The long hot summer days are here and as you sit as close to the fan or the AC as humanly possible let’s take a trip down memory lane. It was during this month 71 years ago that Korea claimed its independence from Japanese colonization. The gravity of this independence and the events and stories that occurred and were formed up until this declaration of independence has heavily influenced popular Korean culture.
Films that deal with or touch on the history of Korean-Japanese relations are a dime-a-dozen on and come from both sides of the Korean Strait. With the history that spans centuries coupled with an intense four decade colonization of the Korean peninsula by Japan, there is a plethora of available sources for filmic inspiration.
Here is a quick question to see how much you know about Korean-Japanese relation films: How often do we see two assassination in the first 10 minutes of a film?
Not too many titles come to mind but this is exactly what happens in the opening sequence of last year’s blockbuster Assassination (2015). In 1911 at a hotel in Seoul, freedom fighter Yeom Seok-Jin (Lee Jung-jae) sets off an explosion and attempts to assassinate Japanese Government-General Terauchi who is having a meeting with Kang In-Gook.
While the attempt fails, both Yeom and Terauchi find themselves critically injured and residing at Kang’s home, a rich business mogul intent on profiting from Japanese colonization by any means. Kang’s wife defiantly tended to Yeom and intends to help him escape from authorities and live another day to fight for Korean independence. In just a few hours, however, she will find herself with a bullet sized hole that goes straight through her head, the trigger and assassination of lady Kang being ordered by her very own husband.
Okay, it was a bit of an exaggeration that two assassinations took place but rather one assassination and one attempted assassination. These two major events set the stage for the rest of the film and highlights the inseparable relationship between those who enabled and profited from the Japanese occupation and those who fought against it. The leading protagonist of the film Anh Ok-yun (Jun Ji-Hyun) embodies this dialectical relationship as the long-thought-dead daughter of Kang and leading figure in the revolutionary army.
What is particularly striking about Assassination is not only the storyline of the film, but also the reality that underlines it in that it takes a decidedly different approach in its exploration and illustration of historical narratives.
Assassination sheds light on historical moments and figures that don’t have the grandiosity such as the March 1st Movement, the Korean War, or the defense of Korea by Admiral Yi. Instead it focuses on the unknown characters and events attached to them that don’t have a Wikipedia page. Anh’s real life counterpart is a prime example.
Although not an expert sniper Nam Ja-hyeon fought for Korean independence for most of her adult life. Nam was born to a wealthy and elite family in 1872, was a devout Christian, and joined Seorogunjeongseo (서로군정서), which was a militant Korean independence group stationed in south Manchuria, after the death of her husband in 1919.
Being a devout Christian, Nam’s revolutionary activities dealt with the establishment of churches and the education of women in Manchuria. By 1926, Nam’s focus had shifted to a plot to assassinate Saito Makoko, the seated Government-General of Korea. The assassination mission failed and Nam was captured and martyred in 1933.
Nam’s resurrection in Anh Ok-yun not only brings to light the story of a revolutionary female activist but through movie magic also completes Nam’s last mission.
By Olempia Castillo