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Korean film gives insight into life of a soldier

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Compulsory army service would be terribly hard to apply in America today. In Korea, however, with the constant threat of North Korea across the border – it’s a way of life. Every male in South Korea must spend 24-28 months serving in the army sometime between the ages of 20 and 30.

Director Jong-Bin Yoon depicts this way of life and the effects of the compulsory military service in his film “The Unforgiven.”

The film revolves around Lee Seung-yeong (Seo Jang-weon), a Korean citizen who joins the army for 26 months of mandatory service after spending time in college. He constantly questions the behavior of both his superiors and other soldiers and is seen as more rebellious than the other soldiers. One of his superiors, Yu Tae-jeong (Ha Jeong-woo), recognizes him from school in their adolescence and does his best to try to help him out by giving him tips on surviving in the army. Because he is Seung-yeong’s superior, he does his best to keep their friendship a secret from the others in their bunker. As time progresses, Seung-yeong finds military life to be more and more difficult and is bullied by the sergeants when Tae-jeong is not around.

The scenes of military life, though the core of the movie, are flashback scenes. The present time is a year or so later when Seung-yeong is on his leave and goes to visit Tae-jeong. Seung-yeong persistently tries to have a serious conversation with Tae-jeong, who is instead more interested in entertaining his girlfriend, Ji-hae (Sung-mi Kim). The movie then cuts between Seung-yeong’s experiences in the military and his attempts to reconnect with Tae-jeong in the present.

“The Unforgiven” was created by director Jong-Bin Yoon as his final student film before graduation from film school in South Korea. He created the movie as a reflection upon the experiences he encountered while completing his compulsory military service. Admittedly, the movie is more toned down than Yoon initially intended since he needed approval of the script by the South Korean military before he was allowed to begin filming.

More than a movie about the military life, “The Unforgiven” focuses more specifically on the relationships that develop between the men while they are serving. Instead of focusing on any war action, the movie plays out more like 2005’s “Jarhead” with an emphasis on the psychological effects of being in the army and the personal interaction between the men.

Far from being a completely serious movie, there are several comedic moments in the film. Most of these revolve around Heo Ji-hoon, a junior to Seung-yeong, and played by director Jong-Bin Yoon himself. Based on someone he met while serving in the army, Yoon decided it would be easier for him to play the role himself, rather than try to convey the mannerisms for someone else to portray. The decision served him well, and Ji-hoon is a well-liked character.

One issue that has arisen in Western showings of “The Unforgiven,” is the difference of culture between South Korea and Western countries. In discussing the film, Western audiences have brought up scenes where homosexuality is implied. Yoon himself addressed this while speaking at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Monday, Oct. 2, stating that the interaction is simply a difference of culture and nothing more – something implicitly obvious to Korean viewers.

Since its debut in 2005, “The Unforgiven” has held a run in South Korean theatres, been presented at the Cannes film festival and is currently on a university tour through the United States.