One of the most well-regarded South Korean directors is Kim Ki-duk, famous for such titles as The Isle (2000), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), Samaritan Girl (2004) and 3-Iron (2004). When he doesn’t direct, he furnishes other directors with screenplays, and that is the case for Poongsan, directed by newcomer Juhn Jaihong.
It is quite a debut. My feeling as I watched this movie was that, if I were a director, this is the kind of level of workmanship I would aspire to. Of course, with a screenplay from an expert and experienced screen-writer, it’s almost as if nothing can go wrong.
Poongsan derives its title from the nameless main character, who smokes Poongsan cigarettes. The cigarette brand is named after a Korean dog. The main characteristic of a dog is its devotion to its owners, translating as loyalty to a cause. The cause is the link between North and South Korea, and keeping alive the memory and legacy of a single united nation.
Poongsan is a nearly superhuman athlete who has made it his cause to unite loved ones from North and South. He hangs out at the border, looking at the myriad of ribbons and wanted posters that people who have relatives in North Korea are putting up. Now and again he picks one out, races straight through the no man’s land between the two countries, seeks out the relative and leads the person back across the border to their family. He risks his life, but he knows the area like the back of his hand; knows all the trip wires, all the alarms, and how to fool the infrared sensors. He vaults over the barbed wires.
He does this for no pay. He is like a symbol of the strong emotion that connects the two Koreas in spite of political differences.
The South Korean police learns of Poongsan’s existence, and to test his skills they ask him to bring back the lover of a recently defected North Korean executive official. He says he can do it in three hours, which the police finds absolutely shocking and unbelievable. But he does it. He fetches the young woman In-ok, bringing her back with him across the dangerous no man’s land – and something happens between them.
The emotional complications between Poongsan, In-ok and the North Korean official slowly unwind into an unusual but powerful love story which takes place on a backdrop of politics and corruption. Poongsan is time and again betrayed by the deeply immoral South Korean police, and a group of bullies from the North Korean secret service also arrive to make things difficult.
The movie is filled to the brim with incredible scenes of thrilling action drama. And in classic Asian fashion, the curve of excitement just keeps rising and rising towards the end. The climax is an amazing scene where Poongsan has trapped both the North Koreans and the South Koreans in a dungeon, where the two factions naturally start fighting each other.
I have nothing but admiration for this extremely impressive movie which exposes the North and the South as equally corrupt and blameworthy, while clearly conveying the human tragedies that occur in the wake of the conflict. The symbolism is palpable and courageous, and the dissolving relationship between In-ok and the North Korean official is deeply moving and logical; she has stopped loving him because his new life in South Korea has made him wasteful and selfish, so that she no longer recognizes the more conscientious person he used to be.
I have not previously been a great fan of Kim Ki-duk, and have only seen two of his earlier movies, but now I think I’ll seek out the rest of his movies. Because Poongsan is just fantastic.
Director: Juhn Jaihong
Writer: Kim Ki-duk
Cast: Kye Sang Yoon, Guy-ri Kim, Jong-soo Kim, Han Gi-Yoong, Moo-Seong Choi, Ha-bok Yu, Yong-geun Bae and others.
Runtime: 121 min.
Country: South Korea