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Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Spy thriller paints a too pale shade of gray
Most spy thrillers come in comforting shades of black and white. James Bond may not be a Boy Scout, but he is unquestionably in Her Majesty's Secret Service. He is about as likely to go over to the other side as turn up at his next meeting with Q in drag.
In the real world of international espionage, however, things are not always so simple; loyalties shift, motives mix. "KT," Junji Sakamoto's new film about the real-life 1973 kidnapping of the man who is now the South Korean president from a Tokyo hotel by operatives of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, tries for a semi-documentary approach. The film colors its tangled Cold War story in shades of gray, while making its heroes not the rescuers, but the kidnappers.
At the same time, Sakamoto and scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai have embroidered the facts to add entertainment value. In a program interview, Arai admits as much, saying that after months of sifting through documents related to the case, he still does not know the truth of what happened. "All we really have is the testimony of Kim Dae Jung himself, who was taken away blindfolded," says Arai. "We made the film from the materials that we found interesting. In other words, we told interesting lies."
Film folk don't come much more honest than that, which makes it harder than usual to knock "KT" for its omissions, inaccuracies and wild speculations. Also, I am no expert on the incident, which took place two years before I came to Japan. Nonetheless, several of the film's "lies" become obvious from a casual perusal of the record -- and are obviously motivated by box-office considerations. "KT" all but ignores the crucial American role in keeping Kim alive to the end of his ordeal, while exaggerating the Japanese involvement. Also, it invents bloodshed where none occurred. (In fact, the incident was remarkably nonviolent, save for its beginning.)
The film's biggest invention, however, is its Japanese hero, a Self-Defense Forces intelligence officer who finds himself aiding the kidnappers for reasons that remain unclear, even to himself. He represents a gamble that no Hollywood film would take -- a hero who starts and stays on the wrong side. It as though Rick in "Casablanca" were to not only board the plane with Ilsa, but sell her freedom-fighter husband to the Nazis. Which is not to say "KT's" officer lacks reasons, including an understandable loathing of the Japanese government's spineless foreign policy -- but they do not add up to a justification for siding with KCIA assassins.
That said, "KT" could have been a gripping, albeit morally murky, thriller, but its wanderings into thickets of subplot slow its narrative to a crawl. The worst offender is the story of Kim's bodyguard, a Korean youth who has been raised in Japan, speaks only Japanese and has a Japanese girlfriend -- and is thus conflicted about his identity. His struggles, which point to nothing, belong in another film.
The one under review, however, centers on Tomita (Koichi Sato), the aforementioned intelligence officer, who is a Korean specialist. He is tracking a suspected North Korean spy when KCIA agents break into the flat of the spy's Korean-language teacher to take him away for interrogation -- and whatever else may follow. Their leader is Kim Chang On (Kim Kab Soo), the first secretary of the Korean Embassy in Japan.
Tomita permits this violation of Japanese sovereignty, but successfully negotiates with Kim for the freedom of the spy's attractive teacher, Lee Jeong Mi (Yang Eung Yong), in whom he has more than a professional interest. She was, he later learns, a student who was tortured by the KCIA for protesting against the dictatorship of President Park Jung Hee.
The KCIA, however, soon has bigger fish to fry, namely Kim Dae Jung, a popular opposition leader who is calling for reconciliation between North and South, which Park and his clique interpret as capitulation to communism. Also, Kim came dangerously close to toppling Park in the 1971 presidential election. The minister at the Korean Embassy in Tokyo (Kim Byong Se) receives orders from Seoul to eliminate Kim, who is living in exile in Japan -- the so-called KT (Kill the Target) plan. He assembles a group of six agents, led by Kim Chang On, to carry out the plan.
Meanwhile, Kim Dae Jung's people are concerned about possible threats on his life. In addition to keeping him out of harm's way by moving him from hotel to hotel, they hire a bodyguard, a young martial arts expert (Michitaka Tsutsui) of Korean descent, who may be ignorant of the Korean language and culture, but who becomes devoted to Kim's cause.
With the backing of his SDF superiors, Tomita opens a "research institute" as an intelligence cover. Soon after, at the request of Kim Chang On, he agrees to help his Korean counterparts discover Kim Dae Jung's whereabouts. He approaches a grizzled newspaper reporter (Yoshio Harada) who has interviewed Kim, saying his institute wants to contribute funds to Kim's war chest. The reporter, rightfully suspicious, says that he has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to set up another interview. Soon after, however, Tomita follows the reporter to a meeting with the exiled opposition leader. The KCIA are not far behind -- and the noose tightens.
We already know the noose cannot tighten too far -- Kim Dae Jung obviously emerged from it alive. The story's mainspring comes from the question of "why?" Why did Tomita go along with the KT plan? Why did the would-be assassins set their victim free? The film's answers are not altogether convincing. Tomita's friendship with Kim Chang On never becomes much more than a plot device, while his moral calculus for abetting a political murder comes up a few equations short.
Playing this difficult role, Sato succeeds in making Tomita, if not quite likable, emotionally comprehensible: smoldering with anger at his weak-kneed superiors, squirming with unease at the dirty deeds of his Korean colleagues. The film, however, has a strangely oppressive mood, like a roomful of shady characters with bad consciences. Rick was right not to get on that plane.