The Life of an Exemplary Christian: Film on Saint André Kim Taegon released in cinemas across South Korea

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Written and directed by filmmaker Park Heung-shik and co-produced by the Korean Catholic cultural center “Alma Art”, a biographical film about Saint André Kim Taegon premiered in cinemas in South Korea on November 30.

Birth is a feature film that traces the biography of the first Catholic priest and martyr on the Korean peninsula. It was released one year after the celebrations that marked the 200th anniversary of the saint’s birth.

Birth held its premiere on November 16 at the Vatican in the brand new Synod Hall where Pope Francis met the entire cast (popular actor Yoon Shi Yoon plays the role of the saint) as well as the technical crew at the “Pope Paul VI” audience hall.

During the meeting, the Pope considered a true blessing this approach to the life and work of such an exemplary Christian, “beautiful as a human being”, states the Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation of Korea (CPBC).

Choo Kyu-ho, the Korean ambassador to the Vatican present at the event, also spoke positively about the film, as it emphasizes human freedom and dignity, issues that “all peoples of the world” must take into account and strive for.

Speaking to UCA News (Union of Catholic Asian News), Father Paolo Lee Yongho, rector of the Sanctuary of Solmoe, birthplace of Saint André Kim, recalled his pioneering spirit in defending human dignity. André Kim fought for the equality of all men and women within a society deeply marked by strict and insurmountable social barriers and would pay for ‘boldness’ with his life.

Two hundred years ago, the entire Korean peninsula was under the rule of the Joseon dynasty, a feudal society totally closed to the outside world. Christianity was introduced there in the 16th century, and as had happened in Japan, its popularity would be immediate. Books written in Chinese characters by Padroado missionaries served as the main medium for disseminating the new faith, and it was only much later, in 1784, that the first Catholic chapel appeared.

Feeling threatened – as Catholicism rejected the beliefs held by ancestors, the cornerstone of Asian cultures, as is well known – the rulers of the Joseon dynasty tried to ban it. In this context, André Kim was born in August 1821, the son of converted parents and with a martyred great-grandfather and great-uncle in 1814 and 1816, respectively. The clandestine situation did not weaken the faith and determination of this family, on the contrary. No wonder then that André was in the sights (along with two other young people, all 15 years old) of the French priests of the Foreign Missions in Paris, who in the meantime, had secretly infiltrated Korea and contacted these underground Christians. The idea was to send these young people to Macau, where they would be prepared for priesthood. And that’s what happened, in March 1837. A journey lasting three months.

The film Birth has the backdrop of the first Opium War, which in the meantime has broken out, and portrays André’s stay in Macau (now immortalized in a statue in Jardim de Camões), his departure from the enclave aboard the French ship Raphael and the arrival in Manchuria, where he would spend several years before returning to his country. That same year, he again crossed the Yellow Sea to Shanghai, where he was finally ordained a priest. Back in Korea, Father André did everything to allow more missionaries to enter by sea, thus avoiding border patrols. For this reason he was arrested, accused of proselytizing, tortured and finally beheaded by the Han River, outside Seoul.

André Kim always preached faith in God and was never afraid to oppose feudal society. This stance is today, “in our economic and social system marked by inequalities and disrespect for human life”, recalls Father Lee Yongho, “more than ever relevant”.

Saint André Kim was one of the first Koreans to see the world and to draw attention to the need for academic knowledge and exchanges between cultures. He studied several languages in Macau, drew a map of the Kingdom of Joseon, thus making known to the world the places of his land, and with the French missionaries he learned measures to prevent epidemics such as cholera and smallpox.

Filming for Birth began on December 6, 2021, and took place in different historic locations on the peninsula and on Cheju Island. The film is expected to be a huge box office success, as, let’s not forget, South Korea has over 5.8 million Catholics, which constitute 10 percent of its population. Among nations, Korea has the fourth highest number of saints and is one of the strongest Catholic churches in Asia.

On May 6, 1984, during his visit to South Korea, Pope John Paul II canonized André Kim, along with with 102 other Korean martyrs. It was the first canonization outside the Vatican.

(Photo: Joaquim Magalhães de Castro)