The beaches of Normandy were most likely filled with many surprises on D-Day, but one of the most unexpected had to have been US soldiers finding a Korean man surrendering to them while wearing a German uniform. His footnote in history forms the basis of the most expensive Korean film ever made, My Way.
Kim Jun-shik is a Korean farmer’s son who even as a young boy is known for his love of running. The late twenties saw Japan invade and retain control of Korea, and when a new Japanese headmaster arrives Jun-shik immediately forms a rivalry with the man’s spoiled son, Tatsuo Hasegawa. The two boys compete through their teen years and carry that battle of wills into WWII when Jun-shik and many other Koreans are conscripted to fight for the Japanese against the Allies. The film follows Jun-shik through a deadly series of explosive adventures and sadistic nightmares that eventually lands him in German fabric firing a machine gun at the encroaching Americans.
It’s director Kang Je-kyu’s first film in seven years and sees him return to the genre that gave him his last triumph, Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood. This time he’s moved from the battlefields of the Korean war to the international landscape of World War II, and the result is even more bombastic, brutal and epic. But what Kang gains in scope and graphic detail he loses in nuance, character and honest emotion. The result is a visual feast that leaves the eyes and ears satiated but the heart and mind still hungry for more.
Both Jun-shik and Tatsuo are central to the story, but the two men couldn’t be farther apart. Jun-shik is the film’s hero, constantly forced into situations that would destroy lesser men (or at least less lucky men), while Tatsuo reaches his 20s as a cruel and heartless bastard. Their paths cross repeatedly across the years with the two men at varied levels of power or distress and the only constant being the one man’s innate goodness and the other man’s embodiment of pure evil.
Korean war films are, historically, not kind to the Japanese. This should come as no surprise to anyone as the Japanese were, historically, not kind to any nation they invaded, occupied or attacked. But even with that historical relevance the portrayal of the Japanese in Korean (and Chinese) cinema is overwhelmingly negative. To put it in perspective, the German soldiers and Nazis that appear later in the film are shown to be far more humane and human than their Japanese counterparts.
The film follows Jun-shik from Korea through China and Russia all the way to Europe, and each geographic locale sees an attempted balance of the personal drama and the large-scale conflict. More often than not though only the latter half of that equation comes to fruition.
No matter his circumstance, Jun-shik returns to his running as a way to cope, focus and pass time. He was cheated out of a chance at Olympic glory but now uses his skill and endurance as an actual life-saving ability. He runs a lot. It’s not quite Forrest Gump-level, but he spends a lot of time wearing out his shoe leather. His journey brings him in and out of contact with friends from home, others who’ve also been conscripted, captured or thought scattered to the winds, but those bonds are never as strong as the singular one he has with himself and his desire to go home. He appears emotionally attached as those friends fall around him, but it rarely feels sincere.
Luckily we don’t have to wait long for the first of a handful of spectacular battle scenes to roar loudly and bloodily across the screen. Only in the movies is war a beautiful thing, and it’s rarely been done as intensely as it is here. Hundreds of men stream towards their doom, tanks and other vehicles roll their mechanized mayhem across the battlefield (and in one particularly messy scene, across a prone but very conscious soldier), and blood and body parts spray the air. It’s ridiculously violent and gory, as war is prone to be, and ultimately it’s these scenes that offer up the film’s only real entertainment. And it’s one of four such spectacles.
But be warned, many of these scenes are filmed via handhelds creating an experience that some may find uncomfortable. Even more damning, the action scenes in particular are cut within an inch of their life resulting in a ridiculously low average shot length that would give even Tony Scott seizures and palpitations.
One non-battle highlight that deserves mentioning is the arrival of a Chinese sniper played by Fan Bingbing. Not only is her name fun to say but she’s a talented actress in a film filled with boys and their toys. And yes, she’s also easy on the eyes.
The film’s drama fails because it’s underdone, but it’s also undone by a soaring, swelling score and an overly strong nationalist agenda. Like some of the recent Chinese period films funded by (or made under the auspices of) the Chinese government, honest drama and storytelling is sacrificed in the name of making them look as good as possible. It’s almost as if they expect the drama to work simply because they’ve placed a likeable enough Korean man in untenable situations, but viewers will find it difficult to root for a flat hero built more on patriotism than personality.
My Way is a phonetic translation of the film’s original Korean title, Mai Wai, and as such it has little real bearing on the movie itself. It immediately calls to mind the Frank Sinatra song, but the lyrics bear no real relation to the lead character. Instead, we’re left with a protagonist whose end (repeatedly) comes near, but who escapes fate time and again throughout his marathon of life and death. The loneliness of the long distance runner has rarely been filled by so many faces, events and second chances.