Korea (2022) Dir. Park Gyu-tae

Could you share a huge wealth with people diametrically opposed to you in almost every way – i.e. politically and philosophically? It’s an unlikely situation granted, but everyone needs money and altruism is not lost in everyone, unless your hand is forced.

By a twist of fate, a lottery ticket ends up at a military base near the demarcation line on the north/south border and into the hands of patrol guard Park Chun-woo (Go Kyung-pyo). Later that night, the lottery draw takes place and Chun-woo has the winning ticket with a 5.7 billion won pot, keeping the news to himself. But when the ticket blows away, landing across the border in North Korea.

Waiting until nightfall, Chun-woo sneaks into enemy territory only to find north soldier Ri Young-ho (Lee Yi-kyung) has found the ticket, and is refusing to hand it back. Chun-woo is forced to tell his superior Captain Kang (Eum Moon-Suk) about it, and they enter into negotiations with the north over the winnings, agreeing on a 50/50 split. But claiming the money isn’t going to be easy, nor is maintaining trust between the two sides.

Luckily 6/45 is a comedy film or it would set more cats among the pigeons than already existing in the relationship between north and south in bifurcated Korea. It’s not that scandalous or offensive, keeping political rhetoric at a safe distance in favour of comic farce but the north are a touchy lot as we have seen. The title, if you were wondering, is what the Koreans call the lottery, as in picking 6 numbers out of 45 to win.

The second film as director for screenwriter Park Gyu-tae, 6/45 was a huge box office hit in South Korea which I hope was down to the easy laughs and not through any patriotic spite. Of the many films on this subject, perhaps the closest reference point will be Park Chan-wook’s stirring thriller JSA: Joint Security Area in terms of the two sides interacting under a peaceful pretence but this is far less tense and violent!

A slight element of fantasy is subtly woven into the story with the ticket’s contrived wind assisted journey from a café table in Soul to the border, hitching a ride in the hubcap of a car along the way. When it ends up in the north, it playfully follows Young-ho as he walks away, like a heaven sent catalyst to improve his fortune in life.

Money may be the endgame reward for these soldiers but they gain something far more precious in new friends despite their opposite affiliations. At first, the tension is denoted through caustic banter with Chun-woo mocking the north’s public service announcer Yeon-hee (Park Se-wan) over the airwaves. Yeon-hee is Young-ho’s sister and a cutie pie which is important later.

Now the lottery ticket is in the North’s hands, Chun-woo, Kang, and Man-Cheol (Kwak Dong-Yeon) meet Young-Ho, Cheol-jin (Kim Min-Ho) and their captain Seung-Il (Lee Soon-Won) at a neutral hideout to discuss matters. After mediation from south soldier Gwang-cheol (Yoon Byung-Hee), it is agreed the money will be split equally, but to ensure no duplicity, one soldier from each side is to swap places to keep tabs – Young-ho crosses to the south and Chun-woo to the north.

It is again a benefit this is a comedy, as the script doesn’t try hard in creating awkward situations for the interloping soldiers, or lighter moments of their respective sensibilities having a positive effect. For example, Young-ho’s fastidious proficiency pays dividends when a south soldier steps on a landmine, whilst Chun-woo gets impotent ducks breeding again by playing disco music. The script leans heavily into the stereotype of the north being humourless, born to serve machines though some genuinely amusing scenes are derived from this.

Just when it seems everything is plain sailing, Man-Cheol is sent to Seoul to pick up the money but his security measure of hiding the ticket in his underpants inadvertently turns him into a viral sensation, jeopardising the whole mission. I told you it was farcical, and it doesn’t end there – perhaps it should have, but Park has a kitchen sink moment and throws a lot into the final act, paying off seemingly irrelevant asides from earlier.

Depicting the difference in attitude between north and south is handled through rather broad strokes as already discussed but credit where it is due, Park opts to put a slight humanist twist on the north soldiers’ desires. Whereas Chun-woo and co. are giddy about being rich, Seung-Il says he would use his money to buy his daughter a piano and pay his mother’s medical bills, whilst Cheol-jin would buy his father new dentures.

Such modesty and selflessness is admirable and touching, yet the subtext implies the distribution of wealth, even for the military, is woefully uneven in North Korea that things many societies take for granted are distant dreams. This may be a throwaway moment in the film, but for me, I felt it was the crucial message of the story as much as the far bigger notion that peace between the two sides could be achieved if a common ground is sought.

Park’s direction veers more towards the dramatic in terms of visual intensity whereas comedies are usually bright and bubbly, but the light humorous tone only wavers when necessary in later acts. The cast attack their roles with great energy, those playing the north denizens doing so with respect – although one can’t unsee Lee Soon-Won as Seung-il channelling his inner K-Pop diva for a hilarious but cringe worthy dance off.

6/45 is a film for the domestic Korean audience first and foremost but has enough width in its scope to keep international viewers amused and engaged, possibly even educated with its look at life on both side of the Korean border. It won’t have the same emotional or social resonance for us, nevertheless, the broad humour and appealing characters makes it worthwhile, easy watch.

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