- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

SEOUL — Recent antagonisms between South Korea and its most important allies — the United States and Japan — play out in the summer ‘s two highest-profile movies here.

The popularity of the films may reflect public attitudes after Seoul’s reluctance to join Tokyo and Washington in taking a hard line toward Pyongyang over its nuclear program and missile tests.

Anger toward Japan intensified yesterday when outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a final visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war veterans, including some convicted war criminals.

An enormous buzz surrounds “The Host” (“Gwoemul,” or “The Monster,” in Korean), which registered the biggest-ever opening of a Korean movie when it debuted on July 27.

The film deals with a monster appearing in Seoul’s Han River, terrorizing the citizenry. The creature was created when employees on a U.S. Army base in South Korea poured industrial waste into the river — a premise based on an actual incident six years ago.

Later in the film, U.S. forces try to kill the creature — which, it transpires, is the host to a deadly virus — with a chemical weapon.

Despite its shlocky theme, the film mixes the genres of horror, science fiction, comedy and social criticism. Made by Bong Joon-ho, arguably South Korea’s most respected director for the classic “Memories of Murder” (2003), it won rave reviews from Western critics when it previewed at the Festival of Cannes. It opens in American cities in the next two months.

The other summer blockbuster, “Hanbando” (“The Korean Peninsula”), is set in the near future. Japan sparks naval clashes wherein it tries to obstruct a plan to link rail lines between the two Koreas — an event Koreans hope will become a reality this year. The movie juxtaposes brutal events from the two nations’ troubled past with the fictional modern-day story line.

The film, featuring some of Korea’s most famed actors and a $10 million budget — enormous by local standards — has been a commercial success. Despite opening during torrential rainstorms and with fierce competition from “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” it ran on 500 screens nationwide, luring 4 million viewers in two weeks.

Critics have been less kind, with many panning its heavy-handed nationalism. A Korea Times review slamming the film has been posted on the “World Racism” section of the World News Network Web site.

The film’s makers have hit back. One of the stars, Cha In-pyo, asked in Tokyo why he appeared in the movie, reportedly replied: “I’m a citizen of the Republic of Korea, and in the film industry of the Republic of Korea, I don’t think there is anyone who would have turned down the script.”

Hair-trigger nationalism is a feature of South Korean life. Recent manifestations include attacks on foreign investors by the press and bureaucracy, and the mania surrounding South Korea’s World Cup campaign despite soccer’s limited popularity domestically.

“I can accept nationalism,” “Hanbando” director Kang Woo-suk said in an interview with movie Web site Twitchfilm.net. “After all, in a situation like ours, with all that our country went through over the years, isn’t nationalism almost a given?”

Despite their shared democratic and capitalistic systems, many South Koreans remain suspicious of Japan and the United States.

The nation was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and few South Koreans have forgiven the often harsh rule. This sentiment is buttressed by what South Koreans and Chinese see as Japan’s failure to take responsibility for its history; Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine result in frequent street protests.

The visit to the Shinto shrine by Mr. Koizumi, who steps down next month, fulfilled a 2001 campaign promise at a cost of angering nations that suffered under Japanese militarism during the war.

Feelings toward the United States are more equivocal. Americans liberated the country from Japanese rule in 1945 and repelled a North Korean invasion in 1950, but the gratitude was undermined by U.S. support for subsequent dictatorial regimes and tensions with U.S. troops deployed here.

The Bush administration’s hawkish policy toward Pyongyang has promoted fresh anti-Americanism, particularly among the young.

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