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"May 18" Vividly Paints History

2007/07/26 | Permalink | Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

"May 18" demonstrates the power of cinema as it halts the inevitable passage of time with its clutch on the immortal spirit of its characters. Depicting the harrowing events of the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement, the film paints a colorful portrait of life during the fateful period and painfully evokes a fading scar in modern history. It pays homage to the unnamed men, women and children whose lives were forever altered by the turmoil.

MAY 17: Military top dog Chun Doo-hwan (who would shortly become president, 1980-88), enforces martial law.

MAY 18: Military troops suppress pro-democracy student uprisings, including that of Chonnam (Jeonnam) National University in Gwangju.

Orphaned taxi driver Min-wu (Kim Sang-kyung) had lived each day humbly and conscientiously, so that his studious younger brother Jin-wu (Lee Joon-gi) can enter college, while providing free rides for the lovely nurse Shin Ae (Lee Yo-won).

When mayhem breaks loose, Min-wu vengefully picks up a gun after losing Jin-wu while Sinae risks her life to treat the injured.

Headed by Sinae's father Heung-su (Ahn Sung-ki), a former military man, the local citizens form armed civil militias. The "Citizen Army" maintains control over the city.

But portrayed by the media as terrible Communist sympathizers, they soon realize the futility of their resistance. As the final showdown with government troops nears, young fathers, middle-aged teachers and even the elderly town priest unite to fight to the end, and to their death.

MAY 27: Some 200,000 airborne and ground troops defeat the militia in less than 90 minutes, under an ironic code name roughly translated as "Lavish Holiday", the Korean title of the film. As of 2003, records tally 207 dead, 2,392 wounded and 987 "miscellaneous victims", but exact figures remain undisclosed to this day.

Director Kim Ji-hoon ("Mokpo, Gangster's Paradise", 2004) offers an uncolored view of the 10-day tragedy. Only deep sympathy for victims resonates.

The film does not translate political messages, but shows that peaceful democracy has a price and speaks of the universal values of love and camaraderie: How, in the face of a force that threatens their loved ones, ordinary men and women fearlessly transform into epic heroes.

Soldiers and civilians, though bound by common patriotic values, are forced to stand on opposing sides. A chilling massacre unfolds while the national anthem blazes in the background. The soldiers are evil machines of a militant power, but not inherently diabolic: Dispatched just after hell camp, the hot-blooded men are hostile and irrational.

Devoid of illusive cinematographic effects or complicated narrative ploys, "May 18" is pure drama captured from a naked camera lens. Its core strengths derive from amiable characters, inspired by real-life victims and played by veteran actors, and cleverly crisscrossed relationships.

The film is melodramatic, but the fruits of its sappiness are ripe, not bursting. Sprinkles of good old humor keep it buoyant amid the heavy drama (otherwise it could have drowned). Particularly, two "Dumb and Dumber" buddies (Park Chul-min and Park Won-sang) provide classic comic relief.

Other moments of joy, though extremely romanticized, bring smiles. Yet, the glimmering sketches of optimism intensify the heartbreak, for viewers are fully aware of the tragic finale.

"May 18" is a breath of fresh air for dusty historical accounts and a soothing relief for the staggering domestic film industry. Having opened across some 520 screens across the country Wednesday, the historical drama is drawing crowds -- and tears -- by the lot.

The film will pull at your heartstring and shake up even those with the most unaffected sentimental chords. Don't forget your handkerchief.

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