May 18 is a film that many pinned their hopes on, in Korea’s flagging film industry, which has been producing far fewer profitable films in the last year or two. And with good reason: it’s a historical epic (flavour of the month, for successful Korean films), it’s based on real events, it’s got a relatively large budget (about US$10M) and it’s got a good cast, led by Kim Sang-Kyung (Tale of Cinema, Memories of Murder).
The film is based on the events of the Gwangju massacre, beginning on May 18, 1980. After a military coup led by Major General Chun Doo-Hwan, a large number of troops (including Special Operations elite troops) were sent to quell pro-democracy student demonstrations in the city. Things turned very ugly indeed, with automatic weapons fire used against unarmed civilians. In May 18 the filmmakers zero in on a couple of apparently ordinary characters: we’re introduced to Min-woo (Kim Sang-Kyung), a taxi driver in Gwangju who lives with his brother Jin-woo (Lee Joon-Ki), a student in his last year at college. Min-woo is rather clumsily romancing Sin-ae (Lee Yo-Won), a nurse at a local hospital, and the beginning of the film follows his attempts to win her affection.
The light-hearted mood established by these early scenes evaporates quickly as events in the rest of the country break in on Min-woo’s relatively untroubled existence in Gwangju. One day the soldiers and their tanks arrive, there to quell a resistance that seems disorganised and relatively harmless. Things quickly escalate, with civilians beaten in the streets and deaths among the student body galvanising the population into organised mass protests.
Min-woo is stuck in the middle of it all, trying to survive and protect those around him from harm. Later on in the picture the local population assemble a civilian militia led by Sin-ae’s father Heung-su, a retired military officer, played by veteran actor Ahn Seong-Gi. Heung-su organises the town’s defence, after negotiations with the military break down.
May 18 has quite a few faults: there’s a large hunk of melodrama, with some rather thin characterisation and occasionally odd pacing. In particular, we’ve seen a lot of the characters before: the honest, easy-going lead and his hot-headed younger brother; the retired, highly moral natural leader; the scenery-chewing comic sidekick -— some more imaginative screenwriting would have done wonders. But it’s also a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, unflinchingly showing the brutality inflicted on Gwangju’s population and demanding that the audience pay attention. The film’s narrow focus on a small number of characters gives it a certain immediacy: the audience that I saw the film with at Sydney’s Market City cinemas (which were packed for this screening) watched in rapt attention, gasping occasionally.
All in all, it’s a fairly solid film that provides a different perspective on a very difficult time in Korea’s not-so-distant past.