On a hillside overlooking the beaches of Normandy, American soldiers surround a Korean and a Japanese man wearing Nazi uniforms. This is the second-most intriguing image of Mai-wei, the WWII epic from writer/director Je-gyu Kang. What’s even more fascinating is that the image is drawn directly from real life. How they got there (and into Hitler’s army no less) is a story told while trudging through the freezing mountains of Russia and the hot open plains of Korea.
It’s an enormous movie, told through a decade as two competitive marathon runners – Jun-shik Kim (Dong-gun Jang) and Tatsuo Hasegawa (Jo Odagiri) – begin as alienated enemies and become friends through the brittle evolution of battle.
Certainly its most striking achievements are the extended, highly-choreographed war scenes that steal the breath right out of your lungs. The visual style is an angrier version of Saving Private Ryan, but instead of beginning with Normandy, Mai-wei ends with it, and instead of having a few huge battles, Mai-wei has a solid half-dozen.
Make no mistake; it’s a movie that slams your head into the wall without giving you a helmet.
To the movie’s credit, everything is turned up to eleven. Its depiction of war is unrelenting and raw. At times, it can be overpowering with the camera equally interested in the landscape of explosions as it is the microscopic detail of dirt lifting off the ground and resettling after a man’s blood-drained face slams to the earth for the final time.
It’s violence made beautiful, but the visuals are robust purely because they hold steady as bullets rip through flesh or tanks roll too-slowly over legs and torsos.
All of it is packaged in the context of a war fought by slaves – a frustrating situation where each man loses his freedom and control of his own destiny. More than just citizens conscripted for service, Jun-shik Kim, as a Korean man living under Japanese rule, is forced alongside his friends to fight for a country he doesn’t even belong to. That group is an unsurprisingly ragtag group led by the heroic Kim and his congenial best friend Jong-Dae (In-Kwon Kim). Why is unsurprising? Because the other aspect of the movie’s tone is how broad and cliched it is. Je-gyu Kang does brilliantly when the war is raging, but he has no patience or economy to turn the volume down for everything else. Just as the violence is bombastic, each moment of triumph is met with a sweeping score and an over-the-top semi-slow-mo style just in case the audience couldn’t catch that it was an important scene. The problem? He makes every scene “important” which leaves no room for the calm reality of real life.
The worst offense comes when the soldiers play a too-smiling game of soccer on the Normandy beach after a hard day of setting up blockades and waiting to be shot in the head. It’s the Korean War Movie answer to Top Gun’s volleyball scene.
Besides the massive dose of sugar this movie didn’t need, everything else is above and beyond excellent. The sports movie aspect, complete with its own cheese, is a fantastic element that puts the two leads on display as competitors who need each other to get better. Fortunately, the movie is also complex enough to realize both the frivolousness of grown men playing a game and the incredible necessity of engaging in something social and aggressive without people being killed. War makes their marathon aspirations both petty and vital. It’s enough to bring every small act into greater focus, and Je-gyu Kang and company never lose sight of that.
Dong-gun Jang and Jo Odagiri are both massive stars in the world of Asian cinema, and they are more than capable here, but the story is the real star. At its heart is the mystery of how two men from East Asia found their way far beyond the western front, and the lifeblood is the continual examination and re-examination of what war does to change good men. For some, it will erase their souls. For others it will fulfill a sense of duty. For most, it will wipe them off the face of the planet.
As hammy as some of its scenes are, Mai-wei is limber and nuanced when it comes to illustrating the break downs and epiphanies that occur when you’ve lost most of your men fighting off ten tanks only to see forty more crest the hill.
Thankfully, the sweetness and hand-holding is left out of the action. If war is hell, this movie is the ninth circle.
That’s important, because the cost of war is high and real, and the production here both understand and honor that. Unfortunately, the movie falls well short of being a masterpiece. With its too-obvious flashbacks to remind the audience of elements that echo each other, and a healthy slice of cheese added to certain segments, the enormity of the powerless (and perhaps pointless) situation that everyone finds themselves in is diminished to a size small enough to fit on the spoon we’re being fed with.
That’s a shame, but it’s still a damned fine movie that is, at times, physically affecting and philosophically challenging. Plus, even if that were stripped away, it’s a classic story about friendship, dedication and sacrifice that’s told on a gorgeous grand scale.