Director Kim Ki-duk boldly confronts the clash of nationalist ideologies in The Net, as he tells the story of a North Korean fisherman stranded on South Korean shores.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
In these seemingly backward times where border walls, travel bans, native political ideologies, and blinded nationalism take the front seat, there are serious questions to be raised with regard to the value of human lives.
The political thriller, The Net, does exactly that as Korean cinema’s bad boy, Kim Ki-duk, takes on the sensational subject of the divided Koreas. The earnest tale follows a North Korean fisherman (Ryoo Seung-bum) who strays into South Korean waters – finding himself trapped in a web of colliding nationalistic ideologies.
Chul-woo (Ryoo Seung-bum) leads a simple life with his wife and daughter; he makes a living from fishing on the border of the North and the South. When his fishing net gets caught in the boat’s propeller, he helplessly drifts into Southern waters and is immediately arrested by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), accused of being a spy.
The NIS interrogates him mercilessly even when his innocence is already established earlier on. Like in many of Ki-duk’s former works, the director turns to tragedy to portray how a man crumbles in the grasp of the system. The NIS quickly realises that Chul-woo, a former military man, won’t give in to torture.
The South Korean government decides to persuade the commie to defect and join the democracy by immersing him in with what ‘freedom’ feels like. The NIS plots a plan to show him what’s missing in his home country. They drop him in the middle of Seoul and watch carefully from afar. Albeit resisting to see what the South is made of, his eyes are gradually opened to the nature of liberty.
As he takes in Seoul in all its detail, Chul-woo encounters a half-naked hooker who’s being beaten up by a group of men. The former militia comes to rescue her and upon spending some time with her, he finds out that beneath the woman’s misguided decisions, there is a caring mother within her, willing to do everything to provide for her children.
This is where Kim Ki-duk excels with The Net; he draws a clear balance between the two nations, portraying how people are blind to anything but their native political ideologies. While the South Korean espionage agents are convinced of the North’s dictatorship and extremist communism, Chul-woo cannot understand how a land of democracy, freedom and such wealth can be home to so many unhappy people.
After months of investigation, Chul-woo is set free. There is this particular scene when Chul-woo goes to see his interrogator after he is allowed to leave back to his homeland. They have a few words and Chul-woo ends up hitting the interrogator’s head with a glass ashtray. Moments later, the NIS superior walks in to reprimand the interrogator for yet again framing fake evidence against another North Korean expat.
“They are all potential spies!” the interrogator screams as he breaks down into tears while singing the Korean anthem. He is convinced that creating spies out of innocent North Koreans is a national service, which reflects the deep roots of hatred that lay between the two nations.
Chul-woo returns to his homeland where he is greeted with garlands while the cameras click away. But, immeditely after he is directly taken to the state headquarters for questioning. He is accused of wanting to defect and is mercilessly interrogated about his activities down South.
The scene cuts to a teary-eyed Chul-woo, forced to smile and dress up for the state’s evening news. One can’t help but draw parallels between the inhumane treatment of the authoritarian state and the sadism seen in Seoul. Is one really better than the other? Are they different, but actually just the same?
He returns to his family; only a shell of his former self. His fishing license gets revoked and upon learning this, he acts out in defiance. He sets out to fish, only to be shot down by the state border police.
Towards the end of the film, Chul-woo increasingly becomes a symbol of mankind’s desire to be away from the net of control and authority, leaving the audience to question if we can really ever be free.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.