A modern historical drama about Korea’s Tiananmen Square incident might not sound like the most gripping of scenarios for a film, but May 18 certainly draws you in as a cinematic experience. One member of the audience had already seen the film twice on the internet, but came along to see it on the big screen because each time she sees it she is reduced to tears. I can understand why.
My own expectations of the film were only moderate, but I came out almost as shell-shocked as I had been after Housemaid two days earlier (though for different reasons). Even though we all knew how the film would end, we were still enthralled every second of the way.
The violence in the film, though not as bludgeoning an experience as Taegugki, was nevertheless visceral. Sound effects as bullets penetrated the flesh and truncheons ricocheted off skulls seemed to come from all sides of the cinema. The tragedy of the scenes in the hospital, as doctors struggled to cope with the injured and dying, all invited the audience to be moved.
The human elements were nicely done, never too mawkish, and the portrayal of the escalation of violence was well controlled. The tension mounted as the students became more militant in response to the military’s murderous force, leading to the first climax. We then had a pleasing lull, as the people of Kwangju enjoyed temporary control over their city, but this was only the calm before the inevitable military storm. Ahn Sung-ki of course brought his usual gravitas to the production, and he had the support of a strong cast. Highly recommended.