S. Korean Movies Play on Animosity; Message Films Draw Large Crowds

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Salmon, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

SEOUL - Recent antagonisms between South Korea and its most important allies the United States and Japan play out in the summer 's two highest-profile movies here.

The popularity of the films may reflect public attitudes after Seoul's reluctance to join Tokyo and Washington in taking a hard line toward Pyongyang over its nuclear program and missile tests.

Anger toward Japan intensified yesterday when outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a final visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war veterans, including some convicted war criminals.

An enormous buzz surrounds "The Host" ("Gwoemul," or "The Monster," in Korean), which registered the biggest-ever opening of a Korean movie when it debuted on July 27.

The film deals with a monster appearing in Seoul's Han River, terrorizing the citizenry. The creature was created when employees on a U.S. Army base in South Korea poured industrial waste into the river a premise based on an actual incident six years ago.

Later in the film, U.S. forces try to kill the creature which, it transpires, is the host to a deadly virus with a chemical weapon.

Despite its shlocky theme, the film mixes the genres of horror, science fiction, comedy and social criticism. Made by Bong Joon-ho, arguably South Korea's most respected director for the classic "Memories of Murder" (2003), it won rave reviews from Western critics when it previewed at the Festival of Cannes. It opens in American cities in the next two months.

The other summer blockbuster, "Hanbando" ("The Korean Peninsula"), is set in the near future. Japan sparks naval clashes wherein it tries to obstruct a plan to link rail lines between the two Koreas an event Koreans hope will become a reality this year. The movie juxtaposes brutal events from the two nations' troubled past with the fictional modern-day story line.

The film, featuring some of Korea's most famed actors and a $10 million budget enormous by local standards has been a commercial success. Despite opening during torrential rainstorms and with fierce competition from "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," it ran on 500 screens nationwide, luring 4 million viewers in two weeks.

Critics have been less kind, with many panning its heavy-handed nationalism. …