North Korean Partisan in South Korea [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (3rd October 2020).
The Film

"North Korean Partisan in South Korea" <南部軍> (1990)

Taking place during the Korean War, Lee Tae (played by Ahn Sung-ki) is a North Korean journalist for the Hapdong News that joins the war effort as a partisan - a non-military solider for the front lines. The northern troops have occupied Jeonju, but the southern forced backed by the United States are starting to gain ground. Lee's platoon may be smaller, but with wits and skills they are able to survive through some fierce confrontations, though casualties are a given on both sides. After Lee is hit by a bullet, he is treated by Park Min-ja (played by Choi Jin-shil). Through their time together, they form a special bond, but that cannot last long in the line of fire...

Korean cinema has long seen examples of war on film, from "Five Marines" (1961) or "The Marines Who Never Returned" (1963) in the post-war era, to "Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War" (2004) or "Operation Chromite" (2016) in the new millennium. For these films, it was always seen through the eyes of the South Korean soldiers for the most part. Following the Korean war, media propaganda was used to make sure the North was seen in a negative light and the South as prosperous, as the government would use its censorship to make sure the ideals were kept. There was more relaxation with government censorship with the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and cinema also saw a change from then onward, with more foreign language films being shown on the South Korean cinema screens, and with South Korean films being much less restrictive in content. In 1990, "North Korean Partisan in South Korea" showed a side of the Korean War that was unheard of in South Korean cinema: a story seen from the eyes of North Koreans. Rather than painting them as average background characters and expendables, they were given personalities, a culture, and nothing at all what was seen in other war films. They do not wave the northern flag or scream out patriotism. They are not sheltered and uneducated. Instead the characters in the story are real people going through real situations. Whether it is survival on the battlefield, falling in love, singing and drinking vicariously, the northerners are not at all different from people anywhere else, and that was something revolutionary.

Based on true occurrences, Lee Tae, who was a real North Korean journalist was captured and later in his life was able to publish his memoirs as "Nambugun: The First Released Autobiographical Memoirs of a Partisan in Mt. Jiri" in 1988. Nambugun, literally meaning "forces in the south", was officially known as the Independent Fourth Division of the Korean People's Army, led by General Lee Hyeon-sang, the leader of the North Korean partisans fighting in the south. Film director Chung Ji-young adapted it to screen two years later with screenwriter Jang Sun-woo adapting the memoirs. Unlike many war films featuring skilled soldiers with heavy artillery and gear, this film focuses on partisans made of non-soldiers. They do not have the best gear, and they do not have the best men either. Their clothes are raggedy, they equip no protective gear, and their weaponry is not state of the art. It may seem easy to see that they would eventually become the losing side in many of the battles, but that doesn't keep their hopes down, as seen in the story through the eyes of Lee. The film does take some liberties from the book in its adaptation for cinematic purposes. One character who died in real life was kept on a more ambiguous note in the film (which won't be spoiled as to which character), and the glasses-wearing cynical realist platoon mate Kim Yeong (played by Choi Min-soo) appears frequently in the film, is more of a footnote appearing only much later in the memoirs. Though Lee moves from place to place, squad to squad during his time in battles, faces of soldiers do repeat with reunions in the film version for consistency and pacing.

There are flashbacks to better days, there are no unusual cuts within time, with the only being the opening credits of the film which uses newsreel footage to explain about the war and the situations that led up to the country being divided. Chung's direction is more about characters and interactions rather than focusing on action and battle. Even one of the most memorable battle scenes comes in a village, in which the battle is settled through singing, rather than guns and blood. Things are rarely if ever political. There isn't preaching of North Korean values or praises of Kim Il-sung by the partisans, and the only time it could be seen as being close to that is the sequence when northern forces are relaxing and bathing in a river when their General Lee Hyeon-sang stands in a distance as all them cheer, seeing a glimpse of their leader. Which for many, would be the closest they could get to being in close contact with him. As for the fighters, there are some stereotypes to be found, with the fat one always looking for an excuse to eat and drink more, a young and inexperienced kid who is made fun of for being too young, an older wiser one who sometimes goes too far, and others. Stock characters are no surprise but it certainly helps with separating the figures who may start looking the same with their fatigues and sometimes similar looks.

"North Korean Partisan in South Korea" does not show who is right or who is wrong. It shows the coldness of war and what it does to people on both sides of the border, and as the end credits state, this is a film dedicated to the brave people who found on both sides. War is cruel and the film shows a side of the war that is rare yet also had its familiarity with convention. The film was a critical hit on its release, winning multiple awards. At the Blue Dragon Film Awards in 1990, it won Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best New Actress. At the 1990 Chunsa Film Art Awards, it won Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Editing, Best New Actress, and technical awards. Interestingly it did not get much international distribution even with film festivals. A retrospective of Chung's films were shown in Japan in April 2014, which included the film's theatrical premiere in Japan. It premiered in the UK at the London Korean Film Festival in November 2019. In 2020, a full 4K restoration of the film from the original negative was completed, and was first screened at the PyeongChang International Peace Film Festival in June 2020. This Blu-ray from the Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino presents on disc for the first time the newly restored version of the film.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray

Video

The Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino Blu-ray presents the film in the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The original 35mm negative which was donated to the archive by the director in 2004 was used for the 4K restoration, completed in 2020. Restored by Image Power Station Inc. and the Korean Film Archive, this is an absolutely great looking restoration. Colors look wonderful with darker shades, with skin tones looking natural as does the various landscapes, from the farms, mountains, and fields. Damage is extremely minimal, with speckles, scratches, and other debris being erased while still keeping the natural film grain. The image is very stable, with no telecine wobble, no fluctuation of colors or shades throughout the presentation. It's possibly hard to find a fault with the transfer. As the restoration featurette in the extras will say, the original negative did have some issues and the end result looks wonderful. The color correction and restoration transfer was approved by director Chung Ji-young.

The film's runtime is 159:00 which includes the restoration credits at the start.

Audio

Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Korean LPCM 2.0 stereo

The film was originally released in a 4-track stereo surround sound, which has been remixed as a 5.1 track. A standard stereo track is also available. For the sound restoration, the Korean Film Archive not only digitally restored the soundtrack by removing unwanted sound anomalies, but went a step further by resynchronizing sound when possible, adding an LFE .1 channel by extracting the deeper portions of the soundtrack. Dialogue always sounds clear and well balanced, as well as the score by Shin Byung-ha and the effects heard throughout. Like the image, an excellent restoration of the soundtrack.

There are optional English, Japanese, Korean subtitles in a white font, which are well timed and without any particular errors in the English track.

Extras

This is a Blu-ray+CD set.


DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

Audio commentary by film director Chung Ji-young, actor Ahn Sung-ki, and film journalist Ju Sung-chul
While the Korean Film Archive has been great about including commentaries with English subtitles, sadly this new commentary has no English translation.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Digital Restoration: Before & After" featurette (2:27)
This silent featurette includes side by side comparisons to the original scan without color correction or any form of cleanup, with the 4K restoration. There is English and Korean text with some explanations, but nothing too deep on the process.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

Image Gallery
A series of 10 stills from the film's production plus the theatrical poster are presented in a manual slideshow.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

Trailer (4:28)
The original South Korean trailer is presented here. Not remastered, there are some speckles in the image and hiss in the soundtrack.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


DISC TWO (Soundtrack CD of selected film music by Shin Byung-ha)
Shin Byung-ha composed the music for "North Korean Partisan in South Korea", but this is not a soundtrack album for the film, but instead a compilation of his works from various productions. The following is the tracklisting:

1. The Shower (4:10)
2. North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1:48)
3. That Which Falls Has Wings (2:30)
4. Seoul Rainbow (2:28)
5. The General's Son I (2:48)
6. A Man's Empty Chest (from The General's Son II) (2:17)
7. The Surrogate Woman (3:03)
8. The Woman Who Walks on Water (2:23)


The themes from the MBC TV drama "The Shower", "Seoul Rainbow" (1989), "The Surrogate Woman" (1987), director Im Kwon-taek's films "The General's Son" (1990), "The General's Son II" (1991), and director Park Chul-soo's "The Woman Who Walks on Water" (1990) alongside the theme for "North Korean Partisan in South Korea" are presented on the CD. With original source materials being lost over time, these tracks were remastered from commercially released vinyl album sources.


Booklet
A 48 page booklet in Korean and English is included. Full film credits, a synopsis, an awards listing, a filmography of the director, restoration notes, an essay, and stills are included. The essay "North Korean Partisan in South Korea: Painful Events Ingrained in Modern Korean History" by festival programmer Jung Han-seok, which talks about Chung's filmography in three parts, plus notes about "North Korean Partisan in South Korea".

Packaging

The Blu-ray and soundtrack CD are housed in a standard clear keep case, which also holds 3 postcards with stills from the film and a paper of the same size which has the tracklisting and information of the soundtrack CD. The case and the booklet are housed in a slip box. The box is labeled #20 as this is the twentieth Blu-ray release by the Korean Film Archive.

Overall

"North Korean Partisan in South Korea" is an excellent war film presenting a side rarely seen - through North Korean eyes but without political stigma. Focusing more on characters and hardships, it's a great piece with fine performances throughout its fairly lengthy runtime. The Korean Film Archive's 4K restoration Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, though the main commentary extra not being subtitled for English speaking audiences is a bit unfortunate.

Note the unrestored version of the film is available to see for free with English subtitles on the Korean Film Archive YouTube channel.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: C Overall: B+

 


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