Sunday, September 23, 2012

Yeonghwa ’12: Poongsan

Not much is known about the poongsan breed of doggie, because of their native region: North Korea.  Given the stories of their tenacity, it seems like an apt enough moniker for a mysterious messenger who traverses the DMZ seemingly at will.  It also happens to be his favorite brand of cigarette.  Unfortunately, his unique talent will attract the wrong sort of attention in Juhn Jai-hong’s Poongsan, which screens during the 2012 edition of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, now underway at MoMA.

Poongsan never speaks.  For his line of work that is not so bad.  Typically he smuggles video-taped messages and family heirlooms to loved ones on opposite sides of the border.  Occasionally, he carries a child across.  Those trips only go in one direction—south.  Finally getting wind of the silent mystery man, the South Korean NIS recruits him for a special gig.  They eagerly covet the intel a North Korean defector has promised them, but he refuses to talk until they also bring over his lover, In-oak.  No problem, he can deliver her in three hours.

While the nameless antihero is good to his word, this crossing was more eventful than usual.  Those intense three hours left an impression on In-oak.  Considering her feelings for her former Communist sugar-daddy-defector lover were already ambiguous at best, their reunion quickly turns sour.  Meanwhile, the NIS rewards their taciturn freelancer by opening a can of interrogation on him, obsessively asking whose side he is on.  Soon the Poongsan smoking trafficker and In-oak become pawns in a shadowy game played by the NIS and a ruthless NK terror cell.

Written and produced by Kim Ki-duk (the proud new owner of Venice’s Golden Lion for Pieta), Poongsan is somewhat akin to other why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along espionage thrillers coming out of the South in recent years (like for instance, Secret Reunion), but at least it shows the Northern Communist agents are at least as coldblooded as their Southern counterparts—and quite arguably crueler.  The fact that most people are starving in the DPRK is also acknowledged if not belabored.  Nonetheless, the hawkishness of the NIS seems to take it disproportionately in the shins throughout the film.  Indeed, how dare they try to protect their country from a personality cult willfully starving its population into submission.

Though working strictly non-verbally, former boy band member Yoon Kye-sang gives a career making performance.  Totally credible in the action scenes, he also expresses the sort of deep passionate yearning that never goes out of style at the Korean box office.  Likewise, Kim Gyu-ri develops vivid chemistry with him, culminating in one of the most extreme (yet chaste) love scenes you will ever see on film.  However, her little-girl-lost act gets a tad wearying when her taciturn protector is not around.  At least, Kim Jong-soo is not afraid to let loose the oily bile as the dubious defector.  Confusingly though, several of the supporting cast members look as though they were recruited at a Song Kang-ho lookalike contest (but no, that does not include Song himself).

By action movie standards, Poongsan is remarkably dour.  Yet, the film’s need to be tragic is apparent right from the start.  Kim Ki-duk protégé Juhn has a strong handle on both the tense border crossing sequences and the star-crossed romance.  However, he lets the scenes of morally equivalent in-fighting get a bit draggy.  Nonetheless, Bourne fans should appreciate the gritty vibe and Yoon’s star turn.  Recommended accordingly, Poongsan screens this coming Wednesday (9/26) and Saturday (9/29) as part of MoMA’s annual Yeonghwa celebration of Korean cinema.