‘Man of Will’: Kim Koo biopic sheds new light on national hero

October 2, 2017
This photo provided by the Kiwi Co. is a scene from "Man of Will." (Yonhap)

This photo provided by the Kiwi Co. is a scene from “Man of Will.” (Yonhap)

SEOUL, Sept. 29 (Yonhap) — Kim Koo, one of Korea’s most respected national heroes, has had a couple of movie cameos but has never been a central figure in any of the films.

That’s probably because his presence as a prominent Korean independence fighter and president of the provisional Korean government in exile in Shanghai in the 1940s is too much to handle for commercial movies. Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945, and he is often mentioned as the rival of South Korea’s founding leader Rhee Syng-man.

At any rate, this new sentimental addition to the cult of Kim, written and directed by Lee Won-tae, is more interesting than it could have been.

As astonishingly portrayed by Cho Jin-woong, “Man of Will” does not depict Kim as the usual indomitable political leader, but a single-minded, high-octane and exasperated young man with a strong sense of justice.

Based on the real-life story of Kim, whose real name was Kim Chang-soo, the film opens with a scene in which Kim fights against a Japanese man at a tavern in his hometown of Haeju, Hwanghae Province, in 1896. Chang-soo is later put behind bars and sentenced to death for killing the man whom he believed was the assassin of Korea’s Empress Myeongseong. Many historians say the man he killed was not the assassin but an innocent merchant.

This photo provided by the Kiwi Co. is a scene from "Man of Will." (Yonhap)

This photo provided by the Kiwi Co. is a scene from “Man of Will.” (Yonhap)

In the Incheon prison, Chang-soo refuses to mingle with other inmates and eat meals, claiming that he is not a criminal but just took revenge for the empress. But from there, he witnesses the persecution of his fellow countrymen, mostly illiterate and lower-class people who were detained without trial, and realizes what he ought to do for the country.

Writing letters petitioning on behalf of falsely convicted prisoners and teaching them Korean and Chinese letters, he then becomes their “captain.” Ma Sang-gu (Jeong Man-sik) and other prisoners who have only endured the suffering lamenting their own misfortune are also gradually transformed with the realization that they can change if they desperately want to.

Interestingly, the film imagines Chang-soo gradually changing his attitude and opening up his mind to fellow inmates with the influence of Mr. Go, another death-row inmate (Jeong Jin-young), who is a gentle and literate nobleman jailed for leading a Donghak peasantry movement. He teaches that all people are equal and deserving of respect.

This photo provided by the Kiwi Co. is a scene from "Man of Will." (Yonhap)

This photo provided by the Kiwi Co. is a scene from “Man of Will.” (Yonhap)

This biopic also wittily invents diverse characters out of Kim’s fellow prisoners and prison guards to make the story more palatable. Chang-soo’s friendship with Go, however, is sketched too superficial even though that encounter is considered an important turning point in the young man’s life.

Song Seung-heon, one of the leading actors behind the Asianwide boom of Korean pop culture known as “hallyu,” plays the prison director Kang Hyeong-sik.

The film constantly contrasts the bright and affluent upper-class lives of Japanese officials and the pro-Japanese Koreans like Kang and the dark and bleak atmosphere of the prison and its inmates.

Song’s performance as the strikingly charismatic and temperamental jailer lacks the necessary emotional subtlety even when he suffers the mental conflict going on inside his mind caused by his job of oppressing his fellow countrymen.

Surprising viewers who have no idea at all regarding who Kim Chang-soo is, the movie tells that he is Kim Koo, who later became president of the provisional Korean government in exile, only before the ending. The director has said in press events that he intended to give young audiences the lesson that even commoners can become a hero like him.

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