I had originally planned to talk about another film today. Given that South Koreaâ€™s Memorial Day is on the 6th, however, I decided that a film about the Korean War would be more appropriate.
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After the end of World War II, Korea was divided into the Soviet-occupied North invaded the American-occupied South. The two sides became more entrenched and hostile during the next five years until the North invaded, turning what had been a bunch of border conflicts into a full-scale war. In the first six weeks, the Northern forces have been winning victories after victories and the Southern forces have been retreating again and again.
The movie starts out with one of those battles that results in another Southern retreat. Captain Kang Suk-Dae and the Southern soldiers are in a city, holding off the Northern forces as best as they can. The movie follows Oh Jang-Beom, who delivers supplies to soldiers who get killed a few seconds later. He soon meets up with a platoon commander and another group of South Korean soldiers who get boxed in on two sides by North Koreans. Eventually, Jang-Beom and the commander are the only Southerners left, but the commander gets shot and run through with a bayonet. Jang-Beom tries shooting the Northern soldier who has pinned down the commander, but his gun is empty and his hand is shaking too much for him to load a bullet into the gun. The Northern soldier eventually gets killed by a passing Southern soldier, but the commander is dead and Jang-Beom is basically traumatized. Kang soon orders all of the Southern troops to get on trucks evacuating the city as the Northern troops come in and shoot at them. They manage to halt the Northern chase for a few hours by blowing up a bridge, but this also prevents a group of refugees from crossing to the South as well.
Many of the Southern soldiers find themselves at a girlâ€™s school that has been turned into a military hospital. Aside from being injured, Jang-Beom seems to be on the way to psychologically shutting down. Kang seems to recognize him from the battle and asks him if he was with that commander when he died. It appears as if Kang believes that this means that Jang-Beom fought courageously by the commanderâ€™s side, when that is not quite what happened.
Eventually, most of the soldiers leave the hospital, but another group of men arrive. They are young men. Students with little or no military training, let alone combat experience. Some are delinquents. It is implied that they did not come here voluntarily. They are here to defend the hospital area, as it is supposedly a strategically important spot. Kang tries giving a speech to them about duty and country, but the students keep interrupting him with talk about the democratic process, which eventually turns into jokes. Out of the seventy-one students, only three of them had combat experience. One of those three is Jang-Beom, whom Kang picks to lead this ragtag band of misfits. Jang-Beom does not think that he is fit to lead the group. Many of the students agree, but the other two soldiers pretty much act like his enforcers. As for Kang, he has battles to fight elsewhere. So he gives Jang-Beom what were probably supposed to be words of encouragement, and disappears from the movie for quite a while. Now it is up to Jang-Beom and his two assistants to build these sixty-eight others to becomeâ€¦wellâ€¦a competent fighting force in time for the inevitable arrival of the Northern forces. And they are coming.
Jang-Beom is basically a quiet soul, relying mostly on the other two soldiers to shout his orders at the students. While the students muck about during their off-time, he goes off by himself and writes letters to his mother. He basically acts as a stoic killjoy, but he kind of has to or else he would completely collapse. One person who probably sees this is Gu Kap-Jo. He is some lowlife with a criminal background and a love for knives. Communists killed his parents, so he is anxious to fight. He, and two of his buddies, believe that he is a better pick to lead the students, regardless of military experience. While most of the other students fall in line, Kap-Jo regularly challenges Jang-Beomâ€™s authority and toughness. This battle of wills gets progressively worse.
While there are sixty-nine other student soldiers in the group, the movie focuses on a few of them only briefly. It is more interested in Major Park Mu-Yang, the leader of the Northern forces tasked with taking this part of the South. He has an intimidating presence and a low, simmering voice to go with it. Yet, even with the villainous presentation and portrayal, he sees himself as a savior. He is trying to reunite a country that had had been split by foreign forces five years ago. It is just that these Southerners are not cooperating. Park has to liberate the South from these Southern soldiers. He would rather be â€œkindâ€ than cruel to the Southern soldiers, asking them to surrender or just get out of the way instead of continuing to fight. Park takes pity on this small band of students, maybe allowing his emotions get in the way of the cold practicality of war. Of course, it is obvious that this outmatched group of Southerners will not go down without a fight, so it is just a matter of time before the same emotions that led to acts of mercy start going in a different direction.
This movie, based on a true story, was meant to highlight the contributions of student soldiers during the Korean War. This particular true story was almost tailor made for a movie highlighting said contributions. Almost. The actual incidents that formed the basis for the movie were a little more drawn out and maybe not as extreme as what was displayed, but a truly accurate depiction would have been emotionally draining or just exhausting. What we get instead is a fairly by-the-numbers patriotic war movie, with a small squabbling group of not-ready fighters against a horde of killers. There is a bit of nuance, but it is mostly the setup to a climax with John Woo levels of heroic bloodshed. As narratively safe as the movie may be, it is well made and thoroughly enjoyable. Sure, only six or seven of the 71 get much screen time, and only two get all that much development, but all of them get treated with respectâ€¦except for one. I liked all of the performances, though I kind of wished that the actor playing Jang-Beom would have done something about his distracting K-Pop eyebrows. I didnâ€™t even realize that he was in a boyband and I figured that he was in a boyband. He did very well despite that.
Good action, interesting characters, good drama, intensity, and an uplifting patriotic message. What more could you ask for in a war movie?
Next Time: Guzaarish (India: 2010, approx. 125 minutes).
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Time After Next: I Wish (Japan: 2011, approx. 130 minutes).
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