People walked out of the premiere at National Security, which played last year at the Busan International Film Festival. I wonder what was going through their minds at the time. It couldn’t have been an indictment of the film’s quality, because there isn’t much bad to say about it. Did they decide that what they were watching was violence and horror for the sake of it, rather than seeing a grander point to it, and give up (like some people I know might do)?
Or was it the opposite? Maybe they did see the grander point and refused to accept it. It’s what happens when someone holds up such a depraved mirror to a society, and the mirror’s not a metaphor.
“This is what happened in 1985,” it says. “Don’t you dare forget.”
[National Security is playing as part of the “ContemporAsian: Focus on Korea” series showing this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is screening every night this week. For more information, click here.]
National Security (Namyeong-dong 1985 | 남영동1985)
Director: Chung Ji-Young
Country: South Korea
The “1985” part of National Security‘s Korean title isn’t a literary reference, but it may as well be. The film is based on a memoir by Kim Geun-tae, a political activist who was captured and tortured for 22 days in 1985, which I imagine probably reads like the final act of George Orwell’s 1984. The rest of the original title, “Namyeong-dong” reminded me a bit of Abu Ghraib: Namyeong-dong is the Korean neighborhood which housed the Korean CIA as well as the torture facility where Kim Geun-tae (Kim Jong-tae in the film) was held. Early in the film, before things have gone from bad to worse, Jong-tae asks his well-dressed captors if he’s in Namyeong-dong and gets no response. Even without historical context, that moment made it clear that this place was infamous and one to be feared. And like Orwell’s Ministry of Love, it intends to turn activists into followers. They want Kim Jong-tae to love his country and his leaders.
If you watched the first ten minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, then you have a good idea of what National Security is like. It’s basically that scene (but worse) repeated for 10 times. Kim Jong-tae is humiliated, beaten, starved, waterboarded, electrocuted, humiliated, beaten, starved, waterboarded, electrocuted, humiliated… and on and on until he comes up with a consistent narrative explaining all of his communist ties and implicating himself and everyone he knows in crimes that he never committed.
But even though it so prominently features torture, National Security is not torture porn. The scenes are long and arduous, but they aren’t masturbatory. The filmmakers weren’t enjoying themselves and they don’t want the audience to be either. When the audience is watching actor Park Won-sang suffer (and he was truly suffering much of the time), the feeling shouldn’t be glee, it should be horror. These were crimes committed by the South Korean government less than 30 years ago. Sometimes leaving things up to the imagination can be used for dramatic or artistic effect, but when documenting reality there can be no imagination. People need to look at what actually happened. I disliked the opening scene in Zero Dark Thirty because it improperly portrayed waterboarding. They made it too fast, too intense. It’s actually a slow, measured thing, which makes it all the more unpleasant. At least when Americans did it.
National Security’s waterboarding is far more measured, and it lasts a long time. It’s no less intense, but it feels more real. Which is interesting, because the head interrogator, known as “The Undertaker,” would be cartoonish in any other context. The sadistic man whistles “Oh My Darling, Clementine” as he pours water onto a man’s covered face until he loses consciousness, and it’s just horrible. He is enjoying his work. Were he the only man in the room, it would be hard to defend the scenes, but even the other men in the room are unsettled by what he’s doing. Everyone there knows something is wrong, but they do what they have to do, lest they be the ones drowning.
Having not read Kim Geun-tae’s memoir, I can’t say how closely National Security follows his story, but I expect the claim that it was mostly fictionalized is accurate, because it’s an amalgamation of stories. During the credits, clips of interviews with former detainees play, giving their own stories and feelings on the events. These interviews were also used as a basis for the film, meaning it’s an amalgamation of many narratives. The dialogue between characters may have been fictional, but the emotions, the actions, the torture itself, those were undoubtedly true.
What set National Security apart from so many other films about tortured protagonists is that Kim Jong-tae breaks, and he breaks hard. Like any human (like Winston Smith), he can’t take it. He makes up all kinds of stories. And every time he admits to lying, he goes under the towel again or is hooked up to the electrodes again and suddenly he’s back to being subservient. It’s a brutal reminder that torture is extremely effective at making people confess to things they haven’t done. People will say anything just to make it stop.
If I haven’t made it clear, National Security is a tough film to watch. At least half of its runtime is just a man being horrifically abused, and even when that’s not what’s happening, it’s in the air. Almost the entire thing takes place in his cell. But I’m glad it exists. I wish it would get a mass release on this side of the pacific and every single pro-torture American would be subjected to it. They should see torture that hasn’t been stylized or hyped up. It’s sick, disturbing, and the spot-on performances just make it so much worse. This isn’t entertainment, and it doesn’t want to be. It’s a stark reminder of a horrible time, and its message extends well beyond South Korea’s borders.