‘Poongsan’ heralded the second full length feature from director Juhn Jai-hong after his 2007 debut, the dark psychological thriller ‘Beautiful / 아름답다’. A protoge of Kim Ki-duk, ‘Beautiful’ saw Jai-hong not only on directorial duties, but he was also responsible for the screenplay, and the movie was met with a lot of critical praise. Four years later, he had stated that he wanted to try his hand at more of a “popcorn movie”, and the result was ‘Poongsan’.
Jai-hong takes up the directorial reigns once more, however ‘Poongsan’ is actually written by his mentor Kim Ki-duk, who also co-produced the movie, and perhaps as a result of this an undercurrent of sexual violence runs throughout the movies themes. The whole thing was made in just thirty days for 200 million Won, and Jai-hong was quoted as telling the actors and staff that there was no guarantee it would even be released, but he was on a mission to prove that a quality movie could be made with a limited budget.
The question of whether or not he succeeded is one which is open to debate, but we’ll get to that later. In the title role of Poongsan himself is Yoon Kye-sang, who was most recently seen in Kim Ji-woon’s short film ‘Love of Rock, Scissors, Paper / 사랑의 가위바위보’. Poongsan is actually a nickname, taken from the brand of cigarette he smokes, themselves named after the breed of dog which is entirely native to North Korea. Kye-sang had quite a task on his hands with his role, as despite also being a singer, here he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the whole movie. In fact his entire character is a mystery, we never find out his name, we never find out if he is South or North Korean, and we never find out what his real motivations are.
What we do know is that for a price, he’ll effortlessly transport items, such as family keepsakes or home videos, across the DMZ - the no mans land that separates the North and South. Regardless of how unrealistic somebody pole vaulting over military fences and crossing a river coated entirely in mud may be, Jai-hong pulls of proceedings with such a poker face that you find yourself viewing the whole situation as quite plausible. The real crux of the story comes when a group of South Korean agents discover his existence, and ask him to transport the girlfriend of a high ranking North Korean defector. He agrees to do it, but things don’t go as smoothly as they do when transporting inanimate objects, with the pair of them almost getting killed by a landmine, and the girl almost drowning after hiding under water from the military watchmen.
The girl who he has to transport is played by Kim Gyoo-ri (‘Portrait of a Beauty / 미인도’ / ‘Doomsday Book / 인류멸망보고서’), and despite their limited time together, an unspoken bond develops between them as they make the perilous crossing, one which leads to severe consequences once she is re-united with her supposed lover. Based on this plot alone, those familiar with Kim Ki-duk, and indeed Jai-hong’s previous work, can probably guess the tone that proceedings are going to take, and may be surprised to hear how differently things turn out. Indeed, sometimes ‘Poongsan’ doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be – forbidden romance, action thriller, black comedy, emotional drama – all of these elements are thrown into the mix.
My real problem with ‘Poongsan’ is that most of the movie does in fact play out like a forbidden romance, before suddenly in the final third the tone veers proceedings into a wildy uneven mess, threatening to derail everything that’s come before. Without going into spoiler territory, the majority of the movie hinges very much on the intimate relationship that may or may not be developing between Kye-sang and Gyoo-ri, and its gripping stuff. However when events transpire to turn Kye-sang into a force of revenge, what should deliver us a feeling of catharsis and satisfaction, is completely nullified due to the rather clumsy and inept way the final act plays out, which ironically hardly involves Kye-sang or Gyoo-ri at all.
Things do get pulled back on track by the final shot, which carries all the impact it should, however for the less forgiving it may be too little too late. Despite this, ‘Poongsan’ deserves a watch not only because for the majority of its runtime, it does its job well, but also because it presents a very unique view of the relationship between North and South, which isn’t usually seen in the cinematic world. While movies like ‘J.S.A. / 공동경비구역 JSA’ and ‘Secret Reunion / 의형제’ portray relationships between characters from both sides as being that of misunderstood friends, ‘Poongsan’ takes a decidedly different route. The agents from the North and the agents from the South who manipulate Poongsan to their own needs are both equally portrayed as corrupted and selfish, with perhaps only Poongsan himself as the silent antihero representing the real relationship between the two Korea’s – one of dignified silence and suffering.
By Paul Bramhall