- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

SEOUL — Six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program got under way in Beijing yesterday, but in Seoul South Korean moviegoers smashed box-office records for two action movies about military derring-do on the divided peninsula.

“Silmido” (“Silmi Island”) is based on the true story of Unit 684, a “Dirty Dozen”-type commando unit recruited from criminals who were trained on Silmido in the Yellow Sea to assassinate then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1969.

Starring Korea’s most famous actor, Ahn Seong-gi, as the unit’s commander, the film ends as it did in real life: The would-be assassins were gunned down by South Korean security forces in 1971 after their mission was canceled following a thaw in inter-Korean relations.

The release of the movie led the Ministry of Defense last month to acknowledge the existence of Unit 684 for the first time.

The second blockbuster is “Taegukgi” (“Korean Flag”), a fictional drama about two brothers recruited to fight in the Korean War. The elder, played by Korean heart-throb Jang Dong-geon, volunteers for increasingly risky missions in an attempt to protect his sibling from dangerous duties.

What is astonishing is the number of people flocking to the films even as North and South Korea convened yesterday with four other countries in Beijing for a second round of talks on the North’s nuclear programs.

Reuters news agency quoted a Chinese official describing the Beijing atmosphere as pragmatic, sincere and frank and cited promising signs of a consensus on how to proceed.

The United States and the North held an hour of informal talks in the afternoon and South Korea offered to compensate the North if it dismantles its nuclear-weapons program.

Such details seemed of little interest to the moviegoers packing into “Silmido,” which has been seen by approximately one in every five South Koreans since it opened on Dec. 24.

The movie knocked Hollywood heavyweight “Lord of The Rings III: The Return of The King” out of the top spot.

“I was expecting ‘Silmido’ to be a middling hit,” said Mark Russell, who covers Korean film for Hollywood Reporter, “but I wasn’t expecting a home run like that.”

“Taegukgi” opened on Feb. 5, selling 5 million tickets in its first 13 days — a faster rate even than “Silmido.”

Asian superstar Jackie Chan flew to Seoul last weekend to see the movie and accompanied the director to a screening. Negotiations are taking place to export both films to other Asian markets.

The Korean trend of hit movies dealing with the national division started with the 1999 action film “Shiri,” which portrayed secret agents battling it out in modern Seoul, with a bittersweet North-South love affair thrown in. A shiri is a fish native to the Korean peninsula; in the film, it is used as a code name.

This was followed in 2000 by “JSA” (“Joint Security Area”), a tense mystery surrounding a murdered soldier in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

The trend is part of a larger boom in Korean-made films, which have enjoyed world-class production values and multimillion dollar budgets since Korean venture funds began flowing into the entertainment industry with the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 1999.

“Korean films took around 53 percent of the domestic market nationwide last year,” said Mr. Russell — a leap from 1993, when they accounted for less than 20 percent, according to the Korea Film Commission.

There are concerns in some quarters that filmmakers are exploiting national tragedy.

“Already, there is a formula emerging,” editorialized the influential daily Joong Ang Ilbo last week. “Movies focus on a North-South Korea theme and add a touch of humanity. … We should not use the difficult situation of North-South relations for commercial purposes.”

That view seems not be shared by the millions of South Koreans who are swarming to the theaters, but the tolerance for foreign films with North-South themes is lower.

The latest in the James Bond franchise, featuring a North Korean villain, was released in South Korea during a period of intense anti-American demonstrations following the deaths of two schoolgirls in a road accident with Korea-based U.S. troops. Some civic groups boycotted the film, claiming it was an inaccurate representation of Korea.

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