By Park Han-sol
"Let's stop talking about May."
"I wish I could."
To the people in Gwangju, May is more than just a month marking the end of spring. It is an agonizing word rife with blackouts, rows of coffins and sleepless nights.
Director Kang Sang-woo's 2019 documentary "Kim-Gun" begins with a far-right researcher's provocative claim about North Korean involvement in the 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy movement.
Ji Man-won advances a conspiracy theory through facial analysis software that nearly 600 demonstrators in Gwangju were North Korea agents who staged a "riot," not a grassroots bottom-up protest for democracy. He then names these cryptic figures as "Gwang-su."
|The iconic photo of "Kim-Gun" (Mr. Kim) taken during the 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy movement. / Courtesy of the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival|
He points to a black-and-white image of a young man, dubbed as "No.1 Gwang-su," staring fiercely into the camera. "This guy's ferocious eyes, posture and physique are not something that students in Gwangju can mimic … He is clearly a North Korean soldier."
As the film begins its search for the iconic "Kim-Gun" (Mr. Kim) in the photo, it reveals the same pair of eyes that some right-wingers saw as "proof" of North Korean involvement have been differently remembered as a sign of tough character by the people of Gwangju.
The documentary carries no narration and expository texts appear rarely. When they do make an appearance, they are just enough to provide the simplest historical background.
Instead, the narrative flows through a series of interviews and anecdotes describing different moments of passion, torment and confusion. Some happened to be on the same truck as Kim; some took the iconic photo of Kim; some felt intimidated by Kim, while others were surprised to see Kim as a member of the citizen militia.
But no one knew his name. There was no point in asking since "they would come back as corpses anyway," according to Oh Ki-chul, who was responsible for taking care of demonstrators' bodies. He is simply a Mr. Kim.
As the documentary continues, more details emerge as Kim's identity as a onetime-ragpicker and a crucial moment of his confrontation with the army are revealed.
However, director Kang does not choose to pursue his search for Kim-Gun to the end. His film instead becomes a stage that highlights the tales of all those other Kim-Guns and other Gwang-sus told along the way ― a mother who lost her son but has refused to ever close her front door in the vain hope that he will return, a Korean rice wine bar owner who supplied the citizen militia with food and alcohol, and a former militia member who washes his own hair at barber shops as he does not wish to relive his experiences of torture.
The superimposition of two images taken in the same place, one of Kim-Gun in 1980 and the other in 2018, represents the film's masterful attempt to juxtapose past and present. Modern commercial buildings with colorful signs slowly fade into the black-and-white structure from almost four decades ago. Everything looks incredibly similar except for the ominous presence of an automatic rifle on top of a military truck piercing through the image.
In the end, "Kim-Gun" offers a new perspective on the pro-democracy movement not simply as a historically significant incident but as an ongoing process of trauma and recovery.
"I hope that through film, writing or any other medium, other works can continue to awaken the memory of May in Gwangju," Kang said in the director's commentary.
"Kim-Gun" is part of an ongoing online theater series under the theme of humanity, time and space organized by the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival. In the time of pandemic, the program aims to serve as a remote showcase of three documentary films, "Kim-Gun," "Repatriation" (2004) and "The Remnants" (2018), which will screen at the end of every month from May to July for a week on the festival's YouTube channel.
"With a narrative chasing down a mysterious individual, Kim-Gun is compelling even for those who do not know or wish to avoid the heavy subject of the Gwangju Uprising," Choi Yeo-jeong, the festival's PR & marketing team manager, told The Korea Times. "We wanted to create a platform so that the public can watch documentaries like this in the comfort of their own home and familiarize themselves with the genre that still feels foreign to many."
The film is also available on YouTube and Naver.