Now, Korea's film industry has been pumping out about a film a year of important moments in Korea's history: now that the industry has the skill and money to tell stories a little better than they could in the '90s, and the freedom to do so that they didn't have during the dictatorial censorship of the '80s, it's time for some historical filmmaking! The movies made in the name of this sort of historical record keeping have been uneven, at best, and whether they are even mildly accurate to the actual events is not mine to discuss.
A quick rundown of a few:
Shilmido was quite good -- it was about a bunch of Korean men who were recruited by the South Korean military, pulled out of headed-nowhere lives to be trained into a bloodthirsty assassination squad with a mission to raid (I can't remember if it was Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung) the North Korean president's house and cut his throat -- in response to an attack on South Korea's president by North Korean assassins that led to a three day shootout between North Korean commandoes and the South's national guard, around the blue house.
Taegukki was the Korean equivalent of Top Gun, to me:insofar as it was the worst good movie Korea's ever made, or the best bad movie. I saw it with my dad when he came here in 2006, and it's about two brothers who end up getting ensnared in the Korean war, and the whole "brother against brother" thing gets examined, poked, exploited, and then beaten into the ground in slow-motion as machine guns fire in the background, the world grows silent, and a character shoutes, "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" and holds its head in his lap while it breathes its last. Frankly, I thought it was awful, manipulative and gory and about an hour too long (and that last hour took the melodrama over the top, into "so bad it's good" territory, and then BACK into "so bad it's bad again" territory.)
There was a movie about the May 18th Gwangju Massagre of 1979 (maybe 1978; too lazy to fact check) that featured a line up of more top Korean stars than you could shake a stick at, and a lot of violins and slow-motion in the preview, that got tapioca reviews (at best), and that I decided not to see until somebody I knew said something good about it, and encouraged me to see it. Let's leave it at, I still haven't seen it: the most enthusiastic review I've heard so far prompted me to teach my class the phrase "damn with faint praise".
Movies to come: it should be noted that a number of these historical figures have been given the historical drama (TV Series category) treatment, but have not yet (to my limited knowledge) been given the full historical (film category) treatment. On second thought, in some cases, it might be better that way. Who'd want to see Yu Gwan-sun get the "Pearl Harbor" treatment...but then, if she got the "The Pianist" treatment instead, it might fly.
An epic about Yi Sunshin's naval battles with the Japanese.
A biopic of Yu Gwan-sun (a student, and independence martyr tortured to death for protesting Japan's colonization of Korea)
Something about the 1987 Democratization movement
Was the assassination of Park Chung-hee covered in that barber movie? I haven't seen it.
A biopic of Kim Gu
Possibly an epic about Goguryeo's King Gwang-Gye-to, Korea's greatest expansionist king, who conquered Manchuria and large portions of China's eastern coast, and who, like T.S. Eliot, who appears in both English AND American poetry anthologies, is claimed by both Korea and China as one of their own, but he's had a TV series made about him already.
Hopefully, a story about King Sejong, the greatest Korean, and one of the greatest leaders in history . . . though his life doesn't make as good copy as the others, because he was a scholar and a scientist, rather than an asskicker. The story of how he came to the throne is pretty cool, though.