A film based on the memoir of a democracy activist who was tortured in the 1980s by South Korea's military rulers is provoking discussion about the country's not-so-distant authoritarian past and the influence it will have on this year's presidential election.
"National Security," which premieres Saturday at the Busan International Film Festival, tells the story of Kim Geun-tae, who endured 22 days of torture in a notorious Seoul interrogation room because of alleged links to North Korea and a plot to overthrow South Korea's military regime.
It is due for nationwide release in November, just a month before the country votes in a presidential race being contested by Park Geun-hye, the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country for 18 years until his assassination.
Park, the conservative ruling party candidate, was considered the clear front-runner until last month, when she made comments seen as supportive of her father's 1961 coup and failed to condemn a 1975 court ruling that led to the executions of eight people who more than two decades later were posthumously cleared of subversion charges.
Park later apologized for her comments, but suspicions about her views on South Korea's dictatorial history linger.
Director Chung Ji-young dared Park to watch his film, which has the Korean title "Namyeongdong 1985," saying it would help prove the genuineness of her apology and whether she was sincere in her promise to help heal the pain of those who suffered under military rule.
Spokespeople for Park and her party did not answer repeated calls for comment.
About 90 percent of the nearly two-hour movie is set in an interrogation room in Namyeongdong, a Seoul neighborhood that when mentioned can still strike fear in former opposition figures because of the abuses that took place there.
The film shows graphic scenes of torture, including waterboarding and electric shocks administered by one of the regime's infamous "torture artists." In one scene, torturers chat about dating as they keep Kim's head shoved into a tub of water. Another torturer smiles and whistles as he ramps up electric shock on the screaming Kim.
One of the torturers eventually develops a loose bond with Kim and stops him from being shot, only to be beaten up by his superior.
"My film is about how torture destroys both the tortured and the torturers," Chung said.
The movie stars Park Weon-sang as Kim and Lee Kyeong-yeong as the main torturer.
Jeon Chan-il, a film critic and organizer of the film festival, said they decided to screen the movie despite some questioning of its timing as political. He cited its artistic quality and Chung's reputation as a top South Korean director.
"Torturers are typically considered evil, but this movie successfully depicts them as humans just like us," Jeon said. "'National Security' shows how both the torturers and the tortured are destroyed mentally and physically before the tyranny of the military regime."
Kim, the activist portrayed in the film, went on to become a three-term lawmaker before he died last year. He once called the Namyeongdong facility, which is now a human rights museum, a "human slaughterhouse."
In 1987, a college student died under interrogation at Namyeongdong, an event that led to nationwide protests that paved the way for democratic reforms and, finally, direct presidential elections.
Kang Yong-jun, who was imprisoned along with Kim for allegedly being a threat to national security, said "the torturers in Namyeongdong felt no remorse or guilt. They believed they were just going about their job in their service of national security."
Chung said his film is not solely focused on the past, but is also a commentary on South Korea's National Security Law, which was liberally used under military rule to lock away opponents and remains in place today. The law makes it illegal to praise, sympathize or cooperate with North Korea.
"My movie is titled 'National Security' in English because wrongdoings have been perpetrated under the slogan of national security and still are," he said.
"I just hope viewers will feel that nothing like this torture should happen again," he said.
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