by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, October 20, 2017 — The UCLA Center for Korean Studies held a screening of the film “Assassination” on October 6th in the James Bridges Theater, followed by a question and answer session with the film’s Seoul-based director, Choi Dong-hoon. The director spoke on pacing, characters and the complications involved in bringing Korean history to life on screen. The event was co-sponsored by the UCLA Department of Film, Television and Digital Media and the Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles.
Originally released in 2015, the film centers around an assassination plot in 1930s Korea. Rebels attempt to murder a high-ranking official and evade Japanese colonial rulers, whose occupation of the Korean peninsula would ultimately last until 1945. “Assassination” was an enormous critical and commercial success in South Korea and went on to become the seventh-highest grossing film in the history of Korean cinema.
Explaining what he thought might be the reason for his film’s massive commercial success, Choi remarked, “I didn't want to make a film that was solely about being funny or entertaining. I wanted to make a movie with a lot of different characters who had unique perspectives on a historical occurrence, while also being entertaining.”
Until the release of “Assassination,” films exploring the period of Japanese colonial rule usually did not perform well at the South Korean box office. “It was my intent to make the movie slower and more nuanced than movies that I have made in the past,” said the director. (His previous movies were all very fast-paced and entertaining.)
Choi wanted to pay homage to history in his film, but he knew it would be difficult to convey the complicated emotional journey that the Korean people underwent in the first half of the 20th century. “Everybody was overjoyed when Korea gained independence in 1945,” said the director.
“After that, the U.S. Army came to help, but nobody was actually there in the government handling the country’s administration,” he continued. “All the leaders were gone, all the police officers were gone. It was hard for the country to move forward while also seeking justice against those who had enabled colonial rule,” he explained.
Although the film is set a decade before the end of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it touches on the difficulties of moving past the colonial period. After Choi’s protagonists successfully complete their assassination mission, the film examines the aftermath of the Japanese officers’ deaths. The wide cast of characters and unique narrative structure not only distinguished Choi’s movie from other period dramas — which often end promptly after a victorious battle — they also helped the director teach a history lesson about the effects of colonial rule.
“The title is ‘Assassination,’ obviously, and in the film, two people are killed,” said Choi. “But the movie doesn't end there.... We continue to see the assassins and how they are affected. Ultimately, I think that this movie is about the people who make it until the very end, who survive. That was the inspiration for the movie's structure,” he explained.
Discussions of past political turbulence circled back to current governance in South Korea during the question-and-answer period. An audience member asked Choi his opinion about the rumored blacklisting of a large number of South Korean writers and artists by recently impeached President Park Geun-hye. In his opinion, the president’s supposed list was too extensive (it reportedly contained over 7,000 names) to be particularly effective.
As Choi described the situation, artists told themselves that if the government wanted to make a blacklist, it really ought to mind its own business, but they would go on with their day and make wonderful art. The director was certain that his country’s tumultuous history would continue to be documented by progressive artists in the future, with or without the government’s approval.
“Even if there is a blacklist, you can't contain the Korean past or the passion of our artists,” he concluded.