Piagol (피아골, Lee Kang-cheon, 1955)

piagol poster 1Under the oppressive regime of Park Chung-hee, “anti-communism” became a national policy and all films, at least implicitly, had to display anti-communist sentiment. In the 1950s, however, despite the immediacy of the war’s end, there might have been more room for nuance. Then again, perhaps not. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (피아골), released just two years after the events it depicts, was among the first to concern itself with the North Korean partisans and was subsequently banned for its supposedly sympathetic depiction of communist guerrilla fighters, finally released only with the addition of the South Korean flag superimposed over the closing scene in order to suggest that the sole surviving partisan had decided to walk towards freedom.

Led by hardline Captain Agari (Lee Ye-chun), the partisans are in a sorry state. The truce has been signed and the war is “over” (or, at any rate, as “over” as it is now). They know no further reinforcements from China or the Soviet Union will be forthcoming, but have decided to continue fighting anyway. Holed up on Mount Jiri, the partisans are involved in an internecine guerrilla conflict with the encroaching South Korean and American forces, but are determined to root out “reactionary” elements and have been taking brutal revenge on local villages they believe to have “betrayed” them to the authorities.

Unlike the later anti-communist films, Lee’s partisans are not rabidly evil or gleefully sadistic but they are casually cruel and wilfully heartless. After the escape sequence which opens the film, a roll is called recording a casualty and a lost rifle. Captain Agari is much more worried about the gun than the man, eventually executing the soldier who dropped it after being shot in the arm for dereliction of duty. Agari’s actions are even harder to defend given that he knows there will be no further reinforcements and he’s down to a handful of men already, but neatly exemplify his lack of human feeling and intense need to enforce both dominance and ideological purity.

Convinced that someone in a nearby village is acting as an informant for the South, Captain Agari decides to carry out a raid to rid it of “reactionary” elements, which is a thinly veiled excuse to sack it. Not all of the partisans are entirely on board, especially as some of them hail from this village originally and have family members still living there. During the raid, Lee focuses on cowardly Captain Agari hiding in a nearby temple while Buddhist statues seem to be giving him the hard stare, before shifting to the same temple now in flames. A baby cries and crawls over the half naked body of its mother, raped and left for dead. Meanwhile, teenage recruit Il-dong (Cho Nam-suk) searches for his mum only to find her dying of a bullet wound in the street. Half delirious she asks him why he shot his own mother while all he can do is cradle her as she dies. Cold as ice partisan Ae-ran (Roh Kyung-hee) blows her whistle to tell him to get moving and brushes off the disapproval of sensitive intellectual Chul-soo (Kim Jin-kyu) with an affirmation that all actions to eradicate reactionaries should be praised.

Ae-ran is one of only two female partisans and seems to have something of a vendetta against the other, Soju (Kim Young-hee), who is berated by Captain Agari for being weak and womanly, “too wimpy for the communist party”. Breaking down in tears, Soju is raped by Agari who, a few moments later, is handed a commendation for heroism from the guerrilla commander and has her transferred to HQ out of the way. Unlike Soju, Ae-ran is presented as overly masculine, tough and unforgiving but, crucially, able to defend herself against Agari and successfully resist his advances. She is, however, softened by the quiet expression of desire for sensitive romantic Chul-soo whom she describes as “like a poet in fairyland”, and is unique among the partisans for her eventual acceptance of defeat as she urges to Chul-soo to go down the mountain and surrender to take advantage of the amnesty proposed by Southern forces, remaining reluctant to go herself in believing there is no way back for her after all she has done in the mountains.

Ae-ran has indeed done quite a lot in the mountains and none of it good. Chul-soo may lament that he has already lost his humanity despite being the only partisan to regularly voice dissent, but Ae-ran does not appear to have had very much of it in the first place. Still, she is “a survivor”. Given that we’ve seen them repeatedly commit atrocities and eventually destroy each other out a series of petty resentments, attempts to cover up crimes, and revenge born of sexual jealousy, you could hardly say that the communists have been shown in a very positive light, but audiences at the time failed to identify the film as sufficiently “anti-communist” because they couldn’t be sure that Ae-ran’s ideological disillusionment had led her to choose freedom in the South, rather than it simply being a case of physical desperation. Unlike the anti-communist films of the ‘60s, Lee refuses to demonise the partisans, depicting them as ideologically committed, cruel, and heartless, but also flawed and human as they succumb to despair on realising they have been abandoned by their nation, marooned in the South somewhere between death and freedom. In this at least, they are victims of their ideology, ruined by emotional austerity and betraying their own revolution even as they attempt to enact it.

Piagol was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

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