Relenting to my dad’s insistence, I dragged my reluctant self to the movie theater at 9:30 PM to watch a movie called Assassin (암살), a movie supposedly dealing with Korea under Japanese imperialism. Besides the movie being critically acclaimed, I think my dad frankly wanted to experience Korean nationalistic pride by watching a historically Korean movie at an American movie theater.
The movie was masterfully crafted. The characters developed concisely throughout the movie, all playing their roles in the overall theme of the plot without overstepping the boundaries of other characters. Each character had an intricately-woven relationship with other characters that made the Japanese-Korean tension seem not so black-and-white; it introduced a shade of grey, if you will. Last, but not least, I appreciated the musical selection, which gently assuaged the constantly progressing story-line of the movie with its calming yet ominous orchestral backdrop.
Since the movie lends itself to a wide array of discussion entailing the post-Chosun dynasty in the Korean peninsula, many moviegoers in the theater seemed shaken up by the brutal truth of what perspired in Korea between 1910 and 1945. History has it recorded that the Japanese regime took control of Korea at the brink of Chosun Dynasty’s collapse with the help of pro-Japanese faction in Korea (what’s even more bothersome is that the sons and daughters of pro-Japanese faction members currently hold many of the governmental positions in South Korea). With the forceful signage of Ul-Sa-Jo-Yak, Japanese regime effectively took hold of Korea, decentralizing the Korean government, savagely killing Korean civilians in both Manchuria and in Korea, preemptively replacing much of Korean culture with that of Japanese, and mandating Koreans to pay patriotic homage to Japan at certain times of the day. The vestige of this imperialistic time period can still be seen in some of Korea’s dialect, fashion, culture, and nomenclature (my grandmother has a Japanese and a Korean name).
In retaliation to the heinous acts committed by the Japanese, many Koreans stood at the forefront of nationalism as Korean independence fighters. The movie, although using aliases, depicts some of these independence fighters who have tirelessly worked to promote security, pride, and welfare to the state that was on the verge of dilapidation. Some of these independence workers include Yoon Bong-Gil (disguised grenade as picnic food and destroyed a Japanese event being held in Shanghai), Ahn Joong-Geun (assassinated Ito Hirobumi, the then-prime minister of Japan), and Lee Bong-Chang (attempted to throw a grenade at Hirohito, the then-emperor of Japan). These activists were posthumously awarded the President’s prize, indicating the highest honor one could receive from the Korean government.
What I feel uncomfortable about is the fact that these men are immortalized in Korean history as the pioneers of peace and courage. Regardless of the circumstance and situation, these men killed another human being, and in the case of Yoon Bong-Gil, his grenade inflicted collateral damage on nearby civilians who had nothing to do with the Korea-Japan relationship. To achieve peace, these men resorted to violence. To prevent murder, these men murdered. And yet, these men were the paragons of justice in that time period.
Maybe this is why men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who preached nonviolent protest in the face of animosity, are imprinted in world history as symbols of peace. Because when hardship surfaces, peacefully resisting seems impossible, even ridiculous. For the independence fighters of Korea, they chose to fight back to Japan by means of force and espionage. Sometimes, I wonder if things would have been different if the fighters chose peace instead of violence, words instead of guns.
But history is like a book scribbled in with a permanent marker: it cannot be erased. Instead, we must look forward and learn from the mistakes we made in the past to prepare for the present and change the future. As I sat there watching the movie, I looked around the room and realized we were able to sit in these very places because there were people in the past that fought for our freedom and our sovereignty. I may not agree with the methods used to achieve the freedom, but then again, how would I know what the situation was like at that time? All I can do is pay tribute to those who died in our place so we could have a better life.