Do you know what happened in Korea from the late 1980s to the early 1990s? You might think of just a few events. However, those were quite turbulent times in the history of South Korea. Director Gwon Gyung-won made the film “Courtesy to the Nation,” which is going to be released in May on this very subject. The Argus met and heard from Gwon about a series of incidents which stemmed from this national violence in 1991.
The Argus: Please introduce the film “Courtesy to the Nation (2018).”
Gwon Gyung-won (Gwon): Hello, I am Gwon Gyung-won, who majored in action film making. The film “Courtesy to the Nation” is a music documentary based on “The Suicide Note Ghostwrite Fabrication Affair.” The Suicide Note Ghostwrite Fabrication Affair is a political scandal that happened in 1991, which shows how unstable Korean’s newly-founded democracy was after the withdrawal of the military regime. After a retrial judgment, a civic group was determined to clear victim Cahng’s name and restore his honor, asked me to make a film to record the affair.
The Argus: How did you come up with the title?
Gwon: The Courtesy to the Nation means that the memories of the victims and the series of processes after the affair are still continuing, though the affair is technically over, as the innocence of Cahng has been revealed. Today’s young people cannot understand why college students at that time devoted themselves that much because they did not experience it directly, so I meant to express this attitude ironically. I also expected that people would wonder and sneer at the word “courtesy.”
The Argus: Why did you make it a music documentary?
Gwon: Originally, I wanted to make a dramatic movie like “1987” to highlight how abnormal governmental authority can be, because a dramatic movie can focus on the attacker by using fictional characters and events, unlike a documentary film. I thought that people would spend more time and energy blaming the perpetrators rather than sympathizing with the victims.
However, when I went to interview Cahng at his small guitar concert one day, I was impressed with how music comforts him, unlike how religion or his colleagues had failed to do so. Then, simple videos I had shot at that time ended up becoming a music documentary.
The Argus: Were there any difficulties you faced while making film?
Gwon: I went through many difficulties that every independent film has, such as a lack of production budget and the myriad items under that purview. I regarded those deficiencies as being inevitable obstacles; but finding interviewees and requesting interviews was the most difficult aspect for me - there was no one who willingly decided to tell their stories. Not only can recalling past memories be painful for them, but also I was just a stranger who visited them after more than 20 years, with no real connection to the event.
The Argus: What is the purpose of the film?
Gwon: Rather than forcing certain emotions upon or toward the audience, I would like to let them feel what I had felt through Cahng’s rendering. I think society is still indifferent to victims and their sacrifice, especially regarding this event. Moreover, people regard those tragedies as unrelated to them.
However, this mentality incurs within society a lack of empathy, so I want to tell them how important it is to get to know and empathize with other people’s lives. I hope that inter-textuality between the film and consumer is available so that the audience feels the points that I was trying to convey in the production of the film.
The Argus: How was your college period?
Gwon: It was a period of transition from the 80’s to the present atmosphere. The Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, communism in Eastern Europe collapsed after 1991, and on the other side, the word “globalization” merged with “neoliberalism.” One of the most impressive and symbolic events in 1991, when I was a freshman, was that about 800,000 youths of the former Soviet Union enjoyed a performance by Metallica, a famous American heavy metal band, in Moscow.
Nonetheless, the political situation of Korea was called a “quasi-military dictatorship,” because its democracy was not effective even though the Chun Doo-hwan regime had come to an end. According to the record, the number of patriotic martyrs for democratization is 120 from 1987 to 1991, while 100 people died from 1959 to 1987, except citizens who died during the April 19 Revolution and May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement. It shows that the protests against the government and subsequent suppression were extremely harsh. Those who have not undergone early 90’s recognize that democracy has been established since 1987, but in fact, it really was not.
The Argus: Please tell us your future plans.
Gwon: I am preparing so that the film is released as soon as possible because this film may get the strongest, far-reaching power in May, an unforgettable month to the victims of 1991. I am going to promote the film until the first half of this year, and I will seek a way to share it with more people. Later on, I hope to make a dramatic movie if possible.
The Argus: Are there any messages you want to convey to the readers?
Gwon: A society that accepts one’s intention in different ways and forces its own value is still firm, but I can be sure that the framework of society is not eternal. Consequently, I do not want you to be tired or depressed even if society does not recognize your intent, even if it is just.
Most people think that Korea’s period of “superficial democracy” was completed after the June Democracy Movement in 1987. However, in 1991, a college student died by the police, and a series of suicides happened in protest of that death. Even the former Korean president Roh Tae-woo put the blame on an innocent individual to overcome his political crisis. This shows how the nation can attack an individual viciously.
Today, the affairs of the early 90’s still continue with lots of victims coming out into the light. However, we lost our connection to the past and focus only on the present.
By You Seo-yeon
Associate Editor of National Section