South Korean director Kang Je-gyu’s SHIRI opens the same day as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle COLLATERAL DAMAGE, whose release was delayed due to September 11th. Made in 1999, Kang’s brutally visceral action film looks all the more disturbing with the passage of time: a scene in which burning firemen leap out of an exploding building now looks like a premonition of the World Trade Center attack. It’s caused at least one American critic to walk out.  When asked if he thinks the film feels different now, Kang said “the timing of its American release is ironic, so I do feel regretful if it upsets audiences.”

Nevertheless, he defends the film’s level of gore, which  starts with the very first scene, unapologetically. As he describes it, “I don’t use terrorism as a dramatic ploy. It doesn’t look fun, and it has a real effect on the characters. I believe it’s something that should not happen. I also believe that as long as humans exist, it will go on in one form or another. Films often gloss it over or tone it down but rarely do they show terrorism succeed. In the case of September 11th, if it was a film, it never would have played out that way.”

Despite the film’s unmistakable yearning for a unified Korea and sympathetic portrayal of a spy, the North Korean characters of SHIRI are mostly terrorists. Upon reflection, Kang thinks that spectators may perceive the film as more anti-North Korean than he intended, due to scenes of jarringly violent  army training exercises.  He says, “ I get asked about it more than I expected. Maybe I’m more prepared to deal with it because I did research for the film and realized that such violence is possible, but audiences are often shocked. ”

Kang has involved himself in  political debate in another way, by shaving his head publicly in protest of the MPAA’s demand that South Korea get rid of its film quota system. (Thanks to that system,  the country held onto a 40% market share for its national cinema last year.) In fact, MPAA head Jack Valenti infuriated him by citing SHIRI’s success as an example why the quota system was unnecessary. Recalling the head-shaving, Kang says that “I wanted to make a very strong statement. Everything now follows the logic of the market, but I do believe that we need some system to protect culture.”

SHIRI is full of symbolism suggesting an ultimate bond between North and South Korea, down to its title: a fish that only lives in a freshwater estuary between them. The  first South Korean film to suggest such unity since 1956, it paved the way for Park Chan-wook’s subsequent (and more politically sophisticated) JOINT SECURITY AREA, which depicts the friendship between soldiers on both sides of the border. Kang was relatively tight-lipped about his next project, but fittingly, it will address the war that divided the country in the first place.