With the hint of warm summer breeze lazily creeping up on people, a retro wind blew over to the local theaters. The genres of films that go back to the past also vary to the opposite ends of the spectrum. Some find comfort in the warmth of a slow-paced love story that became such a rarity nowadays, or some press for a proper confrontation to face the tragedy of the contemporary history that the society still haven’t got around to get a closure.
The current No. 1 in the local box office on May 12 in which I’m writing this review is the romantic film “Waiting For Rain.” Since its release on April 28, it drew approximately 310,000 audiences to the cinemas in the last two weeks. Such record may have been nothing in the precoronavirus pandemic, but considering that the only feature film to surpass one million ticket sales this year is “Minari,” in which actor Youn Yuh-jung received an Oscar trophy as the best supporting actress, it is a notable figure.
“Waiting for Rain” centers around Young-ho, a student preparing to take his third College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) in 2003, one day finding the courage to send a letter to his childhood crush So-yeon in Busan. They become pen pals under one condition fronted by So-yeon: that he doesn’t ask her to meet. As they continue to communicate through letters, Young-ho wants to meet her, and proposes to meet if it rains on the last day of the year, December 31. Holding onto that slimmest possibility of hope, they continue to swap letters for nine years until 2011. Cell phones have already become the norm, but they stubbornly cling to handwritten letters. Unbeknownst to Young-ho, So-yeon’s letters are actually written by her younger sister So-hee (played by Chun Woo-hee). Although So-hee knows that Young-ho would be awaiting by the bench of the elementary school that he and her sister went together every end of the year, she cannot go out and reveal her sister’s secret. Their lives, and their youth are displayed across the screen in parallel for the audience to see but they cannot see each other. The two actors Kang Ha-neul and Chun Woo-hee have said that they actually barely saw each other on the set.
Secrets that prevent one from completely exposing oneself and the misunderstandings that arise within. Waiting. These are strange concepts in a world where we can see every little thing that’s going on in the opposite side of the world 24/7. We now live in a world where we pretend to know everything about one another merely through reading some scattered posts here and there on social media. Young-ho is fed up with his repetitive life of studying for three years while enduring his know-it-all older brother. And So-hee, whose life consisted of only helping out her mother in the bookstore and taking care of her sister in the hospital, may have needed someone who lend an ear to their predictable, boring stories. Or they may have just needed the time to pour their heart out in those handwritten letters. And that’s what the audiences living this contemporary society may have needed, which is how the film had kept its place as No. 1 in local box office ever since its release.
The two films re-illuminating the Gwangju Democratization Movement in May 18, 1980 — director Im Heung-soon’s “Good Light, Good Air” and “In the Name of the Sun” co-produced and starred by actor Ahn Sung-ki — portrays the past in a different attitude than “Waiting For Rain.”
The contemporary society is still scarred by the Gwangju Uprising, where Gwangju residents stood up against the martial law government which ended in bloodshed. That part of history, which commemorated its 40th anniversary last year, has been spotlighted in a variety of ways but this year was especially meaningful, because this spring, there was a soldier who confessed to firing civilians during the crackdown and publicly apologized to the family of the deceased. Although there have been those who testified about the repression, it was the first time a soldier confessed for the sake of his conscience to have shot a civilian and hurt them. The scene ends in tears as the soldier, after effusing 40 years of guilt, hugs the family members. Such scene might be the key to bring us a step closer to the historical truth that we still have failed to resolve. “Good Light, Good Air,” which was released on April 28, is about two different, yet familiar cities—Gwangju, which means good light, and Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, which means good air. The film covers the two cities’ painful histories and also voices support into the current democratization movement happening in Myanmar.
In Gwangju, the year was 1980, and in Buenos Aires, it was between 1976 were killed or disappeared due to respective military dictatorships. His 2014 film “Factory Complex” which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for the first time in Korea, covers the unjust oppression that marginalized female laborers had to endure in the Guro industrial complex in the 1960s to how Cambodian laborers who work for Korean companies suffer bloody suppression from the army during their protest.
Im, who is also an artist, visits Buenos Aires in 2017 invited by the National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) and finds out that over 30,000 innocent lives were sacrificed in forms of kidnapping, rape and murder in this far-away land due to its military regime. He believes that the pattern of history repeats itself can only be broken when the next generation knows about the history.
Back during the military regime, the secret detention camps infiltrated residential areas and existed in forms such as police precincts and regular houses. In 1978 when Argentina hosted the World Cup, the camps’ locations were sometimes revealed due to the shouts that came within the camps during soccer broadcasts. When you look at the records—the photos, survivors’ testimonies and the excavation of the remains of the camps—sometimes you wouldn’t be able to tell which is Gwangju and which is Buenos Aires. But the most crucial difference, according to Im, is that Argentina doesn’t allow even a handful of dirt taken away from illegal camps and makes effort to preserve the site as it is, while in Korea, the restoration was conducted while damaging the original site. It’s vital that we continue to excavate the meaning behind the past through preservation, and those evidence of struggles are the proof of the national violence that once took place and paves the way for the people to step closer to the truth.
Director Lee Jung-gook’s “In the Name of the Son” which was released on May 12, more directly demands apologies from the perpetrators of the May 18 Democratic Movement. It emphasizes the importance of the soldier’s moral confession, and that the victims’ pains cannot be truly healed without the perpetrators’ proper repentance. The protagonist Oh Chae-geun (played by Ahn) is a designated driver who lives in Seoul, alone, without a family. He is a regular at a restaurant whose owners are from Gwangju, and he has a secret regarding Gwangju 1980 and his son. He slowly but surely, clamps his hands down on throats of the perpetrators who lead their lives free of guilt or remorse.
“I want to ask those people, how they can sleep so soundly during nights…” Oh asked. The real tragedy behind his question is that Gwangju 1980 is still a tragedy yet to be investigated in here and now of 2021, and his question is still yet to be answered even today as the film is screened in theaters.
Na Wonjeong(Film journalist from JoongAng Ilbo) / Translated by Lee Jaelim