Park Yeol (played by Lee Je-hoon) is a Korean poet living in Tokyo in the early nineteen-twenties. Being a poet doesn’t pay much, so he has to moonlight as a rickshaw driver and also makes appearances at the local Korean bar. Park Yeol is also a terrorist, albeit not a very successful one, on account of the fact that making working explosives is hard. But in the wake of an unexpected calamity, Park Yeol turns the situation to his advantage, proving to be a master of media manipulation.
Now, Park Yeol was a real person, a storied hero for Korean independence. But far from being portrayed as noble in any obvious way, director Lee Joon-ik instead makes him out to be a base hooligan. Park Yeol’s behavior would seem psychopathic except for the fact that he’s fighting, and more importantly outsmarting, Japanese racists who are immediately deplorable and a Japanese Empire that has since been discredited by history.
But even the portrayal of the Japanese Empire is very unusual in that it’s surprisingly sympathetic. For starters, Park Yeol’s love interest and partner in crime Kaneko Fumiko (played by Choi Hui-seo) is herself Japanese, and strongly identifies with the plight of the Koreans. The reasons for this are equal parts young adult rebellion, sincere desire for justice, sad backstory, and madcap crush on Park Yeol. Which is to say, Kaneko Fumiko was into social justice before it was cool.
Likewise, other more important characters, be they high-ranking officials, police, or reporters, are inclined to evidentiary process rather than outrage. The chief exception is the villainous Mizuno (played by Kim In-woo), who has already prematurely concluded that Koreans are responsible for literally every problem in Japan. Any time a less conspiratorial thinking character asks Mizuno to provide evidence for his ridiculous claims, he pulls out news articles with suspiciously agreeable anonymous sources to argue that widespread panic is afoot.
Even though they’re obvious enemies with diametrically opposed objectives, Park Yeol and Mizuno rather paradoxically need each other in order to boost each other’s messages. The question is, who’s getting the most out of the deal? It falls down to perception mostly. Who has the more accurate idea of who the other is, Park Yeol, or Mizuno? Considering that Park Yeol thinks Mizuno is a racist, and Mizuno thinks Park Yeol is a terrorist mastermind…well, you can probably guess who comes out on top in the end. Especially if you’ve read a history book.
Mind, it’s pretty morbid thinking about all the death and destruction that was necessary for Park Yeol to eventually “win”. Yet this death is so abstract, and so at arm’s length, it’s easy to see how Park Yeol and Kaneko Fumiko are able to act the way they do in isolation. They’re less freedom fighters as they are petty vandals harassing the cops in order to pull off a suitably epic prank. It makes them strangely relatable as characters, as it also brings us closer to the setting. Evidently in a hundred years the media has not changed as much as we would like to think.
Review by William Schwartz
“Anarchist from Colony” is directed by Lee Joon-ik and features Lee Je-hoon, Choi Hui-seo, Kim In-woo and Tasuku Yamanouchi.
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