|Singer-actor Jung Ji-hun, center, better known ashis stage name Rain, in a scene from the 2019 film "Race to Freedom: Um Bok Dong" / Courtesy of Entertainment Celltrion|
Filmmakers asked to be prudent when making historical movies
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Director Kim Yu-sung's biopic "Race to Freedom: Um Bok Dong" was met with derision in March last year, shortly after the movie about Korea's greatest cyclist hit local theaters.
Movie fans mocked it, calling it "kook-ppong" (an exaggerated story to trigger nationalistic sentiment from the public).
Um (1892-1951) won several major cycling championships during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea. He was the first Korean to grab a cycling championship title and defeated many Japanese rivals. He made his fellow Koreans extremely proud. But his post-retirement life was far from heroic. He was arrested and jailed for selling dozens of stolen bicycles.
"Race to Freedom" ignored Um's miserable twilight years.
The movie starring Jung Ji-hun, a singer and actor who performs under the stage name of Rain, disappeared from theaters quickly. In total a mere 170,000 tickets were sold.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan had a similar bitter experience when his 2017 movie "The Battleship Island" was released. The movie depicts the trauma of some 400 Korean slave laborers who were taken to Japan's Hashima Island to extract coal from the underwater coal mines during the Japanese occupation.
"The Battleship Island" was embroiled in controversy and drew criticism from people both at home and abroad.
Korean survivors of World War II slave labor criticized the filmmaker for turning a blind eye to the appalling labor conditions which, according to them, were much worse than what was portrayed in the movie. Unlike the movie, they said there were no alcoholic beverages or tobacco available to Korean laborers and they didn't even think of organizing a strike to demand the Japanese treat them better.
The way Koreans were depicted also raised the eyebrows of some moviegoers. In particular a scene from the film where some Koreans were abused by their fellow Koreans shocked them.
The film aimed to give a fresh look back on Korea's wartime sufferings, but it had the exact opposite effect ― some moviegoers alleged it was made to curry favor with Japan.
But criticism came from the Japanese media, too. Japan's conservative newspaper Sankei accused "The Battleship Island" of distorting history, claiming the movie would intensify Koreans' anti-Japan sentiment.
"The Battleship Island" failed to reach the break-even point with just 6.5 million tickets sold.
Historian Ban Byung-yool said risks lurk for filmmakers when they direct historical movies. "They are expected to make films that are fact-based and also entertaining. This is a tough condition to meet," he said. "Filmmakers tend to dramatize given historical events to entertain audiences. If their endeavor to fictionalize facts in history goes too far, their films will be subject to criticism for distortion of history."
Thus, Ban, a professor of Korean history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said filmmakers need to walk the tightrope between what actually happened and how they recreate those events to entertain audiences.
"In movies, TV series or novels, creators need to study thoroughly the topics they're digging up to use for their work. The impact of their work on the general public is huge," he said.
He shared a story about his colleague history professor to warn of the consequences of "untrue history education" conducted by filmmakers, drama producers and novelists.
"The other day a colleague professor's father taunted him for being ignorant of a certain thing that was mentioned in an epic TV series. But that thing was not based on fact, and his father had taken this as given," he said.
The fate of historical drama films is divided. While several films that were overly dramatized drew backlash from audiences which turned them into box office bombs, some movies saw success despite their factual errors.
The miserable standing of the 2019 film "The King's Letters" tells the story of how a film in which the filmmaker recreated history could be self-destructive. Directed by Cho Chul-hyun, the movie revolves around the King Sejong-directed creation of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and the role of a Buddhist monk is depicted as being critical. The movie was then embroiled in controversy over its distortions of history. In total, 960,000 tickets were sold.
But the 2014 mega box office hit "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" became a box office hit and became the most-watched Korean film in the domestic market with 17.6 million viewers, despite some historical inaccuracies such as the reframing of character Bae Seol as a villain who hires a hit man to kill Admiral Yi.
If filmmakers have the intention to distort history, Ban said this would take a toll on them and their movies.
He said creators need to pay extra caution when they make films or dramas based on modern history. "We historians were told not to work on modern history. When we say modern history, it usually means historical events that took place five decades ago or less ― a time span that can cover three generations of historical figures involved in the events. Historians are part of contemporary history, so their personal views and political orientations can affect their interpretation of the topics they are to study," he said.