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‘There is tragedy, but ultimately there is victory’: Conservative political film ‘The Birth of Korea’ causes a stir

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Director Kim Deog Young of “The Birth of Korea” [CHOI Gi-UNG]
Director Kim Deog Young of “The Birth of Korea” [CHOI Gi-UNG]

Political documentary film “The Birth of Korea” is basking in the glory of its success, to the surprise of many — including the director himself.

The film is about Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee: a highly controversial figure in Korea’s modern history. Traditionally, political documentary films in Korea receive mediocre attention at best.

But more than a million people have watched “The Birth of Korea” as of Feb. 28.

The birth of the film, however, was rather humble. When it premiered on Feb. 1, it opened at 167 screens only, reaching only 5,400 viewers that day. But as more and more people talked about it, ticket sales went up.

Han Dong-hoon, the chairman of the ruling People Power Party (PPP)'s interim committee, talks to journalists after watching “The Birth of Korea” at a movie theater in Yeouido, western Seoul. [YONHAP]
Han Dong-hoon, the chairman of the ruling People Power Party (PPP)’s interim committee, talks to journalists after watching “The Birth of Korea” at a movie theater in Yeouido, western Seoul. [YONHAP]

Singer Naul shared the movie’s poster on his Instagram. [SCREEN GRAB OF NAUL’S INSTAGRAM]
Singer Naul shared the movie’s poster on his Instagram. [SCREEN GRAB OF NAUL’S INSTAGRAM]

The biggest catalyst was when celebrities and political figures, including singer Naul and Han Dong-hoon, the chairman of the ruling People Power Party (PPP)’s interim committee, shared that they went to see the film during the Lunar New Year holiday over Feb. 9-12. Debates intensified over their insight on the film, adding fuel to the ticket sale-fire.

Director Kim Deog-young did not expect such attention at all, he told JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, in a recent interview. After all, documentary films rarely attract more than 100,000 viewers per day, and for political documentary films that figure is even smaller. Even in the rare cases of more successful political documentary films, they usually had liberal angles.

Not everyone is happy with the film’s success, though, as they point to the April 19 Revolution of 1960. That year, public anger over vote rigging in presidential elections under the Rhee government led to a pro-democracy civil uprising. It left hundreds of demonstrators — many young students — killed or wounded in clashes with armed police.

Those opponents’ argument is this: Korea’s constitution clearly honors “the democratic ideals of the April 19th Uprising of 1960 against injustice,” but glorifying Rhee, who was the very cause of the uprising, goes against the constitution and what it upholds. Critics making such arguments include prominent figures like political critic Chin Jung-kwon and Kwon Chil-seung, a senior spokesperson of the Democratic Party.

In response, director Kim said, “The April 19 Revolution was about fighting injustice and upholding freedom. For 70 years, we didn’t know Syngman Rhee correctly, and I think this, too, is injustice. I think highly of the spirit of the April 19 Revolution, and this film does not dishonor the spirit.”

Poster of “The Birth of Korea” [KIM DEOG-YOUNG]
Poster of “The Birth of Korea” [KIM DEOG-YOUNG]

He went on to say that Rhee did not think of himself as a failure, even though he did step down, because it was freedom and democracy that he wanted to plant and foster in South Korea and it was exactly those ideals that prompted the April 19 Revolution. “That is why [Rhee] said that he did not need to be consoled when Chiang Kai-shek, then president of the Republic of China, wrote him after he resigned.”

On the critique that the film did not examine Rhee’s merits and demerits with impartiality and only focused on his achievements, Kim claimed that with this film, both sides of the story have finally been brought to light. “Most cultural content in the past focused only on what he did wrong. This film sheds light on the other side of the story.”

Syngman Rhee is seen in a car parade clip in Manhattan in 1954. The clip Kim found in the National Archives and Records Administration is used in his film. [KIM DEOG-YOUNG]
Syngman Rhee is seen in a car parade clip in Manhattan in 1954. The clip Kim found in the National Archives and Records Administration is used in his film. [KIM DEOG-YOUNG]


Kim completed his bachelor’s and master’s in philosophy in Sogang University in Seoul and worked in the independent film scene. He made himself known with “Kim Il Sung’s Children” (2020), a documentary on North Korean orphans who fled to eastern Europe during the Korean War (1950-53). The film was screened at international film festivals and won awards.

The following are edited excerpts of the interview, interspersed with marked commentary.

Q. What do you think made the film so successful?

A. People’s reviews in person and on the internet often say they are completely shocked. I think a lot of people are shocked to find out about the things that they have misunderstood for a long time through an objective, dry narrative based on facts. If I made the film like propaganda it wouldn’t have delivered this well, as the Korean audience has a very sophisticated taste. Another appeal is that the life of Syngman Rhee as a human falls perfectly in the story arc of a hero’s journey. If you read mythology for instance, heroes thrive but face a challenge and hit a low. Often there is tragedy, but ultimately there is victory.

Did you hear that many viewers were shedding tears throughout the film?

Yes, mostly the older generation, but some young women were deeply moved, too. In particular, women in their 20s and 30s were surprised about the part about suffrage. In Korea, suffrage came about like a gift to women from Syngman Rhee in 1948. It’s important to note that in the 1930s and ’40s women in Western countries weren’t allowed to vote. They went to protest in the streets and were beaten and taken away, and some even died. Swiss women were granted the right to vote only in 1971. But in our case, women were guaranteed the right to vote, alongside men, when the country was established in 1948. Right now it’s taken for granted, but back then it was a monumental step forward. So some women who didn’t know about that say they feel sorry that they were unaware.

Women in their 50s and 60s have told me that it is a good educational material in that sense. Also some women would come to watch the movie again and again, except later they would bring several of their friends and acquaintances. This is an interesting decision. In their mind, it’s a display of support and donation. It is their way of saying, “I haven’t taken part in the production of the film, but I wish to support the film in some way.” I also think that this film is helping resolve the divide between generation and gender.

Some say the film is doing the exact opposite — exacerbating the divide. What is your opinion on this?

Those are the opinions of those who still have a strong bias [toward Syngman Rhee and Korea’s modern history.] Take for instance this episode that a woman shared on her Facebook account: She often had trouble with her daughter, who has liberal views, and the two, after some bickering, went to see the film together. The daughter was not happy to be there, of course. But at the end of the movie, she was in tears. Also, many people in Jeolla, traditionally a liberal stronghold, have told me that their thoughts [on Syngman Rhee] have changed after watching the film.

One of the most controversial aspects of the movie is its stance that Rhee had nothing to do with the rigged election of March 15, 1960. Did you pay specific attention to this part of the film?

Rhee was 85 years old in 1960, when the election and the April 19 Revolution took place. The average life expectancy of Koreans at that time was 60 years old. So Rhee was extremely old and frail. In fact, his wife Francesca wrote a book around that time and titled it [although it was changed later] “The President’s Health.” Everyone was paying keen attention to Rhee’s health. The reason was because when he died, the power could’ve been transferred to the opposition party. According to the constitution at the time, when the president passed away the vice president was supposed to take over. This could’ve easily been the reality, as vice president Lee Ki-poong was not as popular as the opposing party Democratic Party’s Chang Myon. So my view is that the rigged election was the idea of Lee Ki-poong and several problematic people in the Liberty Party who were willing to do anything to make Lee Ki-poong the next president.

(Under the constitution at the time, the president and vice president were elected separately and could come from opposing political parties. Syngman Rhee didn’t have a rival because Chough Pyung-ok, the presidential candidate of the opposition party, died a month before the election. However, for the vice presidential election, Lee Ki-poong of Rhee’s political party was far less popular than Chang Myon of the opposition party. So if Chang Myon was elected as vice president and Rhee passed away, Chang Myon would become president. This movie claims that Lee Ki-poong and his supporters rigged the elections and that Rhee was unaware.)

According to the transcript of the April 12 cabinet meeting — this is also in the film — Rhee said, “I hear that there are [student] casualties and deaths in Busan now. What is happening? Give a full, honest report.” Min Gyeong-woo, head of the civic group Gil, also said no dictator would go to people injured by [his military] and apologize, referring to how, four days after the April 19 Revolution, Rhee visited injured students at the Seoul National University Hospital, held their hands and consoled them. Min was a student activist himself and is well-versed about the April 19 movement, but he still picked that scene from the movie as the most shocking. I’ve worked on documentary films for so long that I believe I know when I look into people’s eyes if they’re being truthful or not. I didn’t see any deceit in Rhee’s eyes when he was shedding tears. He resigned after all, didn’t he? You can see in the film how when he resigned, people still wished him well and put signs in his house that said “long live, be healthy.” People would not do that if he were such a horrible dictator. Also remember his funeral, when his remains were returned to South Korea? People crowded the Seoul City Hall square and Seoul Station and even climbed to the top tier of the Sungnyemun Gate. They were not mobilized to be there. All the more, the funeral was not conducted as a state funeral but as a family funeral.

Another sensitive part of the film is the transcript from the documented record of the conversation between Kim Koo and Liu Yuan. Those who look up to Kim may protest this part. How much has the academia verified and acknowledged this so far?

(Kim Koo (1876-1949), often referred to as the ‘father of the nation,’ was a highly revered independence fighter. He was also the sixth and last head of Korea’s provisional government during Japan’s colonial occupation, and many expected that when the Japanese occupation ended he would be Korea’s first president. He sought to unite the two Koreas but was assassinated in 1949.)

Kim Koo said, according to the record, that when he visited Pyongyang [in April 1948], North Korea’s military prowess was so strong that even if North Korea were to halt strengthening its military capabilities and only South Korea worked on building its military power for the next three years, the South still wouldn’t be able to catch up to the North. And Kim Koo refused to collaborate with Syngman Rhee [which was the advice of Liu Yuan, an envoy sent by President Chiang]. This means that Kim Koo knew that a war was imminent. This is extremely shocking. Even though it’s been quite some time since the record was unveiled, historians refuse to talk about this. [Charles Kraus, a deputy director at Wilson Center, wrote about the record in 2015.] History is not fixed. If new evidence emerges, it can be turned upside down. I’m not asking you to believe something unconditionally. I’m saying let’s talk, let’s debate, please counteract me with evidence. But some people won’t even mention [the record].

I heard you changed your views about Syngman Rhee as you made the 2020 film “Kim Il Sung’s Children.” Is that right?

I delved into an immense amount of materials for 16 years in order to make “Kim Il Sung’s Children,” and learned that North Korea’s propaganda until the 1980s and 90s called for overthrowing the Syngman Rhee government, calling it the “puppet” [of America]. I couldn’t understand, because Rhee’s rule ended way back in the 1960s. And that made me dive deeper into Syngman Rhee. And the end result is “The Birth of Nation.” I think this is why the film is appealing to many. Imagine it was made by someone who worships Rhee. In fact, there were many such attempts, but they failed. I think the difference between “The Birth of Nation” and those movies is the person who’s making it and their approach. I realized I was ignorant of who Rhee really was and of my country’s modern history, despite the fact that I had always thought without intellect and logic I was nothing. I think this resonates with the people who watch the film.

Director Kim shows the car parade clip in Manhattan when Syngman Rhee visited the United States in 1954. Kim found the clip in the National Archives and Records Administration in 70 years. [KIM DEOG-YOUNG]
Director Kim shows the car parade clip in Manhattan when Syngman Rhee visited the United States in 1954. Kim found the clip in the National Archives and Records Administration in 70 years. [KIM DEOG-YOUNG]

Most political films that were successful up until now have all had liberal inclinations. This is the first time for a film with a conservative angle to be a hit. Why do you think this is?

Films can be propaganda by nature. They were often used by communist and socialist settings with political intent. There is an interesting episode. In 1946, the Workers’ Party of South Korea was caught making counterfeit money because they didn’t have enough political funds. Guess what they did with the enormous amounts of those political funds: They bought a movie theater. They knew back then there was no better medium than movies to instigate people. In many countries, including South Korea, many films have liberal inclinations. That is why it’s hard for films with conservative voices to thrive. Teamwork is key in filmmaking, but even hiring staff is a challenge [for political films with a conservative angle]. I had to make the film poster myself.

History is written by selecting certain facts and omitting others, and that itself is subjective. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s an important question, and I know the intent of your question. For the past 70 years, however, there was only one side to the story. Movies, cultural content and even school textbooks were all telling that side of the story only. The reason this film is causing a buzz is because it’s the other side of the story. Nobody chose that side up until now. I think finally there is a balance — both sides of the story.

BY MOON SO-YOUNG [symoon@joongang.co.kr]