Italian Premiere | Out Of Competition | Restored Classics | 50/50: Celebrating 50 Years of Korean Film Preservation


Jirisan is a scenic but rough and sprawling mountain, the second-largest in South Korea.
Stretching into three provinces in the southwest corner of the peninsula, Jirisan is a popular destination for hikers in the present day, but throughout the centuries it has also served as the perfect hiding place for people wishing to evade the arm of the state.

Such was the case in the mid-1950s, when a small band of communist partisan fighters in the South refused to recognize the armistice that was signed to bring the Korean War to a close. Although tired, hungry and increasingly disillusioned, the partisans refused to give up, and continued to engage in occasional skirmishes with the South Korean police and army.

These are the “heroes” of the film Piagol. They hide out in a gorge called Piagol, raiding and scavaging in order to survive. They are led by a ruthless captain nicknamed Agari who is more than willing to kill his own comrades when he deems it necessary. The more thoughtful Cheol-su is privately beginning to harbor doubts about communist ideology.
Ae-ran, a strong-willed and competent soldier, remains ideologically committed, but she begins to develop feelings for Cheol-su. Meanwhile, a female soldier from another company arrives wounded in Piagol, setting off a cycle of conflict and desire that soon spins out of control.

Piagol was made in 1955, just two years after the signing of the armistice, so the events portrayed in the film were still very much a contemporary issue. Director Lee Kangcheon said that he intended the movie to be an illustration of the inherent contradictions within communist ideology that would lead to its downfall. When he submitted it to government censors in order to secure a theatrical release (because of its subject matter, the film needed to be approved by multiple sections of the government, including the Ministry of Defence), he was at pains to explain to officials that the film did not celebrate the resistance of its protagonists in any way. But the government was not so convinced. “As viewers, don’t you naturally side with the protagonists as you watch a film?,” they asked. “Isn’t it dangerous to release such a film when you still have people living in the South who sided with North Korea during the war?” The debate over whether and how to release Piagol ended up becoming quite controversial, and it was covered in depth by the local press. Ultimately the film was released, but with significant changes, including the superimposition of the South Korean flag over the film’s final image. In many ways, this film is best remembered for the questions it raised about how local films should portray North Koreans (who after all, had been part of a single unified country just 10 years earlier) and supporters of communist ideology.

The strong government backlash against this film did serve as a warning to filmmakers, and this warning would become even more explicit in the 1960s when director Lee Man-hee was arrested for portraying North Korean soldiers in too human a light in his film Seven Women Prisoners (1965). For decades, the idea of making another film like Piagol was unthinkable, so it’s significant that when censorship did finally loosen up in the late 1980s, one of the first films to take advantage of this was North Korean Partisan in South Korea (Nambugun) – directed by Chung Ji-young from a screenplay by Jang Sun-woo – about the experiences of partisan fighters on Jirisan during and after the war. These two films thus bookend an era in which it was simply not possible to portray North Koreans or their supporters as psychologically rounded, flawed but human characters.

Darcy Paquet
Film director: LEE Kang-cheon
Year: 1955
Running time: 109'
Country: South Korea
30/04 - 4:20 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
30-04-2024 16:20 30-04-2024 18:09Europe/Rome Piagol Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine cec@cecudine.org
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