Recent Reproductions of South Korean “National Hero” Ahn Jung-geun

By | January 31, 2015 | No Comments


A sitting statue of Ahn Jung-geun located at the entrance to a Seoul exhibition about him. The Chinese characters behind read, “大韓獨立” (대한독립; Korean independence). | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Question: What do Chris Kyle and Ahn Jung-geun have in common?

Answer: They both tell the story of a nation.

One can learn a lot about a nation by who is elevated to the status of “national hero.” These individuals are used as mechanisms to unite people as one nation, and are intended to tell of the social, psychological, and historical characteristics of a people. As such, it should come as little surprise that Clint Eastwood’s latest production, American Sniper, has become a major box office hit and stirred the nationalist feelings (both good and bad) of the American nation. The film tells the story of Chris Kyle, a United States Navy SEAL deployed to Iraq as a sniper. His unofficial kill count earned him the title of “most lethal sniper” in US military history. The film explores Kyle’s struggle to disconnect from the intensities of war and his combat operations; not an uncommon theme in American war films (or in reality).

But it is more than just a war movie. It is a cultural reproduction of a national hero prototype: the selfless, life-saving soldier who comes home only to find himself irretrievably scarred by war and unable to reintegrate into society. The movie taps into American individualism and sense of nationhood expressed through war. Nothing transcends class like war. And war, notes political scientist Mark Elrod, “is the United States of America’s default position.”

If Chris Kyle reflects an American nation defined by war, then Ahn Jung-geun defines a Korean nation forged by anti-Japanese opposition and “struggle.” In 1909, Ahn, an independence fighter and harsh critic of Japan’s creeping imperialism, fatally shot Ito Hirobumi, the first governor-general of Korea and first prime minister of Japan, on a railroad platform in Harbin (capital of modern Heilongjiang Province in China). And while the days of Manchurian guerrilla warfare have long past, the legacy of struggle and anti-Japanese sentiment goes on. Indeed, it continues to reproduce itself in the valorization of Ahn as the greatest of great patriots and a “national hero.” From his strategic appropriation by an opposition-nervous Park Chung-hee in the 1970s to his memorialization at Harbin, Ahn is reproduced as a hero of the nation in many ways. Not all of them are top-down, elite-driven efforts. Some come from the bottom-up, too; via culture, specifically film and theater. Two recent cultural productions, one released and another on the slate, show this process at work.

It was reported in the South Korean media last December that a new film entitled “Hero Ahn Jung-geun” [영웅 안중근] is set for production, with Ju Gyeong-jung directing. The film focuses on the week leading up to the assassination and the time Ahn spent in a Lushun jail afterward (where he did most of the writing for which he is known today). In a short article carried by the Busan Daily on December 17, Ju is quoted as saying that the rise of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and right wing extremism in Japan make Ahn’s deed one that “we must remember” [일본 극우 정권을 이끄는 아베 총리는 안중근이 남긴 한 발의 총알을 기억해야 할 것]. Chu claims that he will properly portray the reason(s) why Ahn shot Ito. The production company has rejected overtures from Chinese and Japanese companies to collaborate on the film, according to the article.

Advertisement for "I Am You," a stage show about Ahn Jung-geun shown in early 2015 in Seoul. | Image: Sino-NK

Advertisement for “I Am You,” a stage show about Ahn Jung-geun shown in early 2015 in Seoul. | Image: Sino-NK

For those who want a new Ahn story but do not wish to wait, there is a play, too. “I Am You” [나는 너다] has been on throughout January at BBCH Hall, part of Kwanglim Arts Center in the Gangnam district of Seoul. It centers on Ahn’s son, Ahn Jun-saeng, and his struggle to overcome the anger he feels toward his father for leaving him. (Ahn Jung-geun was executed for the assassination.) The play tells a tale of anger giving way to understanding–an understanding of the reason why Ahn sacrificed his life: to preserve the nation. Director Yoon Seok-hwa, whose comments imply a dyed-in-the-wool Korean nationalism, noted in an interview at that Ahn Jung-geun’s selfless act was for the Korean nation. “For what did Ahn Jung-geun shoot Hirobumi, not appeal even once, and then die? It was for none other than us. In the same way, depending on how we think, we too can become martyr Ahn Jung-geun” [안중근 의사가 무엇 때문에 이토 히로부미를 쏘고, 항소 한 번 하지 않고 죽었는가. 바로 우리를 위해서다. 우리 역시 어떤 생각을 하느냐에 따라 안중근 의사가 될 수 있다]. The interviewee (or the editor who wrote the piece’s introduction, at least) once again voices the notion that, with Abe coming to power in Japan and right-wing extremism (as they understand it) on the rise, the timing of the play is particularly felicitous.

The two cultural productions are not the first to appropriate Ahn’s story—see, for example, Yun Ho-jin’s “Hero” (2009)–but they are the latest, and both are responses to the Zeitgeist in the same way that American Sniper taps into the spirit of modern America. Most notably, both the forthcoming movie and the play reflect the most lasting quality of South Korean national identity: opposition to, and a historically engendered fear of, Japanese rightism.

Contemporary manifestations of Korean nationalism, which venerate figures like Ahn Jung-geun, are certainly an impediment to Korea and Japan overcoming the ideational rifts borne of a contentious past. But given the conditions and timing of Korea’s birth as a “modern” nation, it is hard to see there ever being a “national hero” who is not, in some regard, similar to Ahn, Kim Gu, or Kim Il-sung (i.e., an anti-Japanese nationalist). But it is not beyond the realm of possibility, either. Heroes, like nations, are social constructs.

Sources: Kim Ho-il, “Film About Partriot Ahn Jung-geun’s Life Story, ‘Hero Ahn Jung-geun,’ in Production” [안중근 의사 일대기 다룬 영화 ‘영웅 안중근’ 제작], Busan Daily, December 17, 2014.

Park Cheong-hwan, “’Seong Il-guk, It was my responsibility to do produce this play:’ Interview with Director of “I Am You,” Yoon Seok-hwa: “Our Nation Can Achieve Excellence” [“송일국, 이 작품을 해야 할 책임이 있었다”[인터뷰] 연극 ‘나는 너다’ 연출 윤석화 “우리 민족 우수성 깨달을 수 있어”],, January 6, 2015.

All translations by Steven Denney.

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