August 9, 2013

National Security: The Horror of Torture

As any horror movie fan knows, a little torture can go a long way. Much of what contributes to the chills that accompany any on-screen violence are the near brushes and the possible repeat offenses whether they eventually happen or not. All this is of little concern to Jeong Ji-yeong, the director behind National Security. In his admittedly horrific protest film about the systematic torture of civil rights activists under South Korea's military dictatorship, Jeong shows a horror chamber's worth of physical sufferings as unlawfully detained prisoner Kim Jong-tae (Park Won-sang) is punched, kicked, slapped, water-boarded, electrocuted, starved, force-fed chile powder, and all-but-drowned. We also see his shoulder dislocated and witness as he's led by a belt around his throat as if he were a dog on a too-tight choke-chain. It's also so unremitting that you may forget that he's being sleep deprived, too.

Driven past the brink of madness, Kim eventually confesses first to whatever his torturers dictate then second to what appears to be pretty close to the truth -- a problematic plot point suggesting these methods, though cruel, actually work. Kim doesn't really understand the inflictors of pain except as examples of jobless youths, detached societal rejects, and sociopaths. They may, like the movie, be "based on a true story" but nevertheless, no one in power feels really real. Not that I want to see a realer depiction of torture. Better that Kim make his points following Brecht's dictum that “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Kim pounds away at his messages: Torture is inhuman; the normalization of physical cruelty misshapes the perpetrator as well as the victim; no one escapes violence unscathed. As the victim, Park may not be the greatest actor but you still wince when you see his head pushed underwater or watch his mouth fill with foam as the electricity courses through his body. You might argue the same point could be made in a short but part of Kim's point seems to be that cruelty knows no bounds. Why begrudge the time he takes to emphasize that.

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