Over the years Hong Kil-dong has appeared in many forms, in the 1960s his tale was told in two animated feature length movies, in the 1980s he returned in animated form, but this time in an updated science fiction setting, throughout the 1990s he was the star of a series of popular video games, 5 years ago he got his own K-drama series, and as recently as 2010 he even got his own musical, with Sungmin and Yesung of Super Junior playing the title character.
Shing Sang-ok was a respected director in South Korea, and his ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee, an equally respected actress. Kim lured Eun-hee to Hong Kong to discuss a potential role, where she was promptly kidnapped and dragged back to North Korea. Shing did the right thing and tried to find her, but then he also got kidnapped and was shipped off to North Korea wrapped in plastic. Skip forward 4 years of ‘political imprisonment’ later, & Kim formally re-introduced Shing & Choi to each other at a dinner party, and proceeded to order them to hug & re-marry, which they did, and then gave them the lowdown of how they were here to save the countries film industry.
Eventually, in 1986, Shing & Choi took a trip to Vienna to discuss distribution rights for the movies they’d been making, where upon landing they promptly fled to the American Embassy to plead for asylum, and never set foot in North Korea again. As it happened 1986 was also the year ‘Hong Kil-dong’ hit North Korean cinemas, and standing in for who probably would have been Shing is Kim Gil-in. Thankfully it was still a big hit. More surprisingly is that ‘Hong Kil-dong’ also took what was then the Eastern Bloc by storm as well, with it achieving a fair level of popularity in countries like Bulgaria and Russia.
'Golden Swallow'. However there’s a fair amount of hand to hand work in there as well, reminding us that it is in fact the 1980s, with the sound effect of each punch amusingly sounding like a shotgun round being fired. The whole movie is filmed rather well, if sometimes a little choppy, and contains some pretty primitive wirework, as we witness Kil-dong jumping over trees and twirling along rooftops. The whole spectacle of it has a kind of old school charm, playing like something a good decade or more before its actual year of production.
Eventually Kil-dong becomes the folk hero the story demands him to be, and he’s so good that even the bandits that originally tried to kill him see the error of their ways and agree to reform for the good of the nation. With everyone uniting as one, I guess the one thing you could say North Korean & South Korean historical movies have in common with each other is that, right on cue, this becomes the perfect time for the Japanese to come storming in and attempt to loot & rape everything in sight. In ‘Hong Kil-dong’ they take the form of a group of ninjas (interestingly, it seems the ninjas are actually being played by Japanese actors / abductees, as even though it’s been dubbed over in Korean, you can still hear the Japanese dialogue played low in the background!), and once Kil-dong sternly announces, “They must be foreigners!”, it’s time for some ninja slaughtering action.
‘Hong Kil-dong’ is a real curiosity, you can tell its aiming high with its modest budget, yet it still carries off an epic feel, in part due to the bombastic orchestral score that puts many a kung-fu movies soundtrack to shame. At the heart of it all is the question of if two people love each other then shouldn’t they be allowed to be together, but at the same time this is wrapped up in sometimes heavy handed messages about serving your country and your people. The speech the head bandit gives who’d previously tried to kill Kil-dong is particularly saccharine, but somehow it just adds to the movies almost other worldly charm, and in many way I guess North Korea is like another world. For those interested you can purchase the movie here.
By Paul Bramhall
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