The Korean movie industry has grown so phenomenally in recent years that a single film can create economic effects worth 340 billion won. A multi-billion-won blockbuster, complete with ruthless bloodbaths and sad episodes about outcasts, is now drawing a record number of spectators nearing eight digits to rewrite the nation's film history.
The popular estimate goes that almost one out of every two potential moviegoers in the country has seen the running box-office hit "Silmido
", which will soon top the 10 million audience mark. This is indeed a momentous event given that the near anemic industry was jubilant over the "historic" feat of attracting one million viewers by "Seopyeonje
", a tragic anecdote about roaming folk singers, back in 1993.
But figures cannot tell every poignant tale about a movie that leaves few eyes dry. For those of the older generation, it will bring back terrifying memories of that "mutiny in broad daylight" one summer day in 1971. Younger viewers will be given a glimpse into the darker side of those by-gone days of legendary economic growth, which they tend to look back on with an unreal sense of nostalgia.
For anyone who can pull the mysterious event out of their rusted closet of memories, those two hours or so in the dark can be a painful session in recollecting the brutal days of quasi-military rule under the ex-generals who grabbed power in a coup. They could even lead to a mortifying sense of guilt for those who feel they went through the years of merciless abuse of human rights without much suffering.
As many critics have already said, "Silmido
" is not a factual documentary but a well-made entertainment film. One cannot deny, however, that it has an overwhelming political and social impact. It is because, in spite of the rich dramatic embellishment that may misguide viewers, the movie has revealed disconcerting secrets that had been hidden over the decades, despite our progress in political democratization.
More than a few politicians will be able to recount several versions of the hurriedly closed case according to their position at the time. And those who took part in, or witnessed, this inhumane tragedy from the Cold War era, whether as policy planners, trainers, investigators, or even judges sending several survivors to death row, should all certainly have stories to tell.
Undoubtedly, many journalists, especially those who are old enough to remember the bloody incident, must feel uneasy or ashamed, watching the movie. Toward the end, it flicks to all the big-name newspapers reporting the riot by "armed communist guerillas" or "runaway inmates" or "special convicts" on their front pages, a pungent accusation against the ill-informed media.
The Korea Herald also ran the story as the front page lead on Aug. 24, 1971. Under the headline, "23 special prisoners stage mutiny in camp off Inchon", it said the "prisoners under the special custody of the Air Force on Silmi Island off Inchon ran wild, commandeering a bus, shooting to death police officers who tried to check them; they were killed or wounded in an exchange of fire and a bomb blast in their bus".
Our editorial on the following day called for a convincing explanation about the mutiny that had sent a wave of terror throughout the country. Asking how they were allowed to carry out this atrocious rampage, it asserted that "the way the mutineers behaved in these circumstances raises a possibility of involvement by communist agents". It lamented "a lack of accuracy and promptness in military information over such an outbreak".
No wonder. Information was strictly controlled by the government. In the newly emerging mood of harmony with North Korea, the Park Chung-hee regime wanted to keep it secret that it had organized a special unit of commandos and trained them as skillful killing machines to slit the throat of Kim Il-sung. It was a retaliatory move after the North's failed assassination attempt on Park in January 1968, which drove the entire country into a panic.
Much of the media coverage in the following days was at best half-truths. In spite of the hushed rumors and speculation, the media failed to investigate what made the "mutineers" kill their trainers and head for Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, not the North Korean leader's palace in Pyongyang. Crucial questions regarding the real story remained buried underneath the professional conscience of many journalists.
It may be a blessing in disguise that the movie, in its quest for entertainment, overly dramatized the plot and left many important questions unanswered. It remains an assignment for journalists and scholars to bring to light the true stories of the ill-fated young men¬ ¬ victimized by the Cold War politics that forced the nation to live with one eye closed.
" deserves accolades for energizing the Korean movie history and for opening both eyes of the nation.