Korean War Movies and Political Drama
I had hoped to make a post about “Korean War Movies” this past weekend, but then I got struck down by the world’s most annoying head cold, which left me unable to do anything except watch movies and stare at Cracked.com for hours straight. Another hitch in my plan: the four movies I had chosen for War Weekend, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, R-Point, Silmido, and The Front Line, weren’t all about the Korean War, at least not directly.
Only two of the films dealt explicitly with the war. The first was Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War, and the second was The Front Line. The Brotherhood of War is about the relationship between two brothers and how they are affected by the war. The older brother, Jin-tae, is a shoe shine who wants a better life for his younger brother, Jin-seok, and works to send him to college. At the start of the war, Jin-seok is coerced into the army; Jin-tae boards the train in an attempt to retrieve his younger brother, but the military forces him into service, too. Jin-tae does everything he can to protect the vulnerable and intelligent Jin-seok, taking on riskier and more challenging missions in the hopes that Jin-seok will be sent home to preserve the family line. Eventually, Jin-tae’s recklessness pays off, not in sending his brother home, but in helping himself ascend the military ranks; soon it’s no longer clear whether the humble shoe shine has turned ruthless and ambitious or if he’s just making necessary sacrifices.
The Front Line delivers less family drama and more political intrigue. Taking place closer to the end of the Korean War, the film focuses on the numerous battles that would define the exact border between the two states. Specifically, the two armies fight over Aerok Hill, which changed hands continuously throughout the war. Following the commanding officer’s death by friendly fire, an agent from the Defense Security Command is sent to the front lines to investigate a possible mole in the Alligator Company, the group of South Korean soldiers tasked with defending the hill. The investigator soon finds that there is no mole; instead, soldiers from the North and the South have been exchanging messages and gifts by way of a secret compartment as the hill changes hands from army to army.
Of the two war movies, I enjoyed The Front Line the most. Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War was an important, expensive, and popular film when it came out, and it’s worth noting that the battle scenes are spectacularly made, with all the explosions and horrific gore. But if J.S.A. was a Spielbergian political drama, Brotherhood of War is a war movie by James Cameron. The battle sequences go on far too long, so impressed with themselves that one battle sequence is immediately followed by another battle sequence, while everything else pertaining to the relationships between characters is schmaltzy and melodramatic. Every time the choral, string-laden, emotionally manipulative theme music started up, I wanted to gag. The development of the main characters didn’t go much beyond “stoic, protective big brother” and “trembling, doe-eyed little brother.”
The Front Line also had impressive battle sequences, but this movie had the advantage of being anchored to an interesting and specific location. The image of soldiers climbing up the steep hillside as it literally crumbled beneath them was very striking. The plotline was mostly formless, moving from conflict to conflict: clandestine trading between enemies, repressed traumatic memories, a mysterious sniper, betrayal between friends – but this kept the film moving along at a nice pace, unlike Brotherhood, which spent two and half hours beating the same dead horse (I have to protect my brother!). I also enjoyed the assortment of characters more (as well as their camaraderie), especially the enigmatic, almost serpentine, morphine-addicted acting commander.
In between watching these Korean War movies, I took a little detour into the horror genre with R-Point, which actually takes place during the Vietnam War (Korean soldiers fought on the side of the U.S.). R-Point has a great premise, but the movie is so convoluted in the second half that I’m not even sure what I watched. The movie begins at a South Korean base in Vietnam when a soldier’s voice comes over the radio, pleading for his platoon to be rescued. The catch? That whole platoon was killed six months ago.
A troubled commanding officer is sent to the “R-Point” with eight other misfits to investigate the situation and bring back any soldiers who might somehow still be alive. When they arrive, they find a stone marking a mass grave; a hundred years earlier, the Chinese slaughtered scores of Vietnamese and threw their bodies into a lake, which was later filled in to become the site of a temple. The stone warns that anyone with blood on his hands will not return. Naturally, the soldiers ignore the warning and trudge on, setting up camp at an abandoned French mansion. So creepy, so far.
As they start their search for the missing platoon, however, things get less scary and more nonsensical. The characters make stupid decisions, relying too heavily on the “lets split up!” method of search and rescue, even after this proves to be a bad idea time after time. Also, everyone deviates from every plan, with predictably disastrous results. Didn’t these soldiers learn any kind of discipline in the army? It’s also hard to tell, after a while, who is haunting whom. Which may be the point, I guess. War is bad for everyone, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the French, that sniper girl they killed on their way in, the lost and now possibly spectral platoon… Atrocities must be punished. Those with blood on their hands will not return. Maybe I wasn’t paying much attention (I was sick and probably a little delirious), but it just didn’t work from me. However, I did like the bleeding radio with the spooky voices coming out.
The most pleasant surprise of my “War Weekend” was Silmido, a film that isn’t even about war. Loosely based on real events, Silmido is about “Unit 684,” a team of death row inmates and other convicts who were assembled by the military in 1968 to assassinate Kim Il-sung of North Korea. The film documents, in brutal detail, the rigorous and inhumane training regimen the thirty-one men underwent, not only so they would be in peak physical condition, but so they could withstand torture without revealing information if captured during the mission.
They are finally sent on their intended mission, after months of physical and psychological abuse, eager to carry out the assassination – but they are immediately called back because the powers that be have decided that the country’s political climate has changed. Rather than upheaval and revenge, the people want peace and reunification. The team returns to the military camp and the men are forced to stay there until a decision is reached. Suddenly lacking a purpose, and extremely uncertain about their fate now that the mission has been cancelled, the men of Unit 684 grow increasingly restless.
My memory of details is a little fuzzy (again, sick and delirious) but I was completely engrossed in the story of these men, the treatment they endured from the military, their hopes of redemption through political sacrifice, and the complete anarchy that occurred when their one saving grace was ripped away from them. The military is a huge force. The government is a huge force. This group of thirty-one criminals tried to rebel against the reality they had no agency of their own in the face of such institutional power. They only barely comprehended that they were pawns in the bigger game. They thought participating in the assassination would give their lives meaning beyond their crimes and ruined reputations. But, naively, they never considered that they were disposable until it was too late.
Anyway, this was War Weekend. Thanks for following along.