BUSAN, South Korea - The South Korean Christians kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2007 returned home to not just relief but outrage, rapped for engaging in zealous missionary activity in the Islamic country in defiance of government warnings and forcing South Korea to negotiate for their release.
A new drama by director Lee Jang-ho, well-known in South Korea for his commercial movies in the 1970s and the 1980s, borrows from those true events to examine religious conviction in a country that sends out many of the world's Christian missionaries.
"God's Eye View" portrays Christian volunteers kidnapped by Muslim rebels while on an evangelical mission in a fictional Islamic country. The film directly references the 2007 crisis in which 23 members of Saemmul Presbyterian Church were taken as hostages, and two of them were killed. Some scenes show pastors in South Korea praying for their safe return at the time, and the film displays the online comments that condemned their proselytization.
Lee said even as his film drew elements from the event and from essays written by the Koreans after they were released, "God's Eye View" is not about the Afghan event itself. Nor does it attempt to defend Christian missionary works, he said.
"It is based on the Saemmul Church event. But I tried to use the event as a tool to raise interesting questions about religious conviction and apostasy," Lee said in an interview.
He said the inspiration for his latest work was "Silence," a novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo about a missionary enduring persecution in 17th century Japan. Lee said some scenes in the movie, such as moments when a character is forced to choose one between religious belief and other people's lives, have a nod to the novel.
While the movie is generally sympathetic to Christianity, it also reveals the moral dilemma and other problems facing the churchgoers. In the movie, missionary works by the volunteers improve people's lives, but the volunteers also have moments where they are self-interested and naive.
"I think there could be apostasy that is more sacred than martyrdom," said Lee, a Christian convert who explored Shamanism in some of his past movies.
He was one of South Korea's most commercially and critically successful directors in the 1970s and `80s, making melodramas and romances with social critique while South Korea was going through military dictatorships that censored movies.
"God's Eye View" is his first movie after an 18-year absence, during which he taught filmmaking at a university. Upon his return, he said he no longer saw movies as a means to gain fame and money, but to achieve loftier goals, and said he hopes the film will help break prejudice about Christianity in South Korea.
"Rather than to believe it, I want people to understand Christianity," through the movie, he said denying his movie itself is trying to proselytize.
The drama has been met by hundreds of invectives online even though it hasn't been released; the film is still seeking a distributor. Some commenters were critical of the former hostages held in Afghanistan and others say the movie whitewashes those events in the Saemmul volunteers' favor. Lee said organizers of the Busan International Film Festival, where it premiered this month, expressed worries about showing the movie during the festival.
Programmer Nam Dong-chul, who saw the movie and selected it for inclusion at Busan, said "God's Eye View" could appeal to audiences even if they were not Christian.
"It is very religiously charged movie but it raises very unique questions," Nam said. "It questions what it means to be a martyr."
Protestantism is the second-most popular religion in South Korea after Buddhism with some 9 million protestants among nearly 50 million populations. South Korea has the second-largest missionaries after the U.S. and many of them work in China to help North Korean refuges.