Directed by: Lim Tae-gue (임태규)
Starring: Lee Ga-seop (이가섭), Jung Jae-yun (정재윤), Kim Soy (소이), Park Seong-il (박성일), Park Kang-sub (박강섭), Oh Gyu-chul (오규철)
Synopsis: Joo-yong fails to expose abuses he had suffered from his senior. When every member of his platoon gets passes, the senior starts searching for the culprit who tried to report him. (JIFF Program)
The Film: With South Korea being a country technically still at war, a mandatory military service of nearly two years hangs like a dark cloud over every able bodied man in Korea once they become an adult. It is usually served in one’s early twenties, and is typically the first extensive amount of time spent away from one’s home and studies.
Even after acknowledging the positive character and nation-strengthening results of this mandatory military service, there is a dark history of abuse and violence that has occasionally made headlines in some of the more extreme cases. Such cases have been met with public outrage and improved safety measures have been implemented to make a safer environment, including the implementation of a system to anonymously report when abuses are seen or experienced. However, The Seeds of Violence is a film that exposes just how deeply rooted the impetus for these abuses runs, and suggests there is still a long way to go to turn the problem around.
Pfc Joo-yong (Lee Ga-sub) and Private Phillip (Jung Jae-yoon) join their superior officers on a “day off” of base. Their superior, Dae-woong (Oh Gyu-chul), privately shares an abuse claim filed against him with Joo-yong, suspecting it is Phillip who had been found to have filed a similar report in the past. Dae-woong commands Joo-yong to get Phillip to confess that it was him and to retract his statement before their dinner begins later that evening. With Phillip’s adamant denial that it was him this time, a chain of abuse gets set off that end up running all the way down the line of command, leaving Joo-yong and Phillip to take the brunt of this snowball of this perceived insubordination.
Joo-yong’s “day off” turns out to be anything but one. His sister doesn’t show up to pick him up and he and Phillip now have to make their way into off-limits territory in order to get Phillip’s tooth repaired, which was knocked out during a beating, at Joo-yong’s brother-in-law’s dentist office in order to cover up his senior’s abuse. Complicating matters, he discovers his family is having abuse problems of its own.
The Seeds of Violence opens with Private first class Joo-yong and fellow soldiers leaving their respective base for a night out together. Among this small group of soldiers, Joo-yong and Phillip, whom Joo-yong is directly responsible for, are the lowest ranking. One will quickly realize not all is well among this group though as Joo-yong and Phillip’s face look anything but excited to have a night out with these other guys. When Phillip is able to untie and remove his boots in under fifteen seconds, he is allowed by the superior officer to attend his first night out and is “congratulated” with several back-slaps that go beyond what most would describe as friendly. The tone is quickly set for a film about systemic abuse as it relates to military hierarchy.
For additional context into the nuances of these soldiers interactions, it helps to know that Korea has a culture where one’s age is seen as the overriding factor (usually down to even one year apart) when determining where one’s respect need be directed in pretty much all settings apart from a teacher-student relationship or in the military. This relationship requires the person of lower status to humble themselves both in their speech and action, and it seems that the military setting in Korea can put this relationship into a kind of overdrive, a level or two above simply “an order is to be obeyed.”
Seeds was shot almost entirely handheld and in largely close-ups, which give the viewer a sense of being stuck in the middle of the conflicts unfolding on screen and helps to maintain a sense of tension. The story of Seeds is fairly straightforward, and with the characters not being particularly unusual in any way perhaps makes the film that much more disturbing, as one gets a sense that this type of behavior or story is an experience that could come from any given soldier. Making matters worse, when Joo-yong and Phillip encounter different civilians in the community, they are quick to brush off a bruised face or a broken tooth as “boys being boys,” adding to a sense of desperation a soldier in such a predicament might feel. To ask for help or to complain comes off as either being weak or speaking poorly of a person of high status, both of which do not take to finding sympathy for very easily.
Director Lim Tae-gue is a recent university graduate and The Seeds of Violence is his first feature film. It made its World Premiere at the 18th Jeonju International Film Festival this year and took the top prize in the Korean Competition section. Lim successfully finds a way to tackle the difficult subjects of both institutional and domestic abuse, lifting the rug on an issue that has far too long been brushed underneath. He presents it in a way that is not only highly watchable but also insightful as to how deep rooted an issue it is despite our efforts to curb it. Perhaps there is a more fundamental flaw in our nature at play, and any meaningful progress on the matter may require deep reflection and a reexamination of our societal operating systems. With Lim’s tight direction and excellent performances all around, The Seeds of Violence is a stirring work that earns a very high recommendation!
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