Why exactly do Christians willingly put themselves at risk in such a way that they become martyrs? Well, because God told them to. That's probably not a very satisfying answer, and unfortunately "The Martyrdom" never really rises above it. The documentary is more an affirmation of faith than it is a real argument for it- a fact that makes sense when we consider that the persons profiled here aren't glorified mainly because they died in the line of duty more than for what their duty actually was.
This makes sense if we consider faith to be a basically fungible enterprise. Kim Yeong-hak's career wasn't exactly all that consistent. He may have been Christian through and through, but as a man who came to his own during the course of the Japanese Occupation, it comes as little surprise to find that he participated in Korean Independence movements. From the very beginning Christianity has been about opposition to unjust authority.
But this still doesn't really answer the question of why. I don't mean "why did Kim Yeong-hak become a martyr"- that answer is simple. Just a matter of faith. But why did the authorities feel the need to fight him? First in Korea, then in Russia, the greatest crime Kim Yeong-hak ever did was give people hope. This being the wrong kind of hope was, I guess, a pretty serious crime in an aggressive atmosphere.
This general sense of feeling is also well-replicated in the more modern day story of Bae Hyeong-gyu. His enemy wasn't the Japanese or the Soviets, but the Taliban. And in this sense his decision to lead a mission in Afghanistan seems especially stupid. Of all the places on Earth to go, wouldn't this be the one place most likely to provoke a hostile reaction from the natives?
Ah, yet that is the thought process of a nonbeliever. Think about it. Kim Yeong-hak never asked himself questions like "will I die doing this", because as a man of God, Kim Yeong-hak's moral imperative was to minister to anyone who needs it, wherever they might be. Bae Hyeong-gyu was cut from the same sort of ethical cloth. In practical terms opposing the Japanese Empire, the Bolsheviks, or the Taliban are functionally the exact same thing. You're hoping they won't catch you and murder you, but if they do well, then it was God's will. And given that the alternative to life by God's will is just not trying, well...
The ideas presented in "The Martyrdom" are interesting. At the same time even more than the typical religious film I really didn't think these ideas were intended for me, as someone who approaches life through reason rather than faith. They're certainly not intended for a general film audience, who might balk at director Kim Sang-cheol's dry representation, and the performances of non-professional actors which are more about conveying the facts of the situation rather than the emotions. For a person of faith it's easy to fill in the blanks on questions like motivation and relevance. For everyone else "The Martyrdom" is little more than a curiousity.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Martyrdom""
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