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In Gangwon-do, the northeastern-most province of South Korea, visitors can see the summer villas of both Kim Il-Sung and Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian founding fathers of North and South Korea, respectively, located across a lake from one another. The two were never quite neighbors—-Rhee’s villa was built after the war, after Kim’s was abandoned. Still, their proximity is a reminder of the vagaries of history: two men fighting for the same cause, Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule, who ended up on opposite sides of a bloody war that has never officially ended.
But in the 1930s, while Rhee was wheeling and dealing in the U.S. and Kim was leading a communist guerrilla army in Manchuria, there was another Korean independence movement (actually, there were a bunch of them, most of which didn’t get along): the Korean Provisional Government, in Shanghai, formerly led by Rhee before they kicked him out. It’s this faction that the Korean film Assassination revolves around, and it’s the stuff of legend. Kim Koo, aka the Assassin was the leader of the would-be government-in-exile. With the help of deputy Kim Won-Bong, an anarchist dedicated to propaganda of the deed, he dispatched scores of patriotic killers to rub out Japanese officials in China, occupied Korea, and Japan (a failed attempt was even made on emperor Hirohito). After liberation, Kim Won-Bong went to the North, only to be purged by Kim Il-Sung; Kim Koo ended up in the South and would go on to be assassinated himself, most likely under the orders of Rhee.
History can be more spectacular than fiction, but in Assassination, Kim Koo and Kim Won-Bong make only minor appearances. Instead, the action centers on one of these hit squads they sent to Seoul, in this case, to murder a Japanese military officer responsible for atrocities and a prominent Korean collaborator. It’s probably somewhere around here that the film takes a detour from the history books: One of the assassins is an impossibly glamorous female sniper who just happens to have an identical twin sister betrothed to another Japanese bad guy, and her team is pursued by another team of contract killers dispatched from Hawaii by a double agent within the Provisional Government.
Assassination is a terrific ride, a sweeping historical epic of the type that’s a little too melodramatic, bordering on self-parody, for Hollywood today. But for Korean cinema, it’s both a landmark and a rediscovery of form. The Korean films I grew up with were all cheap, paint-by-numbers knockoffs: either cheesy romantic comedies or juvenile gangpae (gangster) flicks, sometimes combining into romantic gangster comedies. It’s been over a decade since Oasis and Oldboy inaugurated the current new golden age of Korean cinema, with bigger budgets, better direction and more adult subject matter. Assassination feels modern in these respects—-expertly directed by Choi Dong-Hoon, with seemingly unlimited resources to recreate 1930s Seoul and Shanghai—-but also old fashioned, a throwback to an era of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago that was out of reach to Korean filmmakers at the time.
But this isn’t just a case of East imitating West. Assassination is identifiably Korean, and not just in subject matter. It’s unabashedly nationalistic (the anti-Japanese sentiment is barely tempered by a token Japanese bit character who supports Korean independence), romantic yet perfectly chaste. Actors either over- or under-emote in their stock character roles: the funny fat sidekick, the unflappable cool male lead, the demure female lead, the kindly grandmother; it just so happens they’re all spies. Jun Ji-Hyun, playing demure sniper Ahn Ok-Yun and demure sister Mitsuko, is magnetic in every scene she’s in, especially a mid-film setpiece of an elaborate assassination attempt gone awry, but less for her acting as for shooting at bad guys while cars blow up all around her with nary a hair out of place.
Assassination is showing in the D.C. area on limited release, currently only at Rave Cinemas in Korean-heavy Fairfax, where a local production company also earlier screened another, even bigger Korean blockbuster, Ode to My Father. Yet it needn’t have limited appeal. Last weekend’s audience was, indeed, almost entirely Korean. But even those without a penchant for Korean film or history (ancient for all but the oldest generation anyway) can appreciate a good historical epic, beautifully filmed, suspenseful, and a bit over the top. And if you learn anything along the way, that’s a bonus.
Assassination plays this week at Rave Cinemas Fairfax Corner, 11900 Palace Way, Fairfax. In Korean with English and Chinese subtitles.