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A young girl is caught up in the 1980 Gwangju massacre, where Korean soldiers killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters who opposed the country's takeover by the military the year before. Flashbacks show the girl seeing her mother shot to death in the massacre. The film spurred the Korean public to demand the truth behind the incident, and their government eventually opened previously classified files on the massacre. Written by
The most earth-shaking event in Korean history after the end of the Korean War has to be the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980, when large crowds of students and citizens demonstrating for democracy clashed with special forces sent in by the government. The soldiers shot, stabbed and crippled large numbers of demonstrators (estimates of the dead range from an official government figure of 207 to a couple thousand), sending shock waves through the Korean populace. Ultimately this event more than any other would come to shape the future political development of Korea.
A Petal Director Jang Sun-woo was in jail at the time of the incident, arrested for organizing student rallies in Seoul. It was shortly after his release that he entered the film industry (he says, "I wanted to do something meaningful that wouldn't get me arrested"), and one of his longstanding goals was to make a film about the incident. Nonetheless, more than 15 years would pass before he found a producer with the desire and resources to bring these horrific and controversial events to the screen.
At the time that A Petal -- a big-budget (2.8 billion won) production by the standards of time -- opened production in late 1995, Korea had changed greatly but was still dealing with the aftershocks of the massacre. Now headed by its first civilian government, the country was witness to a public investigation into the events of 1980 that saw former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo brought to trial (and eventually convicted, though for crimes unrelated to the massacre). With so much public attention focused on the incident, Jang saw less need to shoot a documentary-style presentation of the events themselves, and instead decided to depict the massacre's lingering effects in an indirect fashion. He has since referred to the film as a kind of ssitkkim-gut, a shamanist ritual meant to relieve a burdened soul (this is the same ritual Jang depicts at the start of his 1995 documentary on the history of Korean cinema, Cinema on the Road).
A Petal takes place somewhat after the massacre, focusing on a young girl who obviously suffers from severe psychological damage. The girl's dirt-streaked face and wild eyes (she is played brilliantly by actress Lee Jeong-hyun, who later went on to become a well-known techno pop star) seem not to register pain or normal emotions, and she can barely communicate. She attaches herself to a callous, disabled manual laborer (Moon Sung-keun), who sexually abuses her, partly in an effort to drive her away, but she refuses to go. At the same time we follow a group of four students who are searching for her -- she is their deceased friend's younger sister -- though they haven't any idea where to find her (among the actors playing the students are a young Choo Sang-mi and Sol Kyung-gu).
Jang's film uses flashbacks, haunting music, disjointed editing and even animated sequences to create a highly disturbing and initially confusing collection of scenes and impressions. We soon realize that this is not going to be a simple indictment of the government and the soldiers' actions -- as guilty as they may be, everyone in the film possesses the will and capacity for violence. Jang's disturbing use of rape to develop the film's themes has opened it up to attack from certain critics, although it should be said in Jang's defense that its role in the film is far more complex than the standard raped-woman-as-symbol-of-ravaged-nation allegory that so many films fall back on.
Despite the intensity of many scenes, what stands out most from A Petal is a black-and-white flashback at the film's end, which has to rank as one of the most powerful, heartbreaking moments contained in any Korean film. This is the ssitkkim-gut of which Jang spoke, a scene in which the nightmare is revisited and re-experienced in all its terror. Viewers should not expect any easy reconciliation or solutions after the massacre is re-played. Nonetheless the process may lead to recognition, and a chance of loosening one's grip slightly on the horrors of the past. (REVIEW WRITTEN BY DARCY PAQUET)
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