Last year, one of the biggest films in South Korea was a swashbuckling tale of freedom fighters battling against a cruel oppressor: Japan.
In Choi Dong-hoon’s “Assassination” (“Ansatsu” in Japanese), which opens here this weekend, a trio of underground operatives led by sharpshooter Ahn Ok-yun (Gianna Jun, also known as Jun Ji-hyun) is tasked with killing a Japanese general and his Korean collaborator in occupied Seoul during the 1930s. An entertaining mash-up of period melodrama and spaghetti Western-style action, the film raked in over $85 million at the South Korean box office, making it the country’s second-highest-grossing flick of 2015.
That commercial performance was certainly impressive, but it paled in comparison to the previous year’s biggest earner. Historical epic “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” a lavish recreation of Yi Sun-sin’s famous victory over the fleet of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1597, is the most successful movie of all time in Korea, where it earned in excess of $117 million. (Unlike “Assassination,” the movie went straight to DVD in Japan.)
Some observers have linked the films to a wider trend for patriotic Korean cinema that casts the country’s historical adversary in a less than flattering light. History provides plenty of inspiration on that front: Japan invaded the Korean Peninsula twice during the 16th century and subjected it to a harsh colonial occupation between 1910 and 1945.
Memories from that era lent fuel to what’s been one of the most talked-about movies of 2016 so far: Cho Jung-rae’s “Spirits’ Homecoming,” a crowd-funded drama based on the story of Kang Il-chul, a real-life “comfort woman” who was forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels. Despite its meager budget, the film opened at No. 1 in South Korea in March, and has gone on to earn $23 million. The right-wing Japanese news magazine Sapio, hardly known for its impartiality on such matters, proclaimed it “the worst anti-Japanese film in Korean history.”
This September, the occupation gets revisited again in “The Age of Shadows,” the first Korean-language production from Warner Bros. Helmed by acclaimed director Kim Jee-woon (“I Saw the Devil”), the film is set in the 1920s and, like “Assassination,” revolves around an armed resistance plot against the Japanese.
It would be tempting to dismiss these movies as populist Japan-bashing exercises, and in some cases there’s an element of truth to that charge. The legacy of wartime cruelty was the driving inspiration behind “Spirits’ Homecoming,” whose director spent 13 years trying to get the film made. Its box-office performance was interpreted as a protest vote against the recent comfort women agreement between Tokyo and Seoul, which prompted a widespread public outcry in South Korea.
In “The Admiral,” meanwhile, the Japanese characters — played by Korean actors with a haphazard mastery of the language — are sadistic, pantomime-worthy villains. The cruelest of them, Michifusa Kurushima (Ryu Seung-ryong), dispatches a boat laden with the severed heads of Korean prisoners to his adversary’s camp, then shrugs it off afterward: “If they are worthy opponents, then why not?”
“Assassination” doesn’t skimp on its depictions of Japanese brutality. Jun’s character describes the violent atrocities inflicted on her village by the occupying forces, and we later see a Japanese lieutenant casually execute a Korean girl for the crime of bumping into him in the street. Yet there’s an element of balance too: The assassins are explicitly forbidden from killing enemy civilians and are assisted in their efforts by a Japanese sympathizer who sacrifices his life to help them.
More importantly, the film’s biggest villains aren’t Japanese at all — they’re Korean. Screen veteran Lee Geung-young plays a corporate quisling so eager to ingratiate himself with the occupying forces that he’ll willingly kill his own family members if necessary. Even more dastardly is Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae), a resistance fighter who betrays his comrades by secretly collaborating with the Japanese.
Viewers can expect a similar kind of moral murkiness in “The Age of Shadows,” in which Song Kang-ho plays a Korean-born Japanese police officer who was once involved in the independence movement but now finds himself on the other side of the conflict. It sounds closer in spirit to Ang Lee’s 2007 thriller “Lust, Caution,” in which a Chinese secret agent falls in love with the man she is supposed to assassinate, than to the uncomplicated patriotism of “The Admiral.”
The current appetite for films about the colonial period in Korea is actually a recent phenomenon. “Assassination” director Choi told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year that he had overcome a box office “jinx” on movies about Japan’s occupation of Korea, stating, “Koreans are not comfortable with this era.”
You can understand why. Stories set during that time, at least if they’re being honest, tend not to have clear-cut heroes or happy endings. In the extended coda of “Assassination,” the villainous Yeom, on trial for treachery after the war, strips off his shirt in the courtroom and points to the multiple scars on his body.
“Everything I’ve ever done was for the sake of liberation,” he declares, and the crowd erupts in applause, unaware that they’re venerating a monster. If Japanese viewers experience a twinge of discomfort while watching “Assassination,” their Korean counterparts are probably feeling something similar.
“Assassination (“Ansatsu”) goes on limited nationwide release from July 16.