국제시장 (pronounced Gook-Jae-Si-Jang) was indeed another great Korean masterpiece to begin the new year with.  A heart-warming drama that makes you laugh and cry throughout the film.  The press is already making a fuss about how 국제시장 will join the Ten Million Club (refers to Korean films that sold over 10,000,000 box office tickets) within just few more days.  The movie that has made its debut in theaters on December 17, 2014 would likely be one of the most successful films in the history of Korean film industry.  So what is the secret to its success? And what are some historical facts that a non-Korean should know before watching the movie?

  • The definition of 국제시장

국제시장 (Gukje Market) literally translates to “International Marketplace”.  The actual place still exists in Nampo-dong, Busan and apparently has become a popular tourist attraction.   My parents explained that Gukje Market was one of the very first places in Korea to trade western goods from overseas (especially from USA).  Most of theses products were illegally imported.  When the UN troops were dispatched for Korean War, prostitutes would take the gifts from their foreign clients and resell them to a middleman which the stuff would usually end up on display of an international store.  Some goods were collected from the dumps in army camp and some may smuggled from China or Japan.  As shown in the movie, such products vary from canned goods to fabrics.  The number of these so-called “international shops” increased and eventually the street became a traditional marketplace called Gukje Market.

  • Korean War (1950~1953) and Refuge

The movie begins with the main character Duksoo reminiscing the past where he as a little boy follows his family to flee their hometown and take refuge from the attack of Chinese army.  The Korean War, also known as 6.25 war in Korea, began on June 25, 1950 when the Red Army of North Korea crossed over the 38th parallel (38th parallel of latitude — the line that divides North and South Korea) and invaded south part of the peninsula.  With the UN forces as a powerful ally, the South pressed on and pushed the invaders back all the way up to Chinese border,  making the dream of Reunification of Korea seem to come true… almost.

The 500,000 Chinese Red Army flourished into Korean peninsula in November, 1950 and the UN-South Korea ally had no choice but to retreat.  This part of the history is illustrated in the movie where the American ships leave the Korean harbor of Heungnam, North Korea (흥남부두) with the refuge on board.

  • Dispatched Workers in West Germany (1960s)

In the movie, Duksoo as an old man gets angry with local teens that made fun of foreigners.  He sympathized with foreign workers from underdeveloped countries because he once was a poor foreign worker, too.

After the Second World War, West Germany was achieving miraculous economical improvement and was keep moving forward.  However, at the time the country lacked human resource and could not successfully fill up the increasing job openings.  The agreement between West Germany and South Korea resulted in multiple dispatches of Korean nurses and miners.  These workers normally received three-year visa to live and work in West Germany.  In 1963, 247 miners arrived in Europe as a starter and over 8,000 miners were sent in total.  Nurses were permitted to leave for West Germany in 1965 — this was the time of dictation that as a Korean citizen you were not allowed to leave your country freely.

The nurses and miners sent most of their paychecks to the families living in poverty back home.  The foreign currency gained at this time has truly helped Korea to stand on its feet again.  Some of the dispatched workers got their visa extended and decided to stay in Germany.  They eventually  became first-generation Korean immigrants in Europe.  As expressed in the movie, it is hard to assume how lonely and difficult it would have been to settle in a western country where you feel completely alienated.  In fact, many of the workers ended up marrying each other just like Duksoo and Youngja did.

  • Vietnam War (1965~1973)

During the Vietnam War, Duksoo was no soldier but a trading company worker when he found himself in the middle of a battlefield.  My mother explained that she remembered when she was young her friends’ fathers went off to Vietnam to make living just like Duksoo did.  I would like to point out a scene in the movie where Duksoo and his friends are rescued by a group of Korean soldiers.  It is a historical fact that Korean troops were sent off to Vietnam and successfully completed their military duty.   Some references indicate that the Korean troops were praised among their American and French allies for their courage and outstanding military tactics.  However, there is still a controversial debate regarding the brutality of Korean military during Vietnam War.

There were number of incidents during the Vietnam War in which hundreds of civilians were killed by Korean troops.  In some cases there were a massacre where the entire village was terminated.  There are still different perspectives of analysis when we try to explain why this occurred.  Some say that because Korean soldiers were brutal and heartless.  Others say that during the war (especially a dragging and tiring one like Vietnam War where the enemies hide among civilians then make surprise appearance through guerrilla tactics) the soldiers were unable to make rational judgement and had no choice but to eliminate possible danger in order to survive.  Above all, I feel what is more important is today and tomorrow.  What happened in the past has already happened and cannot be redone.  After the war, Korea has made progress with Vietnam by admitting the civilian killings and apologizing.  President Kim Dae-joong has visited Vietnam and made an apology himself.  A sincere regret and admittance of a national leader is something that I would like to see from Japan in near future.