Under the intense censorship of South Korea’s military dictatorships, “anti-communism” had become the single most important cultural signifier to the extent that all films were in some sense “anti-communist” even if some were more obviously anti-communist than others. As power shifted away from the dictators and towards a new era of democratic freedom, a more nuanced view of the recent past became possible with the “division film” taking the place of the old-fashioned anti-communist drama. Rather than demonise the North, the division film emphasised the tragedy of partition, painting the two Koreas as equal victims of geopolitical finagling.
Arriving in 1990 shortly after Korea’s democratisation, Chung Ji-young’s Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Nambugun) is among the first to directly address the subject of the Korean War from the perspective of the North Korean partisans, albeit obviously from those who eventually came South. Adapting the memoirs of war correspondent Lee Tae, Chung ignores ideology in order to explore the gruelling experience of guerrilla warfare largely being fought by ordinary people with strong convictions rather than by career soldiers or committed revolutionaries.
Lee Tae (Ahn Sung-ki) himself is an “intellectual” North Korean newspaper reporter working as a correspondent in Jeonju which is currently in North Korean occupied territory. When they get word that the Americans and South Korean forces are on their way, the newspaper staff evacuates and eventually ends up heading into the mountains to join the partisans. As he has previous experience, Lee Tae is given command of a platoon and the instruction to try and make up for his bourgeois intellectualism with hard work on the job. To keep them all in one place, Lee is assigned a series of other “intellectual” recruits including conflicted student Kim (Choi Min-soo) who joined the fight to figure out what this “inhuman” war was all about.
One of the reasons Kim is so conflicted is that he brought his hometown, high school-age girlfriend with him and wonders if that was a very responsible thing to do, especially when they are eventually separated by the command chain who decide to send her to headquarters while Kim stays with the troops. Though we are shown that the North Korean soldiers are just ordinary men and women who call each other comrade, the regime itself still comes in for subtle criticism for its oppressive hardline austerity. On the run and separated from his unit, a wounded Lee is accompanied by an earnest nurse, Min-ja (Choi Jin-sil), with whom he falls in love, but when the romance is discovered by a superior officer Lee is taken aside and reminded that here there can be no love, only revolution. He must give all of himself to the cause, reserving nothing for such bourgeois affections as romance. Both Lee and Kim spend the rest of the picture trying and failing to reconnect with their respective women while fantasising about a different kind of life in which they would not have been kept apart.
Yet, despite the fact that we clearly see a world of near total equality among the partisans, it is clear that Lee’s own thinking at least is not quite as progressive as one might assume. Bonding with Min-ja and dreaming of the future, he envisages a life for himself as a reporter in Seoul at which point she asks what she’s supposed to do and receives the answer “have dinner ready for me”. Min-ja, apparently an orphan whose brother was killed fighting for the South, found herself becoming a field nurse for the North and perhaps has a lower ideological consciousness as a result, freely offering her medical knowledge to anyone who might be in need of it. “Why is it that we’re fighting?” she asks Lee, “you both need me”, embodying the wounded innocence of the one Korea unfairly torn apart by forces beyond its control.
All gusto and determination, Lee and the others start out with pluck and positivity but gradual disillusionment accompanies the shift from the warmth of spring to the dead of winter as the partisans find themselves starving to death on a frozen mountain. Win or lose, the victory belongs to the US or USSR, one particularly dejected soldier intones laying bare his loss of faith in the primacy of North Korean communism and accepting that they are all playthings in a proxy war being fought by Koreans on Korean soil. Kim fails to find “meaning” in conflict and emerges only with shame and regret while others clutch at pamphlets dropped by the Americans promising an amnesty for those who surrender willingly. Lee trudges on alone, frostbitten and starving, encountering only the dead and finally contemplating suicide only to be given one last source of hope and to have that too crushed. Chung humanises the communists, but still they have to lose in the spiritual as well as the literal sense. Ending on a howl of existential despair, the film dedicates itself to all those on both sides who fell on Jirisan or sacrificed their lives for a vision of a better world but does so with pity more than admiration for all that they suffered as victims of their times.