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(Movie Review) 'Birth' puts first Korean priest's life in broader historical context

10:13 November 24, 2022

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- St. Andrew Kim Tae-gon (1821-1846), the first native Korean Catholic priest, died for his belief at the age of 25, but his short life of dedication, sacrifice and adventure is still worth looking back on after two centuries.

"Birth," directed by Park Heung-sik, seems like a religious film made for Catholics, but it recounts the martyr's life in the broad context of Korean Catholicism during the late period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and Western imperialism in Asia in the 19th century.

The biopic sheds light on the birth of Korea's first priest (played by Yoon Si-yoon) amid harsh religious oppression by the monarchy, which feared Christianity as a colonizing force and repressed it with several persecutions.

Through extensive research of Kim's letters and historical documents, the story recounts milestone moments of his life through narratives of him and other compatriots as well as scenes of his voyage by sea and land routes.

A scene from "Birth," a biopic on St. Andrew Kim Tae-gon, is seen in this photo provided by production company Rafael Pictures. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Born to a family of Christian converts, Kim was baptized at the age of 15 and soon after left for Macao under Portuguese rule to enter a seminary there. He was ordained a priest in China in 1845 and returned to his homeland for evangelization.

But his life as a priest didn't last long.

Kim was captured during his attempts to find safe and secret sea passages for other missionaries and was beheaded in 1846 near the Han River in Seoul.

The movie portrays how the curious young man broadens his view of the world in far-flung places at a time when Western imperial powers, including Britain and France, were aggressively expanding their muscle in Asia.

Kim, who was fluent in several foreign languages and had a rare knowledge of Western culture, was a pioneer in the Joseon Dynasty but fell victim to elites who upheld hierarchal Confucianism as the ruling ideology.

With a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, the movie at first is somewhat tedious, as it tries to explain too much details through narratives of Kim, his compatriots and French missionaries, who speak Korean, French and Chinese.

The latter part features spectacular scenes of sea voyage in a small wooden boat, created with computer-generated imagery, and Kim crossing snowfields in Manchuria. They build much-needed tension and highlight Kim as an adventurer, a businessperson, a leader and a devout Christian.

In the beheading scene, the camera angle is fixed on the blood running from his decapitated head, showing why he is called the "priest of blood."

The biopic provides a historical journey with scenes related to the Opium War between China and Britain, and a French Navy fleet approaching the western coast of Korea, seen as a prelude to the French invasion of Gangwha Island in 1866.

But the film vaguely touches on the watershed moments without detailed context, as its running time is limited in expanding the theme into the convoluted chapter in modern Asian history.

"Birth" premiered in Vatican City on Nov. 16 and will hit local theaters on Nov. 30.

The poster of "Birth," a biopic on St. Andrew Kim Tae-gon, is seen in this photo provided by production company Rafael Pictures. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

ejkim@yna.co.kr
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