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Although obviously produced on a budget, everything in the feature is brilliantly used to great effect. Many of the film's settings are either only partially seen, or filmed under the cover of night, accentuating the haunting darkness of the film. However, this doesn't take away from the barren wasteland that depicts North Korea, or the South's contrast: a westernized utopia, corrupting all with its influential privileges.
An unnamed stranger, identified only by the Poongsan cigarettes he smokes, travels covertly between the borders of North and South Korea. He takes messages of love from the South, to their families in the North, and occasionally returns with messages, items, and sometimes, people. Yoon Kye-Sang is perfect in this role. He never speaks, but superbly conveys his emotions through facial gesture, one of the film's most powerful scenes conveying the moment he reveals his heart.
Though set in chronological order, the film quickly skips forward: one moment, characters are naked, swimming in a river, next second, they're fully clothed and on land. This deliberate strategy, utilized so the film can urgently tell its story, potentially provides reason as to how the stranger can be horrifically injured one moment, and yet athletically capable the next. Fight scenes, despite being well choreographed, are not only few in number and short-lived, but occasionally unrealistic: vaulting over a fence is just one example where the audience's disbelief is in need of temporary suspension, and the way Northerners, and those from the South, are able to slip across the border with ease, potentially demonstrates a flaw in the system.
When a South Korean section chief (Han Ki-Joong) finds evidence that corroborates the existence of the unidentified stranger, he and his team track him down for a job. A defector from the North (Kim Jong-Soo) desperately wishes to see his wife, In-OK (Kim Gyu-Ri), who still resides on the other side of the border, in exchange to provide further information to the South. Once reunited with her husband, In-OK, who experiences difficulty acclimatising to the environment, discovers her husband is a changed man. Greedy, arrogant, jealous and violent, In-OK's heart quickly changes allegiances, instead belonging to the man who extracted her.
Occasional poetic language is supported not only by the visuals, which are capable of articulating metaphoric symbolism, but by the soundtrack, which encapsulates the emotions experienced in its accompanying moments. One particular vocal serenade, produced over the body of a deceased lover, is especially effective. With all the pain the film articulates, it's difficult to imagine how humor could be used, often articulating the ridiculousness of the confrontation the South and the North are caught between, while discussing how people on one side of the border die of starvation, while those on the opposing side grow fat on money and resources. In one instance, a South Korean spy, who proclaims his love for the North, is asked by his Northern torturer why he loves the country, because not even the torturer is capable of doing so.
Over the course of the feature I personally didn't cry, however, during the credits, everything the film had explored inexplicably hit me at once, and I found myself unable to stem the tears as I wondered 'what's the point?' I don't give Poongsan a 10 with ease, for it's a film that is seldom entertaining, and even during moments of beauty, these are marred by decadence. However, this feature does what so few fail to do these days: it tells the truth.
First of all, I wasn't even aware that Kim Ki-Duk had written and produced this flick until my girlfriend told me so, about 20 minutes in. Of course, the mute protagonist immediately reminded me of Ki-Duk's work, but already at that point, with so many flaws and stupidities in the script and execution of the picture, I'd never have guessed that Ki-Duk would have had been within a hundred-mile radius of this set at any time.
I'm a big fan of Kim Ki-Duk's earlier films, so watching this is just jaw-dropping. I cannot fathom how anyone, least of all Ki-Duk, can write such nonsensical below-soap opera trash and get it published and distributed.
Early on we were mesmerized and joking that perhaps Ki-Duk had been using the last three years getting severely acquainted with some Soju bottles or just suffered from massive brain hemorrhaging, but the bottom line, as expressed by my girlfriend was, "Are we really going to watch through all of this?"
And then it just got worse and worse and worse and then a tad worse still. It seems like having been made with a milk money budget. Terrible acting, terrible editing, terrible script writing, well - terrible everything.
There's not a single thing that anyone does in this movie that makes sense. Both on a character basis and on a script basis. The latter mostly because there seems to be no point to anything that happens on screen. We just don't know why the heck anyone does what he or she does. What the point of the whole ordeal is - where the script wants to take us - what the message is. And yet, what they do apparently is uttermost crucial for them to do, because the script takes so many liberties defying everything we've just been told about every character and the story so far to have them act out this endless string of stupid stupid things out of the blue.
You'll also notice that there's no middle-ground for the way the any one of the characters behave here. Either they're weeping and/or screaming hysterically, they're deeply depressed and apathetic, or they're completely off-the-wall in a way that would put Adam Sandler on PCP to shame. Add to this that everyone seems to be either deeply retarded or extremely childish. They all act like they're pre- teens. It's utterly unbelievable that any one of them would be able to hold the job they're supposedly holding without having some kind of care person to aid them through their day and keep them from getting themselves killed.
Then there's the romance part. You kind of already hate the female side of that from the get-go. She's just extremely annoying, not to mention dumb, selfish, self-pitying and disgraceful. The male counterpart - our protagonist - is just a piece of dead lumber. Whereas the mute characters in other Kim Ki-Duk films are just depicted perfectly and carry with them this poetic reverence, not much unlike Buddhist monks, this time around he's just plain annoying. You get the feeling that he's not speaking, because if he did, he'd sound just as stupid as the rest of the characters.
Then there're the too-many-to-count script blunders and logic fails. Like someone stepping on a landmine, taking a flight through the air, and walking away without a scratch. Like jumping over a 12-foot fence just like that. Like the Northeners torturing someone, then for no reason letting that person walk around freely the moment after, to wreak some havoc. Like a Northener being smuggled to South Korea, getting angry with someone on the South side, and asking to be taken back to Pyonyang instead of just opening the door and live without this other person as a Southener. Like torturing someone to make them speak all the while having the victim's mouth covered with duct tape. I could continue this list ad nauseum, but it'd take you just as long to read it as it would to watch the film.
Very few films in the "upper class" of cinema manage to portray their heroes so badly that you wish for them to disappear from the screen, but this film not only manages that - save for a few pleasure girls and a cute little boy, I can't really think of a single character in this film that I didn't wish would just disappear from view. That's quite a feat.
I'm appalled and shocked. And for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone would give this even a mediocre review. It's the worst Korean film I've ever seen, and I've seen some pretty silly ones. I am, however, thankful that we missed it when it was in the cinemas. At least I didn't pay money for this.
Fortunately, the movie has enough conviction to make me accept the premise and be amused by his activities throughout the running time. Starting as an art house movie version of action thriller, it eventually turns out to be both melodrama and, unexpectedly, symbolic black comedy on a long, destructive relationship between South and North Korea for more than 60 years. All factors do not work in its flawed screenplay, but it manages to keep our attention until it is stalled in a predictable plot progression during the second half, and it has a compelling character who, like other supporting characters, deserves a little better plot.
Like many heroes of the films directed by Kim Ki-duk, who produced this film and wrote its screenplay, the hero of "Poongsan", played by Yoon Gye-sang, does not say anything. His name is never mentioned. We do not know anything about him – his past or how he comes to do his dangerous job. He lives alone in a shabby place somewhere in Seoul, and he seems to content with his solitary. Only one notable thing about him is that he likes North Korean cigarette named Poongsan, a North Korean canine breed.
There are many families separated by the division between South and North Korea. They desperately want to know where their loved ones are and send their messages to them. He is the guy they need. For delivering the messages, he secretly goes back and forth across the border heavily guarded and monitored by the soldiers on both sides. He carefully crosses the reed and the river with some preparations, including covering his body with mud to avoid being detected by the infrared cameras. And, at the last step, this is quite outrageous, he pole-jumps over the barbed iron fence. Don't even ask me about how the hell he finds the people to receive the messages in North Korea so quickly.
Sometimes, he also brings the people to South. It is riskier than usual, but he seems not to mind about that, and he is ready to handle the unexpected situation when the troubles occur during his operation. Thanks to his services, his clients are happy to correspond with their lost family members beyond the border, while saddened by the lost years between them. In one poignant scene, an old North Korean lady only looks at the video camera without saying anything; her dying husband in South Korea is heartbroken by her silent image.
One day, he gets the attention of people from South Korean National Intelligence Service. They contact him because they want to bring some woman from Pyongyang. While pressed by them to write the report based on his valuable information(we never know what it is), a North Korean defect executive(Kim Jong-soo) under their protection demands them to bring the girl he adored, As soon as they ask him to deliver the girl, he instantly starts to work. He finishes his job within 3 hours.
Wait a minute, how that can be possible? Maybe we can accept that he is very, very good at locating people and evading the soldiers on the border, but, can you believe that he can go to Pyongyang and then come back to South Korea only during 3 hours? He does not even use the airplane – he just rides the bicycle or runs or walks. Is that really possible? Maybe he is a Korean version of Captain America, I guess.
First of all, because within the movie lies an idea that you won't be able to guess from other users and it would be best it you took the time to watch the movie.
Rambo ? No. Terminator ? No. Guess again. This time is about a man who, consciously or unconsciously, tries to undo something done by the cruel history. That is the one only hint. Scouts' honor !
Fairly well acted (could've been better) and an interesting rhythm of the script.
On the other hand, the ending is kind of expected, but at the same time the more dramatic.