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Ko - production in Busan
  • by Pierce Conran /  Sep 14, 2020

  • 1990
     | 157 MIN | Drama, Epics/Historical, War
    CAST AHN Sung-ki, CHOI Min-soo, CHOI Jin-sil, LEE Hye-young
    RELEASE DATE June 2, 1990
    CONTACT Korean Film Archive
    Tel +82 2 3153 2001 
    Fax +82 2 3153 2080 

    CHUNG Ji-young is an unusual case in Korean cinema, a director who has been able to deliver hits from the 1980s (Mist Cries Like a Woman, 1982) through to the present day (BLACK MONEY, 2019). What’s more, most of his famous films have a very political bent, which oftentimes isn’t a recipe for success. However, CHUNG wasn’t always a political filmmaker, specializing as he did in more stylized genre work, such as romantic thrillers, at the start of his career. His so-called second period kicked off with a bang in 1990, when he turned to reporter LEE Tae’s 1988 memoir as a North Korean partisan during the Korean War.

    War correspondent Lee Tae (AHN Sung-ki), stationed in Jeonju, joins the North Korean partisans in 1950, early in the Korean War. Though initially aligned with their cause, he is soon torn by their methods, and following a major failed operation, he finds himself on the run with his comrades. Lost behind enemy lines, he joins with different comrades as they each try to escape the encroaching US-backed South Korean forces in the Jiri Mountains in the southern region of the peninsula. Among the comrades he crosses paths with are the medic Park Min-ha (CHOI Jin-sil), who he falls in love with, the young intellect and poet Kim Young (CHOI Min-soo), and the brave fighter Kim Hee-sook (LEE Hye-young).

    North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) arrived shortly after the beginning of the New Korean Wave, when a new generation of young South Korean filmmakers such as PARK Kwang-su (Chil-Su and Man-Su, 1988) were daring to challenge a society that was beginning to come out from under the thumb of successive military regimes. Yet, with large-scale battle scenes and an epic peripatetic scope, it was a far more ambitious undertaking that would influence the searing historical dramas that followed later in the decade, including IM Kwon-taek’s The Tae Baek Mountains (1994), which shares a lead in AHN Sung-kiPARK Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (1995), and A Petal (1996), from JANG Sun-woo, who adapted LEE Tae’s memoir for CHUNG’s film.

    For decades, presenting North Korean characters on screen that could be read as positive was essentially forbidden by the government, which espoused a strong anti-communist rhetoric. Films like Piagol (1955) had almost gotten with it, while IM Kwon-taek’s Jagko (1983) somehow managed to evade the government’s eye, even earning a surprising Special Prize for Anti-Communist Film at the Grand Bell Awards in 1980. These films would retroactively be considered as ‘Division Films’, a label that came into use following the release of North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990)

    CHUNG partnered for the first time with AHN Sung-ki, who brings a sympathetic edge to his conflicted intellectual. The character also acts as an observer for us, beckoning us to consider a fraught ideological tug-of-war, but also making us complicit in his actions and especially his inactions. At one point, he and his comrades ignore a rape in progress, even though the action proves to be a death sentence for the aggressor in question the very next morning.

    The film is a compelling wartime travelogue that examines a complex ideological schism that tore a country apart. We follow Korean characters that are unmoored and in mortal danger in their own homeland, as they skirmish and slink around in gorgeous, undulating hills. The breathtaking location photography by legendary cinematographer YOU Young-kil - responsible for classics ranging from The Pollen of Flowers (1972) to Christmas in August (1998) - both accentuates the marginalization of the characters and makes the film’s more didactic political aspirations more palatable through its sheer aesthetic beauty. In that sense, the film calls to mind works such as Terence MALICK’s later American classic The Thin Red Line.

    Recently restored and remastered in 4K, North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) is available to view on the Korean Film Archive’s Youtube channel ( and was published earlier this month on their blu-ray label.
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