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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] The dramatic history of ‘Mal_Mo_E’: Film about the creation of the first hangul dictionary stays pretty close to the facts

Jan 23,2019
Director Eom Yu-na’s period film “Mal_Mo_E: The Secret Mission” is based on true events and tells the story of the members of Joseoneo Hakhoe (Korean Language Society). On the left is an old photograph of the members of the organization, while on the right is a scene of the film showing the members of the society. [YONHAP]
Left: The original Mal Mo E, which can be seen at the National Hangeul Museum in central Seoul. Right: The final Mal Mo E dictionary shown in the film. [YONHAP]
In the film, Ryu Jeong-hwan, played by Yoon Kye-sang, left, gathers teachers from across the country to select the standard words for the dictionary. [LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT]
In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.

Local flick “Mal_Mo_E: The Secret Mission,” which hit theaters early this month, has been a major hit at the box office, selling more than 2.3 million tickets as of Tuesday. In an attempt to attract foreign audiences, the patriotic period piece has also been released with English subtitles, but before heading out to see the film, it is important to know which parts of the film have been dramatized and which parts stick to the facts.

The title of the movie - “Mal_Mo_E” - is the real name of the Korean dictionary put together by the members of Joseoneo Hakhoe, or the Korean Language Society, for 13 years, from 1929 to 1942. This gathering of Korean words was done in secret as the Japanese Empire, during its colonial rule of Korea (1910-45), had forbidden Koreans from learning the Korean language and from using Korean names in an attempt to squash national identity, forcing them to pledge allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Thus, this 13-year mission was also referred to as “Mal Mo E.” The movie clearly explains this historical fact as it tells the story of the members of the Korean Language Society who risked their lives to work on the dictionary.

However, the characters in the film who are depicted as the members of the society use fictional names. Some historians speculate that protagonist Ryu Jeong-hwan, the leader of the Korean Language Society, played by Yoon Kye-sang, is modeled after a real member of the society named Choi Hyun-bae, while others say Jeong-hwan represents Lee Geuk-ro, another member who established the society. In light of this ambiguity, the director used fictional characters based on original members to add drama to the film, while keeping many of the historical events true.

For example, the character Kim Pan-su, played by veteran actor Yoo Hae-jin, who accidently joins the society for money and eventually sacrifices his life to keep the dictionary safe, is made up. According to records, the Korean Language Society had around 33 members, the names of whom include Lee Yun-jae, Han Jing, Kim Yun-kyung, Lee Geuk-ro, Lee Hee-seung, Choi Hyun-bae and Jang Ji-young. According to historical records, 15 of the members were arrested by Japanese authorities and two of them died in prison. The rest were released after Korea’s liberation in 1945.

The dramatic event toward the film’s end - when the dictionary is miraculously discovered following liberation - may seem like a fictional flourish added in by the director to make the film more interesting, but it actually happened. On Sept. 8, 1945, a few weeks after liberation, a worn-out wooden box was discovered in the former Seoul Station. Inside the box were around 26,000 pages of the Mal Mo E. It’s possible a society member hid the box in the station.

The National Hangeul Museum, central Seoul, recently kicked off a special exhibition to give visitors a closer look at original copies of the Mal Mo E. The exhibit runs through March 3.

In the film, Jeong-hwan, the leader of the Korean Language Society, attempts to resume work on the Mal Mo E, which was begun by Ju Shi-gyeong (1876-1914), a Korean linguist. Ju had previously published a Korean-language newspaper to help maintain Korean identity. Then, in 1911, he began collecting Korean words in different dialects in an effort to prevent the Korean language from vanishing. This is a historical fact and, sadly, Ju died three years after he began compiling his dictionary. The mission was suspended until the Korean Language Society resumed it in 1929. According to historical records, there are 164,125 words in the first Korean dictionary, published after liberation.

Those who have seen the film sympathize with Jeong-hwan’s character and the reasons for which he attempts to finish the project despite the risk to his life. In the film, Jeong-hwan’s father teaches his son that the nation’s spirit is deeply embedded in the Korean language. But as Japan’s colonization of Korea is prolonged, Jeong-hwan’s father, a school principal, becomes pro-Japanese, forbidding students to learn Korean and forcing them to change their family names to Japanese ones. This, of course, is made up, however it is a fact that schools began banning Korean language education and calling students by their Japanese names in 1938.

The movie is the directorial debut of Eom Yu-na, who wrote the script for the award-winning period flick “A Taxi Driver,” which tells the story of the Gwangju Democratization Movement in 1980. “Mal_Mo_E” can be seen with English subtitles at Lotte Cinema in Jamsil through this Friday.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]