Films based a true event can confuse the viewer at times. Where does the truth begin and where does it end; and when does fiction actually begin? Added fictional details have been utilized to make a film more exciting and arguably entertaining. I would advise those who see the blockbuster Korean hit “SILMIDO” to read about the real incident that occurred in 1968, but do not read the true history behind it before watching this film since it may ruin its experience. Following the successes of blockbuster hits such as “Shiri” and “Tae Guk Gi”, the film is about the tensions between North and South Korea and how one incident caused a lot of controversy in South Korea.
In 1968, a North Korean commando unit crosses the border in an attempt to assassinate then South Korean President Park Chung-hee. They were intercepted by the S. Korean military and prevents the mission’s success. The scandal of this incident however, angers the South Korean side and decides to replicate the attempt by sending their own 31 men to assassinate then North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.
The group codenamed 684, is composed of inmates with the promise of getting a second chance are secretly developed in an isolated island. Only top-ranking government officials are aware of the project. The inmates are given a choice, join the project or be executed, and by the end of their rigorous and dangerous training, they were meant to become the best South Korean soldiers ever produced by South Korea. However, when the time finally approaches for the mission’s fruition, the plug is pulled because of developing peaceful relations between the two countries. Group 684 is now a threat to peace between North and South Korea, in the eyes of those who spear-headed the project. 684 will have to be eliminated.
Should things be added to a tale supposedly based on a true story to make the film more exciting and entertaining and at the same time still be faithful to its roots? SILMIDO is based on very real events that took place between 1968-1971 and the movie has been widely criticized because of “proclaimed” inaccuracies to the real story. The movie made the South Korean government look quite inhumane in their treatment of the situation. True, the film may not be politically correct but no one would really know the real “truth” after all the efforts made in keeping the project under wraps. The film is promoted as an action film but in truth, “Silmido” is melodramatic to its core. The film has the usual elements of camaraderie and friendship, loyalty and duty, and national identity. Whatever add-ons, screenwriter Hie Jae-Kim and director Woo Suk Kang may have executed, the film proved quite effective in generating sympathy for these “unknown” patriots.
The film actually focuses more on the relationships between the inmates and their handlers. The handlers are the ones responsible to the project’s success and the lengths to which they are willing to take the training borders on being very inhuman at times. Despite all the hardships and training, the handlers and the inmates form a bond birthed from respect and friendship. Of the 31 men involved in 684, only 10 are fleshed out, most notably the character of Kang In-Chan (played by Kyung-gu Sol), a tough as nails gangster who was tried for murder. The commandant (played by Sung Kee Ahn) may well be the most powerful portrayal the veteran actor may have performed onscreen. Sung and Sol prove to be the film’s strength, for without their stunning performances, the film may not have succeeded with its many elements. The commandant is the type who would do whatever it takes that the training gives perfect results but in the end, the commandant and his handlers gain respect for these low-lives to whom they were tasked to. The relationship is believable and developed enough that I was moved by the proceedings.
“Silmido” while more built around the drama and relationships than in action sequences, that doesn‘t mean we don‘t get them anyway. The hard training exercises is the film’s most interesting element. It’s at times ruthless but one may say that the training is needed to hone these men about to embark on this suicide mission. After a time though, humanity and respect triumphs and its dramatic elements are more fully realized. The 2nd part of the film is more on the action, but then it falters, and I wondered just where the direction wanted to go. Nonetheless, the film did succeed in moving my emotions, you would be hard-pressed not to sympathize with these men. The film may get a little too melodramatic but the end game does provide the proper intensity that kept me interested. The soundtrack does aid quite a lot to the film’s emotions and the viewer will no doubt feel as if they have formed an attachment to the characters.
The film may lack certain key elements to effectively examine as to why some decisions were made but thankfully, the film’s manages to hide these flaws in exchange for its character studies. Complex changes may occur in one’s character when faced with the right ingredients. Bravery and cowardice may well be two sides of the same coin.
To the film’s credit, it is not necessary for one to have a knowledge of Korean History and culture to appreciate the film. Of course, those with the knowledge would probably have an advantage. I was still impressed with what I saw with “Silmido”, despite my lack of knowledge of the film‘s history. The film is definitely geared towards those who appreciate human drama mixed in with action and on this “Silmido” does deliver the goods. Tough, gritty, and violent, the film may have its share of excesses, but it does get into your brain and offers some food for thought.
South Korean films still manages to move me and “Silmido” is another film that proves Korean filmmakers have the skill when it comes to engaging emotional content.