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Period piece ‘Mal-Mo-E’ shows fight to keep alive Korean identity

After colonizing Korea, Japanese Empire in 1938 tried to squash out the identity of Korea as a nation, forcing its colonial subjects to pledge allegiance to the Japanese emperor, take up Japanese names and accept Japan’s history as part of its own under the claim that the two countries share the same roots.

Perhaps the worst among such attempts is the policy in 1938 to ban education of the Korean language and gradually phase out its use.

“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” depicts 1940s Gyeongseong – today’s Seoul -- when a handful of scholars fought to revive the language by creating a dictionary.

“‘Mal-Mo-E’ is a pure and beautiful story. ... The story shows how our language was deemed valuable and protected,” said Yoo Hae-jin, playing the leading role of Kim Pan-su who gets involved in the dictionary compilation even though he is illiterate. “Seeing the process through eyes of one who could not read or write should help the audience ease into the story.”

“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” (Lotte Entertainment)
“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” (Lotte Entertainment)

Working with Pansu is the Ryu Jeong-hwan, the leader of the Joseoneo Hakhoe (Korean Language Society) played by Yoon Kye-sang. Despite the initial hiccup in their relationship, the pair teach each other invaluable lessons in their struggle to protect the spirit of the nation.

The story is inspired by real-life events of 1942, when the Japanese authorities arrested and tried members of the society -- the forerunner of the current Hangeul Hakhoe -- and had them prosecuted under charges of fighting for independence.

“I wanted the movie to be one in which the actors shine,” said director Eom Yu-na, on casting the pair. “I wrote the script with Yoo (as Pan-su) in mind. He has a warm and familiar image and always shines in movies. ... As for Yoon, I felt that he is similar to Ryu. He has been challenging himself as an actor, which parallels Ryu’s path toward making the dictionary.”

Yoon, who completely shed his boyband images with a series of acting brilliance like Jang-chen in the 2017 film “The Outlaws,” said he was compelled to tell the story about the country’s sad history.

“He is a person with great conviction, but is ‘stuck-up’ in a way. ... He is influenced by Pan-su and realizes that great deeds should come as result of the determination of many,” Yoon said.

“I’ve learned more about how so many people sought to reclaim and keep record of our language,” said Yoo.

As for the immensely talented Yoo, this will be a test to see if he is indeed a marquee player in the Korean cinema. While he has appeared in numerous hits, including the most recent drama/comedy “Intimate Strangers,” only two of them have him in the lead role: “Luck Key” and “Confidential Assignment” which co-starred popular actor Hyun Bin.

While this is a directorial debut for Eom, she showed great potential as a storyteller in the award-winning “A Taxi Driver” for which she wrote the script. Like the 2017 hit, her latest film also tells how ordinary people can achieve great things in a collective effort.

“When people think of a film set during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, they think of great heroes or independence fighters who battled (the Japanese military). But ‘Mal-Mo-E’ is a tribute to so many nameless people who contributed to making the dictionary,” Eom said. “Even today, little actions achieve great things. I thought this (message) could resonate with today’s society as well.”

“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” opens in February 2019.

By Yoon Min-sik