The Last Witness

| September 9, 2003

Chang-ho Bae’s Last Witness is both a political thriller and love story which focuses on a little-known blemish in recent Korean history–the infamous Geoje Camp for political dissidents and POWs built on an island southwest of Pusan just after the start of the Korean War (1950-53). About the time unremorseful Communist Hwang-seok is released from solitary confinement after nearly 50 years, a dead man is fished out of a harbor with a dagger in his chest. A loose-cannon cop named Oh is assigned to the case and stumbles across an old diary written by a woman who joined the Communist party and infiltrated Geoje Camp to save Hwang-seok. As Oh absorbs the diary’s clues he continues his investigation, slowly uncovering a complex tale of love and betrayal.
This subject is of the utmost interest and curiosity to the Korean people because the war split the Korean peninsula into two separate countries that to this day continue to stare each other down over a hostile DMZ. The South Korean movie Joint Security Area tackled the absurdity of the separation, and other films have gone back in time to tell tales of ‘collateral damage’ suffered by ordinary Koreans during the war. No doubt the Korean War and its ramifications will be a continued source of inspiration for Korean filmmakers for decades to come.
The film stars Jung-Jae Lee as Oh, a hard-as-nails police Detective who would seem more comfortable working the streets of New York than Seoul. He wears a black leather jacket in a roomful of cheap blazers and is known as a ‘loose cannon.’ His world is thrown into turmoil by this investigation and its ramifications. When his investigation brings him to Ji-hye (Mi-yeon Lee) and Seok (Sung-kee Ahn), two lovers who played an intricate part in a bloody prison escape by POW North Korean soldiers 50 years before. Thanks to Lee’s portrayal, the film retains your interest while the story becomes somewhat bogged down by ineffective pacing and some very tedious story. The resolution is somewhat surprising, but the film’s real strength remains its actors. The cinematography, by Yun-su Kim, is terrific, especially if you love wide-angle films as much I do.
Last Witness is a good-looking film with fine acting that tries hard to combine a murder mystery and love affair with a major national crisis. My only real criticism is that the film is a bit too long. Even so, I found it to be quite enjoyable and likable.

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