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Original Title:
Poongsan Gae

South Korea 2011

Thriller, Drama

Jeon Jae-hong

Yoon Kye-sang
Kim Gyu-ri
Kim Jong-soo
Han Gi-Joong
Choi Moo-Seong
Yoo Ha-bok
Bae Yong-geun
Kim Jeong-seok
Jo Jae-ryong
Lee Nak-jun
Kim Yeong-hoon

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aka Poongsan Dog

Story: Poongsan (Yoon Kye-sang) earns his money by conveying messages between North and South Korean family members, smuggling goods or directly by getting people over the border. One day the man draws the attention of the National Intelligence Service. The NIS decides to use Poongsan and imprison him afterwards. The NIS is protecting a North Korean defector (Kim Jong-soo) who can provide them with important information, however, in return he wants his girlfriend In-oak (Kim Gyu-ri) at his side again. Poongsan is hired by the NIS, which acts undercover, and he actually manages to bring the woman over to South Korea. But waiting for her is a man who has undergone a serious change. Furthermore, In-oak has developed some feelings for Poongsan during their escape. Meantime, Poongsan is arrested by the NIS, but he eventually manages to escape and take In-oak and her husband hostage. He finally wants the pay for his job but he soon has to find out that not only the NIS is after him. North Korean spies are eager to see the defector dead as well.

Review: "Poongsan" is the attempt of art house director Kim Ki-duk to bring together three seperate stories in one film and at the same time to make his movie easier accessable for a wide audience. Latter one should be possible because the directing job is passed to his protege Jeon Jae-hong who has already brought to screen his screenplay to "Beautiful". This way the events look less abstract and there is also more action to be found in the movie. However, you can't really call "Poongsan" successful. There are as many positive aspects to this action drama, which without a doubt is way too ambitious for its own good, as there are negative ones. Partly it is a very typical Kim Ki-duk love story along with the physical and mental pain involved, but then the movie constantly drifts into the espionage genre only to become more political as well as melodramatic and put the seperation of Korea into the focus. This is why at some points you get the feeling that this movie has been put together from three different movies.

There are scenes in "Poongsan" that work well and there are some that can only make you shake your head in disbelief. Anyway, Kim Ki-duk's handwriting is alway apparent in the film. Once again he deals with subjects he already exercised in his other movies this way or another. The love story between a naturally mute protagonist (what else!?), about who we don't get to know anything, and a North Korean woman who is abused by her husband, who actually loves her (!), instantly reminds us of "3-Iron", while Poongsan's numerous trips over the border have to remind us of "The Coast Guard", of course. The protagonist, about whose motives we don't get to know anything in the course of the movie either, still remains somewhat interesting. He is a border runner who doesn't belong neither on this side nor on the other. He is homeless and yet has his home in both Koreas and therefore is most likely also a symbolization of the inner conflict of seperated Korea. He is a wanderer between two worlds, it seems, and because of this he also has some superhuman powers.

It is fascinating to see Poongsan succeed in doing with the greatest of ease what so many of the best elite soldiers aren't able to do: to take a walk through the demilitarized zone. In Kim Ki-duk's more abstract, dream-like film worlds this is possible without any problems but "Poongsan" is too much stuck into reality for such scenes to work out successfully. Even worse Kim Ki-duk's almost childish naivity and his carelessness when it comes to scenes that obviously aren't really interesting to him come to the foreground here. It's as if the screenplay reads: "Poongsan takes out two North Korean soldiers with his bare hands, Poongsan escapes from the NIS, Poongsan fights his way through 20 security officers." Yes, that's what you have to put up with and that just doesn't work because it is so unrealistic that it gives us a headache. Not even one of the officers draws a weapon when Poongsan attacks the house of the defector. No one stands a chance against this man, that is until the script demands that Poongsan is overpowered. In such a case it suddenly becomes pretty easy to deal with him.

Nonetheless, it's not just such scenes that can get you upset. In-oak marches over the Korean border and yells across the fields that even a deaf, dead drunk and sleeping North Korean soldier has to hear it. And then she asks Poongsan, since he is handling her a bit rough, if he doesn't know how to treat a woman! Can you have a princess complex even in North Korea? Anyway, the audience is constantly praying that she walks onto one of the numerous mines and finally shuts up for good. Fortunately, the picture we have of In-oak changes in the course of the movie and the love story between her and the mute man somehow works as well. However, as the film progresses there are countless twists that bring new parties to the game and make "Poongsan" look extremely overloaden. North and South Korean special units both have clichéloaden agents among them and some of their dialogues seem pretty perfunctory.

Towards the end "Poongsan" starts to swing the moral hammer a lot. The conflict in the movie is completely shifted to North and South Korea that are now facing each other in the shape of a few characters that allegorically play the part that the two countries play on a political level for a while already. A few moments end up being quite good, others are simply laying it on too thick. With his ending scriptwriter Kim Ki-duk tries to steer his boat into another direction and score with a more dramatic conclusion, but that simply doesn't work out as intented. The characters are all acting incomprehensible and remain marionettes of a screenplay that most obviously seems to be aiming for something special. This is supposed to be achieved by putting three movies into one and that just doesn't work as it also becomes clear in the strange editing of the movie. Director Jeon Jae-hong gives his film a nice film noir look with a lot of grey colors, but despite numerous twists "Poongsan" remains too long with its 121 minutes. There are things to like about this film, a few allegories, symbols, a little bit of drama, but when you look at it as a whole Kim Ki-duk's story, which clearly is ambitious of being epic in scale as well, has too many tenuous plot holes for being really captivating. Kim should stick to his smaller movies.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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