In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, enjoy being transported to another era and experiencing the stories that swept away – or were set in motion by – our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares to the past. Others watch to see progress. Korea lovers can take a crash course in Korean history while watching historical movies. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plotlines, and confuse or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to separate fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films to clarify and dispel misunderstandings.
The year is 1911. The Japanese Governor General of Korea, Masatake Terauchi, visits the Sontag Hotel located in Gyeongseong (the former name of Seoul). There, he is introduced to a Korean businessman named Kang In-guk by pro-Japan Prime Minister Lee Wan-yong. Kang acts submissive to Terauchi and demands that he give him the Joseon mining rights. Suddenly, a bomb explodes, injuring the three. A masked Joseon man named Yeom Seok-jin appears and tries to kill the two pro-Japanese Koreans and Terauchi while trying to avoid the bullets being fired by Japanese military police. Seok-jin misses his shots to kill the three and the assassination mission fails.
So begins the Korean box office hit “Assassination” (2015), which is now available on Netflix. Director Choi Dong-hoon said he wanted to “tell the story of those who fought for justice in Korea’s darkest era” – the Japanese colonial period (1910-45). The film is a variation on real events, says the director. Some characters are made up, others are real. He also took designs from real historical figures to create some of his own.
“After realizing that many independent fighters’ names are lost or not even remembered while others are hailed and commemorated,” the director said he imagined what their lives would have been like and created the film. to shed light on those who are lost or forgotten. .
There was indeed an assassination attempt on Terauchi, who executed the Japan-Korea annexation treaty in 1910, becoming the first Japanese Governor General of Korea. But that was not in 1911 but a year before in 1910. The mission was led by Ahn Myeong-geun, a cousin of Ahn Jung-geun, who was a Korean independence activist famous for assassinating Hirobumi Ito, the first Prime minister of Japan. Although the Sontag Hotel depicted in the film actually existed in Seoul at that time, the assassination attempt was carried out near the Ji’an Yalu River Border Railway Bridge as Terauchi was attending the completion ceremony. Korean businessman Kang also wears makeup, however, many historians insist that his portrayal is very close to what the pro-Japanese Koreans who sold out the country were like at the time.
Indie fighter Seok-jin, played by “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, is a fictional character. In the film, Seok-jin is eventually captured by Japanese military police and imprisoned at Jongno Police Station. He made headlines when he became the first convict to escape from the Jongno police station in 1949. Seok-jin betrayed his comrades because it was the Japanese military police who released him from prison in exchange for his promise that he would act as a spy.
However, the director revealed at the time of the film’s release that parts of Seok-jin’s character are inspired by a real historical figure named Yeom Dong-jin. Many rumors surround this man – some accuse Yeom of having planned the assassination of the iconic Korean independence activist Kim Gu and of having acted as a Japanese spy. What has been confirmed about Yeom is that he attempted to kill Kim Il Sung, the late North Korean founder, in 1946 as the leader of Baekuisa, a far-right anti-communist terrorist group.
Kim Gu (played by Kim Hong-pa) and Kim Won-bong (played by Jo Seung-woo) are both real and important figures in Korean history. They are portrayed quite close to the real characters, including their appearances.
The only totally fictional element of the film seems to be the two men who join hands in planning the assassinations of the Imperial Japanese Army general named Kawaguchi Mamoru (a real historical figure who ordered the Gando Massacre, brutally executing over 3 000 Joseon civilians during the 27-day course in 1931) and Kang In-guk, the pro-Japanese businessman.
Historians like Lee Jun-sik of the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activists say that Kim Gu and Kim Won-bong didn’t get along well, especially at that time, that there was no way they had joined forces as shown in the film. Kim Gu was an anti-Communist and nationalist who campaigned for independence under the Provisional Government while Kim Won-bong’s beliefs were closer to anarchism and he favored Communism. The two did not begin to show signs of collaboration until the late 1930s.
The three independent fighters – Ahn Ock-yun (played by Jun Ji-hyun), Hwang Deok-sam (played by Choi Deok-mun) and Chu Sang-ock (played by Cho Jin-woong) – who are selected to lead in well the assassination are all fictional characters. The director created the character of Ock-yun after Korea’s revered independent activist Nam Ja-hyun. After Nam’s active participation in the March 1st movement, she defected to Manchuria and joined an independence revolution organization and led various movements, including a plot to assassinate Japanese Governor-General Makoto Saito. Nam is remembered as one of the greatest independent activists. The director, however, said he named Jun’s character Ahn Ock-yun by taking a letter each from three of Korea’s most revered independent activists – Ahn Jung-geun, Kim Sang-ock and Yun Bong-gil.
In the film, Kim Bong-won tells the three what their mission is and the reason is that Imperial Japanese Army General Mamoru Kawaguchi is the one who ordered the killing of over 3,000 Joseon civilians of all ages, who lived in Manchuria.
It is a historical fact. Kim is referring to the Gando massacre, a mass murder committed by the Japanese army against Korean civilians living in Gando (which is today Jiandao in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin, China) in October 1920.
In the film, Ock-yun and Sang-ock, along with a paid assassin called Hawaiian Pistol (played by Ha Jung-woo), who is also a fictional character, have a second attempt to assassinate Kang and Kawaguchi during a a wedding ceremony held at Mitsukoshi Department Store in Gyeongseong. The building of this department store still exists today. It is the main building of Shinsegae department store in Myeongdong, the famous one that lights up every Christmas. Mitsukoshi Department Store opened as Korea’s first department store on October 20, 1930. After Korea was liberated on August 15, 1945, it was renamed Donghwa Department Store. But soon after, the Korean War broke out and it was used as an exchange post for the US military. Samsung bought it in 1963 and turned it into a Shinsaegae department store.
Near the end of the film, Seok-jin is put on trial for his pro-Japanese actions. The film is the first commercial film that features Korea’s Special Committee to Investigate Anti-National Activists, a special committee that was established in 1948 to investigate and punish anti-national acts by pro-Japanese groups during the Japanese colonial period. However, this special committee only lasted a year due to resistance from Syngman Rhee, Korea’s first president.
In the film, Seok-jin, who becomes an old man, insists that he never acted like a spy and was a true independent activist.
“There are six bullets in my body that were fired by the Japanese. Your honor, those bullets [are proof] that I was ready to become the breeding ground for resistance,” he said in the courtroom.
Although the film does not go into the details of the special commission of investigation, the director tries to introduce the short-lived measure and remind viewers that “there are names we should try to remember and to recognize or to punish”.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [[email protected]]