Korean film revives tragic – and fading – memory

In a controversial retelling, 'May 18' looks at the Kwangju crackdown in 1980 by South Korea's military dictatorship.

The memories flash back in a rush of images: kids flinging rocks at policemen in a typical antigovernment display that I witnessed one sunny May day in 1980 in Kwangju, the restive center of the Cholla region in southwestern Korea. When I returned two weeks later, the city was cut off by soldiers, and students were careening through the streets as helicopters dropped leaflets imploring "Sons and Daughters, return home."

For the next 10 days, after Gen. Chun Doo Hwan declared martial law on May 18, rebels held sway over a historically hostile regional center in revolt against national leaders.

That atmosphere is revived in a new film, "May 18," about a rustic enclave soon to assume a tragic place in history. Above the title, the words, "The Day a Nation's Conscience Died," recall the assault by special forces ordered to retake Kwangju in retribution not just for the rebels' insolence but for that of mentors seen as "leftist" or "communist" foes almost as bad as the leaders of North Korea.

The revolt was the bloodiest event in the sequence that culminated in the rise of democracy – and also of an anti-Americanism fostered by the claim that the US had gone along with Chun's pulling troops under Roh's command from the line with North Korea to send them south.

Chun's worst enemy was Kim Dae Jung, hero of Cholla who was already under house arrest in Seoul and, after the revolt, sentenced to death. Only a deal with the Americans rescued Mr. Kim, who went into exile in the US for two years before returning and winning the presidency in 1997. Chun, who had seized power after the assassination of long-ruling Park Chung Hee, and his ally, Gen. Roh Tae Woo, meanwhile, were convicted for the massacre and massive corruption – though not until Mr. Roh had served a full term as the first president elected under Korea's "democracy constitution" proclaimed after massive riots in June 1987.

But today, the story is in danger of fading from consciousness as people focus on the North's nuclear weapons and an election that may return a conservative to power for the first time in a decade.

"It's practically forgotten except among the Cholla people," says Shim Jae Hoon, who visited the city during the revolt. "It's a generation since that happened. It's not the only revolution in Korea."

Still, the movie, produced by CJ Entertainment, Korea's largest film company, perpetuates the mystique of a tragedy that's been dramatized on TV, in documentaries, and in one movie that focuses on the suffering of a victim.

Members of the audience were weeping after one of the screenings that I attended, and the stars were treated like heroes for dying heroically on film.

The innocence of ordinary civilians willing to fight for their beliefs exemplifies the idealism that leftists today say is needed to keep democracy alive – and to expel American troops.

"The general mood of the film was right," says Chi Jung Nam, who is from south of Kwangju and knew people there at the time of the assault. "People will look at Kwangju in a new light. The younger generation will want to learn."

Still, Mr. Chi, a journalist, worries about the action-packed telling of the story.

In the film, the rebels, led by a fictitious former colonel, revel in defiance and mayhem. Troops fire point-blank into a boisterous crowd – minutes of carnage that didn't happen that way. "Too much dramatization," says Chi. The director, Kim Ji Hoon, he says, "may have overdone it."

Mr. Kim says the film shows the rebels "not as terrorists but as people who wanted to defend their country." Yes, they "were fiction," he says, "but I tried to venerate them so the 10 days of revolt were as close to the facts as possible."

The truth was terrible enough to deserve an accurate retelling, says Chi, sounding like critics of Oliver Stone's "Platoon," about Vietnam.

"The people of Kwangju will be embarrassed by so much divergence," he says. Other Koreans "will think it's what happened, and the younger generation may have a wrong understanding of history."

There is no doubt, though, of the brutality of the troops in an uprising that ended in scenes of clubbing, bayoneting, and shooting that reminds one of the slaughter on Tiananmen Square in Beijing after students took over the heart of the Chinese capital in 1989.

As I visited Kwangju while rebels held the city, a student in the governor's building asked to see my passport and logged in details before giving me a "press card" that I carried in my wallet for years. Another student, in fluent English, hurled imprecations against the regime's evils.

I had returned to Seoul, writing stories about the rebels' defiance, when the troops finished them off. When I went back to Kwangju just a few days later, pine coffins were strewn around the building. Older people, wearing dark suits and dresses, walked quietly among them, lifting up lids, looking for loved ones. I never again saw the people I had interviewed.

Surprisingly, the film avoids incantations against the Americans – indicative perhaps of decreasing anti-Americanism.

"I'm sure the US has a lot of influence," says director Kim, "but I felt if I emphasized the US role, it would interrupt the flow of the film."

The film also avoids politics. There is no mention of Kim Dae Jung and little of Chun except as a distant figure from whom came word to snuff out revolt. News photos of the time record some of the clubbing and bodies of the victims.

Now the memory of victims lives on in rows of more than 200 gravesites by a monument on the edge of town. When I last visited, I was startled to find in the museum by the cemetery a blown-up photograph of myself in a clinic standing by a wounded rebel. I hadn't known about the picture until it showed up in a book.

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