Searching for the (South) Korean El Dorado

10 Oct

The purpose of retrospective film festivals is to relive old debates from a new perspective. However, when the 50 years old conflict, the Korean War is still simmering and distorting ideologies, it’s hard to take a new look at a film like . But then, there’s just the long shots of what appeared to be central Busan, the harbor and beaches, and the Young-do bridge.

In an American context, where irony and parody are all but necessary even on TV sitcoms, 1969’s Mt. Sahwa could actually hold its own. It’s one of those movies that plays with a viewer’s mind trying to figure out who the bad guy is. Unfortunately, it’s soaked in ideological symbolism, but really, unless one is pacifist or communist, it’s harmless now (although the Park dictatorship at the time was certainly not). I was pleasantly surprised by this film. A recent Korean movie, will play a recurring role in this and the next movie review. The American films, and , also came to mind, because of how seven men come together with an unconventional mission.

There’s some confusion in the website blurb: Kim Seung-ho’s character was a father, but no father figure. When first we encounter him, his character is a drunk and a brawler, and he is recruited in spite of his almost constant intoxication. Later, we find out he killed his wife’s brother during the war for bringing Kim Il-sung’s brother to his house for hiding. In a manner, he is the cause of the events in the entire film, and it’s unclear if he or his wife can redeem what they did after that day.  The wife, also the mother of their boy, has spent her years as a KPA officer struggling to fulfill her brother’s dying wish to protect Kim Il-sung’s brother and keep contact with her son whom the Communists have abducted and placed in a Busan orphanage for extortion. Even with her guilt and the extortion, she had more real power over a unit of guerrillas on Mt. Sahwa than any South Korean woman of the time. Other characters cloak themselves as criminals and lowlife, and everyone is carrying around a secret.

Mt. Sahwa is obviously pro-ROK (at one point, a son buries his father in the Taegukgi), but the South Koreans are on the side of motherhood and putting divided families separated by Communist perfidy back together. Those modern Commies just don’t know what good in this world: a village in the hills with your family, and all that’s traditional, like pure love between young people. Unlike Brotherhood of War, choosing the right side is important, if one wants to be Korean. And, even if you’ve spent years stewing on the docks in Busan or in exile in Japan, one can still earn a reunion with one’s family with the help of those nice ROK soldiers (commanded by the guy in the crew disguised as a knife-fighting con man).

One could also spin an anti-war perspective, where excessive ideology and human evil trample over family life. But, Mt. Sahwa, unlike Brotherhood of War, at least does not argue that the sordid details of an unfortunate life aren’t compensable, but require the dross to make the gold appear in its real form. Mt. Sahwa is a more provocative and edifying film for all its propaganda quirks.

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