.
One of their first acts on the island was to open a Chinese grave, to grind the bones and drink them with a little water. Their trainers told them that this would protect them from STDs and make them stronger. Next, they pinned the skull and the two thigh bones on a wooden board (as in the pirates' emblem) that signaled the entrance of the camp. Under the bones they wrote the words "Our Dogma".
They trained in parachuting, explosions and the use of various guns, learned how to kill with an axe and how to hit their enemies' eyes with a knife from a distance of 10m. They were taught to survive just by eating snakes and mice. Before each drill, they were forced to shout "If you get caught, blow-up yourself". The trainers-guards beat whomever fell behind on the drills. One of the trainees died during a test of holding breath in the water and another from falling from a cliff. The guards took a slow-moving trainee and almost drowned him in the sea, and later they buried him in the sand to the neck and left him there all night. Former trainer Lee Jun-young defends their tactics: "They were going to North Korea. We had to make them as tough as possible".
The training program was supposed to last for three months, but eventually lasted for three years, as the relationships between South and Northe Korea were improving. Ex trainer, Yang Dong-su remembers that "the men were desperate". On the morning of August 23, 1971, the trainees revolted. One of them went into the commander's office holding a basket of unwashed clothes, took a crowbar, and stabbed him on the forehead with it. The revolt quickly became a massacre, with 17 guards shot or drowned in their desperate effort to avoid death. Yang took a bullet to the neck, but survived along with five others.
The 24 trainees reached the mainland, hijacked a bus, and tried to reach the Presidential Residence. The bus driver stated that they were talking about exacting revenge from President Park, according to the media. The army and the police were mobilized and managed to stop the bus in Dongjak prefecture, where extensive shootings occurred among them. The invaders, being surrounded, without any chance of getting away, commited suicide with their grenades. Four of them survived, and were subsequently court-martialed and executed on March 10, 1972.
The government concealed all information regarding Unit 684 until the beginning of the 90's. The facts, however, became known only in 2003, with this particular film, but the government did not issue an official report regarding the incidents before 2006.
In 2009, the families of 21 members of the unit sued the government for ₩670 million. On May 19, 2010, the Seoul District Court issued a decree for the government to compensate the families for ₩273 million. The court decreed that "Silmido agents were not informed of the dangers their training carried, and that its cruelty violated their basic human rights". It also recognized the psychological pain the government caused to the families, by not revealing the agents' death until 2006.
Kang Woo-seok, the director, and Kim Hee-jae the scriptwriter, stay very close to the facts, adding, though, the mandatory brushes of fiction, in order to make the film more entertaining. The characters of the film are created according to this tactic. Kang In-chan is determined to erase the shame his father caused to his family by defecting to North Korea and gradually becomes the team's leader. His biggest rival is Han Seung-pil while Won-hee functions as the unit's "joker". Among the trainers, commander Choi Jae-hyun and sergeants Jo and Park are the ones that stand apart.
The first half of the film focuses on the training, while the second one on the events that occurred after their revolt.
Kang Woo-seok was in the lucky position to receive a story that was cinematic by design. He had, though, to create the characters, with Kim Hee-jae's help, but this was actually the sole difficulty of the venture, since the big budget ($8m) covered everything else. His basic purpose on this aspect was to show that even if sometimes they act well, the characters are actually evil. This is eloquently depicted in an episode where two of the trainees breakout of the camp and head to a nearby hospital, where they rape a nurse. Another point of interest is the analysis of the notions of victim and perpetrator, with the properties changing many times over the course of the film. However, the depth of a psychological thriller is not to be expected, since "Silmido" is actually an action movie, and even more a blockbuster. In that fashion, the biggest protagonist is the action, with most of the film's elements revolving around it. In this aspect, Kang Woo-seok, along cinematographer Kim Sung-Bok and editor Han Jae-min presents a wonderful outcome, keeping the interest from wavering, for most of its duration, with the sequences of the training, the revolt and the finale being utterly impressive. The visuals of the film accurately depict the harsh environment of the actual island and in order to achive that, the movie had scenes shot in Malta and New Zealand.
In terms of acting, "Silmido" does not stand out, since it focuses on action rather than characters. The army thematic, whose purpose is the assimilation of the individual in a group that chiefly follows orders, stresses this notion even more. In that fashion, it was difficult for an individual performance to stand out clearly. However, Sol Kyung-gu is at least functional as Kang In-chan and Lee Jung-hun accurately presents a character who lingers between good and evil, as hypocritical Sergeant Park.
"Silmido" is a highly entertaining blockbuster action film, which also stands apart due to the real story it is based on.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Available on DVD from Amazon
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.