In September 1985, Kim Geun-tae, a South Korean activist and democracy advocate with a long history of protesting the military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and then-president Chun Doo-hwan, was arrested and imprisoned. Kim was taken to Namyoung-dong, an area of Seoul that was formerly the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), the national security apparatus actively rounding up people involved in anti-government activity, then imprisoning and interrogating them. These actions against citizens enforced the “National Security Law,” an anti-communist edict that made it illegal to be in collusion with North Korea. Used against many as a pretext for arresting anyone considered disloyal to the government’s policies, many physically suffered as a result of this law which, unfortunately, exists to this day.
Kim was one of those who suffered. He was taken to an interrogation room in Namyoung-dong, where he was beaten and brutally tortured for 22 days. The torture only ended when he signed a false confession stating that he was in the employ of North Korea. Kim was finally released from prison in 1988, and soon after became a politician in the democratic governments formed after the end of Chun Doo-hwan’s regime. He died in 2011 from complications caused by Parkinson’s disease, which he developed as a direct result of being tortured.
Director Chung Ji-young uses Kim Geun-tae’s story, and this very dark recent history in Korea, as the basis of his latest film “National Security,” a powerful and uncompromising look at the experience of torture. Chung, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lee Dae-il, Chung Sang-hyup, and Kang Min-hee, based his scenario on Kim’s memoir “Namyoung-dong,” which detailed his 22-day ordeal, as well as interviews with other victims of political torture during this period. Here, he changes Kim Geun-tae’s name to Kim Jong-tae (played by Park Won-sang in a searingly effective performance), to make it clear that as horrible as Kim’s experiences were, they were by no means unique, and that the issues Chung raises here are much larger than one individual. The film’s English title, “National Security,” though it nominally refers to the National Security Law in Korea, is also broad enough to evoke things that were happening not only in Korea back then, but also in other areas around the world. (In contrast, the Korean title, “Namyoung-dong 1985,” much more specifically refers to the time and place of these events.) Torture and other forms of government terror against its own citizens, of course, is no mere relic of the past, but something that continues to occur today, and “National Security” contributes greatly to this conversation.
Chung’s methodology in presenting his subject is a very risky one, one which refuses to make the audience comfortable or afford them a safe distance. Most of the film concentrates, in often excruciating detail, on the torture and humiliation visited upon Kim Jong-tae: waterboarding, electrical shocks, red curry powder poured down his throat, sleep deprivation, being dragged around naked. The detail and duration of the torture, as well as the action never leaving the interrogation cell until the concluding sequence, is intended to put the viewer in the same physical and psychological space as Kim, and to give some of a sense of the experience of this torture. Again, this strategy runs the risk of alienating viewers, and overwhelming them so much with the visual and aural details of this torture that the larger points Chung is making may be lost. And indeed, this has proved to be too much for some audience members; there are often walkouts at screenings.
However, Chung does strike a balance between the extensive details of the torture and other elements that paint a larger picture of this history. For example, there is a flashback and a few dream sequences that help to put us in Kim Jong-tae’s psychic space. Also, the torturers are extensively characterized in very nuanced and interesting ways. As terrorizing an experience the torture is to Jong-tae, for the people involved in torturing him, it’s just another day at the office. They banter amongst themselves about sports, their romantic troubles, and their efforts to get promoted, while they walk the corridors of the prison, filled with the screams of other people being tortured behind the doors of other interrogation rooms. This reinforces the chilling reality of how common a practice this was during that era of history.
There is also an interesting contrast drawn between the high-ranking government officials in charge of ordering the torture and the rank-and-file employees tasked with carrying it out. The higher ranking officials seem to have no qualms whatsoever in conducting the torture, enthusiastically doing this, in their minds, as good patriots and anti-communists. As far as interrogating and torturing the prisoners goes, the purpose is not to get to any sort of truth; statements were extensively edited to get the prisoners to attest to what the government wanted. The true purpose was to punish those deemed disloyal to the regime, and to neutralize them as a force for democratic change.
However, the lower-ranking people with orders to torture seem to retain some shred of a conscience; at points, they ask such questions as “Is this OK?” or “Isn’t this a little too much?” In a late scene, one of Jong-tae’s torturers, having had a gun pulled on him for intervening to stop a beating, begins to beat Jong-tae himself, frantically pleading with him to cooperate so he can go home to be with his family. For the most part, though, these apparent pangs of conscience, and their occasional kindness toward Jong-tae, are not enough to make them quit what they are doing.
The most vividly characterized of the torturers is the most fearsome one: Lee Doo-han (played by Lee Kyeong-yong and based on the real-life torture expert Lee Geun-an), known as “The Undertaker.” He carries a suitcase containing his tools, which include a stethoscope, electrical equipment, and a stopwatch to precisely time his torture in order to prevent the accidental death of his victims. He tortures with relish and dramatic flourishes, whistling “My Darling Clementine,” to make himself an even more chilling figure.
Chung Ji-young, director of classic works such as “North Korean Partisan in South Korea” (1990), “White Badge” (1992), and “Life and Death of the Hollywood Kid” (1994), emerged from a 13-year hiatus from filmmaking in 2011 with “Unbowed,” based on an actual court case, and a hard-hitting critique of corruption in the justice system. “National Security” sees Chung taking his social critiques even further, to even more courageous ends, delivering not only a valuable history lesson but also a visceral expression of outrage about the harm that continues to be inflicted on people in the name of patriotism and national security, as well as a show of solidarity with victims of torture around the world.
“National Security” screens at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the film series “ContemporAsian: Focus on South Korea.” For more information, visit MOMA’s website.