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Silmido Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2004

Silmido poster

In 1968, a group of 31 North Korean commandos crossed the border into South Korea to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, but were stopped before they could carry out their mission. This incursion prompted the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to return the favor by recruiting 31 South Korean men (mostly civilians with criminal records) to sneak into North Korea and assassinate 'Great Leader' Kim Il-sung. Under the supervision of the air force, the 31 recruits endured two years of intense training on the island of Silmido and came to be known as 'Unit 684', named after the date the team was founded, April 1968. But as North-South relations thawed in 1969, the mission was scrapped. To avoid the embarrassment of the aborted assassination plan from tainting the peace process, the KCIA abandoned Unit 684, which essentially made them prisoners on Silmido. However, the remaining 24 men in Unit 684 (the other seven had died during training or while trying to escape) revolted in August of 1971, killing the majority of their training officers and escaping to the mainland. From there, they stole a bus and made their way to Seoul, where they planned to air their grievances to President Park. The end result was a fierce gun battle with government troops which killed twenty of the unit's men-4 survivors were later executed.

This chilling chapter in the dark history of South Korea's long march towards democratic reform might have been all but forgotten if it was not for a convicted felon named Baek Dong-ho. During an eight-year stint in jail for robbery, Baek's curiosity was piqued by a fellow inmate's stories about Silmido from a fellow inmate, and he began digging for the truth behind the anecdotes. This research culminated in his 1999 book on the controversial government project, which formed the basis for the record-breaking (albeit far from perfect) blockbuster "Silmido".

Sol Kyung-gu

In the film, 31 criminals, including a number of death-row convicts, are conscripted to assassinate Kim Il-sun. These would-be assassins, which include gang leader Kang In-chan (Sol Kyung-gu) and the pugnacious Han Seung-pil (Chung Jae-young), are put through the wringer by Choi Jae-hyun (Ahn Sung-ki), the head of the training camp, and his ruthless second-in-command Sergeant Jo (Huh Jin-ho). Despite the grueling conditions, the conscripts are turned into lean, mean fighting machines, ready to cross the 38th parallel and do their patriotic duty.

However, on the cusp of their incursion into North Korea, the mission is cancelled by the changing political climate. Furthermore, Choi receives orders from KCIA higher ups to destroy all evidence of the operation, including the 'disposal' of Unit 684-failure to do so would result in the execution of Choi and his training officers as well.

The opening placard of "Silmido" states that although the film is based on a historical event, dramatic license has been used in the telling of the story. Indeed, the first half of the film, which is dominated by the testosterone-fueled bonding of the convicts, should look familiar to anyone familiar with war films and their detailing of 'basic training blues'. As well, the script penned by Kim Hie-jae throws in the usual suspects of stock characters into the mix, including a couple purveyors of comic relief, the noble and wise big boss, and the sympathetic guard. Thankfully, the crackerjack direction and editing by Cinema Service founder and veteran director Kang Woo-suk keeps the pace lively enough to overlook the abundance of rah-rah jingoism, on-screen brutality, and unremittingly terse dialogue.

Ahn Sung-ki

However, similar to how "Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok)" was more than just a police procedural of the serial murders in Gyeonggi Province in the late Eighties, "Silmido" is more than just a based-on-a-true-story "Dirty Dozen" actioner, as it comments on the times in which the story the takes place. Silmido island becomes a metaphor for Park Chun-hee's South Korea, a country where it was 'better dead than Red'-destruction of North Korea was to be accomplished at any cost, even if it meant the sacrifice of individual liberties and the imprisonment and/or death of the innocent. This attitude is evident throughout the travails of Unit 684, such as a training exercise that results in the death of the unit's weakest member, or how the men are deemed disposable when their existence becomes an inconvenience to the government. Other sequences, specifically one in which two prisoners escape Silmido and rape a civilian, as well as the bloody revolt by Unit 684, raise some thought-provoking questions. What sort of South Korean society did the military regimes of the Sixties and Seventies create? What monsters were created by the atmosphere of paranoia and oppression, and does this legacy still haunt the country to this day?

The brutal training of Unit 684

The ensemble of "Silmido" is headlined by two of the top actors in Korean film today. Sol, who had previously starred in Kang's "Public Enemy (Gongongeui jeok)", is perfectly cast as Unit 684's determined leader, who sees the mission as an opportunity to wash away the shame of his father's defection to the North. Prolific actor Ahn Sung-ki redeems himself for appearing in 2002's silly romantic comedy "The Romantic President (Piano chineun daetonryeong)" with his credible turn as Silmido's commanding officer, a man who is increasingly placed into an impossible position. The rest of the ensemble includes Huh ("Volcano High") as Choi's second-in-command, a man who manages to reveal a glimmer of humanity beneath his otherwise tough exterior. Chung Jae-young ("Guns & Talks") acquits himself nicely as Kang's biggest rival-turned-ally. Kang Seong-jin, who played an incessantly chatty character on "Break Out (Lightereul kyeora)", detracts from the film's tone as he does more of the same here, while the other comic-relief act by Im Won-hee ("Funny Movie") ends up morphing into a surprisingly tragic character.

After opening theatrically in the tail end of 2003, the pre-release hype and controversial subject matter helped "Silmido" shatter the previous box-office record held by 2001's "Friend (Chingu)", thereby becoming the first homegrown production to secure over 10 million admissions. In addition to being a financial success, the popularity of the film prompted the country's Defense Ministry to confirm the existence of the Silmido project and led to an investigation by lawmakers into the role of the KCIA. Though some liberties have been taken in the blockbuster presentation of these events, at its core, "Silmido" remains a compelling look at one of the bitter legacies of the Park regime.

Images courtesy of Cinema Service. All rights reserved.

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