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July 24, 2012

My Way

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Kang Je-kyu - 2011
Well Go Entertainment Region 1 DVD

If there was one Korean film director who might be most suited for trying his hand at with a Hollywood blockbuster, it would be Kang Je-kyu. His box office success, Shiri, about a North Korean hit women sneaking into Seoul, compares favorably to the original Die Hard, made for a fraction of the cost. Tae Guk Ki, his epic about the Korean war from the perspective of two brothers, was notably inspired by Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

Spielberg is recalled again with this new film, which concluded dramatically during D-Day, from the point of view of a Japanese and Korean soldier who find themselves fighting on behalf of the German army. The origins of the film's story begin with this photograph of a Korean soldier in German uniform, captured at Normandy. The story is a fictionalized account that also serves as an investigation on the concept of national identity, and maintaining one's humanity during wartime.

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The film begins sometime during the late Twenties or early Thirties, when Japanese rule over Korea has been well established. Jun-shik, the son of a servant at the household of a Japanese military leader, meets Tetsuo, the grandson from Tokyo. The two boys establish alternating friendship and rivalry over their skills at running. Given the chance to compete in the Olympics, Jun-shik's clear victory is denied by the Japanese judges. Following a riot by the protesting Koreans, Jun-shik, along with several friends, is forced to fight on behalf of the Japanese army. While posted near Mongolia, Jun-shik's newest commanding officer is Tetsuo.

For Jun-shik, history repeats itself. Seeing the hollowness of slogans of fighting for a country that considers him a citizen for military purposes only, he sees no value other than to try and survive, when as a prisoner of war, he fights for the Russians, and again for the Germans. At the same time, when he could have easily allowed himself revenge for all of the mistreatment done personally by Tetsuo and by other Japanese soldiers, Jun-shik helps Tetsuo survive the war. The Korean prisoners are marginally treated better than the Japanese in the Russian camp. One of Jun-shik's friends is the top Korean in the camp, taking advantage of his position, and taking a Russian name. Again, what is addressed is relative power, or the illusion of power, during war.

While Kang seems to glide past the heart of what motivates Jun-shik to hold onto his humanity, there is no doubt that Kang has a great eye for spectacle. One of the great set pieces is of Jun-shik, in the process of escaping the Japanese fort, discovering a large number of Soviet tanks rumbling towards him. A Soviet airplane chases after Jun-shik. A couple of shots will bring to mind Cary Grant chased by the cropduster in North by Northwest. The pursuing plane is shot down by a female Chinese sniper with one single, well aimed bullet. The flaming remains of the plane come hurtling towards the audience. What Kang excels at is an effective visceral entertainment.

It needs to be understood that it has only been in the past few years that Korean films have looked at the years of Japanese occupation. One of recurring themes that unites these films is the meaning and expression of national identity. Spanning a period of almost two decades, and two continents, My Way is more broad than deep. Still, it is worth seeing for the many emotionally charged moments, inspired as it has been, from one of the more unusual footnotes of World War II.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 24, 2012 08:42 AM