By Richard von Busack
There comes a point in watching a modern-made, post Private Ryan war movie where you wonder what you’re supposed to be feeling. The explosions and bullet-ballets shake you into an ADD state. The carnage has been amped up to the umpteenth degree, in hopes that the supposed realism of digitized blood geysers and exploding chests will make us forget how insanely simple-minded the plot is.
One wonders: would it be less moral to just sit around watching hard-core pornography? At least with porn, you’d know what you were supposed to feel. What kind of mood is meant to be stirred up when bodies are blown up in the most clinical way possible? Is it supposed to be exhilarating? Is it meant as an escape from the cares of the day? Or is this kind of intricately detailed war movie hiding under the same “for educational purposes only” mantle that porn used to use?
My Way (try the highway instead) is supposedly based on the true story of some Korean POWs in WWII who ended up in Axis uniform in Normandy, just in time for the Allied invasion. First captured by the Japanese, and then by the Russians, they ended the war fighting for the Germans.
It’s not an implausible story. Kang Jae-Ku previously directed the relentlessly gory but more watchable flag-waver Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War, and he’s trying to top that with relentless mayhem. Kang even ropes in Chariots of Fire to this story of a feuding pair’s trip across Eurasia the hard way.
My Way begins at the London Olympics in 1948, where a Korean runner is surprising the crowds with his speed.
Flashback time. Korean mega-star Jang Dong-gun plays Kim Joon-sik. In youth, this Korean of humble birth had befriended and competed in races with the scion of a highly placed Japanese family. Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri) grows up to become a bloodthirsty, prejudiced colonel in the Imperial Japanese army, embittered because of his father’s death by Korean partisan booby trap.
Tatsuo conscripts a group of Koreans. They fight in one of the undeclared border battles between the USSR and Japan in the late 1930s. Kim refuses orders that would make him and his Koreans serve as suicide battalions. He’s beaten and sentenced to execution. Then Kim escapes, along with the movie’s only woman, a captured Chinese sniper (Bingbing Fan). Having an open road in front of him, Kim insensibly turns around and returns to participate in a Japanese/Russian tank battle. (Part of the reason for this doubling-back is so we can watch Kim outracing a strafing airplane on foot.)
Historians with time on their hands can ask whether the Japanese suicide attacks we see here occurred this early in the war: with trucks full of gasoline ramming head-on into the Soviet tanks.
Not killed somehow, but only scratched, the Japanese officer and the Korean private end up in a Soviet gulag, chopping wood in below-zero conditions. Then another hairsbreadth rescue, and then another change of uniform. They then suit up in German Army regalia to prepare the defenses for D-Day.
Director Kang kills ‘em by the thousand—the body count has to be at an all time ultimate. His crazed two or three second edits make sure we get extra portions of mayhem. This hetting-up of World War II goes so far that Kang slices up a press conference for Olympic qualification rules, as if it were a five-way gunfight from a John Woo film.
The cinderblock-colored skies and landcapes are leached of color to make the Soviet flag and the Nazi red banner pop out of the screen, along with the blood splattering in all directions. It’s the most expensive Korean film presentation to date, and the money was used to synthetically kill on a mass scale. The moaning celestial choruses on the soundtrack fail to drown out the inept dialogue (“You think a ne’er do well rickshaw driver can be better than a well-trained marathoner?”)
My Way has a point—obviously, anything that costs this much must have a point. It urges Japan and Korea to set aside their painful history and their business rivalries, and learn to compete like sportsmen. Strangely, it outlines this urgency in a film in which each side can watch the other one be blown to bits.