It’s Lee Young-ae’s first film, released at the very beginning of 1997. It’s pretty difficult to get hold of. Unavailable on Region 3 DVD, you might be able to find a cheap Hong Kong version of the film from Panorama. Currently, YesAsia only lists it on VCD. Filmed mainly in Morocco, there’s plenty of exotic scenery and local colour, a little bit of action, and of course there’s the internationally famous Lee Young-ae. So why isn’t the film more widely available?
Well firstly, it’s not the best ever film. there’s probably more Arabic and French spoken than Korean. A small amount of English is also spoken (Lee Young-ae is honing her language skills for her somewhat underwhelming linguistic performance in JSA), though it’s clearly not the first language of any of the actors.
Lee Young-ae, a young Korean exchange student at a US college, is on vacation in Algeria, and for some reason is arrested for being an illegal immigrant. At the time, Seoul has no diplomatic relations with Algeria, but Pyongyang does. And without a trusty DPRK agent to help her, she’d be rotting in an Algerian jail for the next 20 years. Fortunately the locals don’t know the difference between the DPRK and the ROK. It’s just Korea to them, so our friendly North Korean is able to assist.
Various adventures ensue: Lee Young-ae working in a carpet souk, Lee Young-ae as the involuntary member of some local’s harem, Lee Young-ae attending an exotic firelit dance, Lee young-ae making her way across the desert being attacked by the local Bedouin. Inevitably, romance blossoms amidst the travails, and in a less than subtle piece of directing, the camera lingers lovingly on Ms Lee’s posterior as the couple almost but not quite hold hands.
“Where are we?”, says Lee Young-ae. “In the central part of the Sahara desert” comes the knowledgeable reply, though in the background is something that looks suspiciously like the Mediterranean Sea. The two Koreans eat a pomegranate together, and you know what’s coming next. After all, this DVD is sold as a category III movie in Hong Kong. Actually, it takes another 5 minutes for the inevitable to happen, though it’s all rather tastefully done and everything is left to the imagination. But you have to hand it to these Koreans: despite staggering across the desert in the blazing sun with no water all day, their desire for cross-border congress overcomes all. They collapse exhausted in the sand.
The most interesting thing about this film, and probably therefore the thing which has caused its somewhat uneasy status in the Korean film world, is its treatment of the North, in which there are elements to anger hawks and doves alike. Calculated to annoy the conservatives is the sympathetic portrayal of the DRPK agent, just over two years after a North Korean representative dropped a bombshell during a North-South meeting at Panmunjom: “Seoul is not far from here. If there is a war, it will become a sea of fire.” It’s a year before Kim Dae Jung was to be elected president, and 3 years before Park Chan-wook would portray friendly relations between the opposing border guards in Joint Security Area.
Choi Min-su as the DPRK agent is clearly the hero of the show, together with a friendly native called Mohammed. Mohammed can tell that romance is blossoming and makes the innocent comment that Koreans only marry other Koreans. To him the refinements of North and South are an unknown mystery, and there is an embarrassed silence between the two Koreans after his remark. They know and we know that any relationship between them will be doomed, and in the closing minutes of the film Modammed realises this: “but your country makes the love ones being apart” say the universally rather poor subtitles.
But if there’s material here to annoy the conservatives, there’s also stuff to embarrass the appeasers. What is the DPRK agent doing in Algeria? Fomenting the People’s Revolution in North Africa. This is an agent of the Axis of Evil, of a country who sends soldiers and pilots on active service in foreign parts to support anti-American interests. Agent Han is there to train revolutionaries and blow up bridges, not to help hapless citizens of a US puppet regime without proper visa documentation:
But maybe there’s one sentiment with which both sides can agree: “you love your home country, I love mine too”.
Not the best film to have come out of Korea, but an interesting curiosity and of course a must for the thousands of Lee Young-ae fans in the Middle East.
- More stills from Inshalla on the LKL Flickr account