Director Kang Je-gyu’s (Shiri, Brotherhood: Taegukgi) explosive (and expensive) comeback to cinema…
Back in the early noughties a photograph was discovered that showed an Korean in German uniform, the first Nazi captured by the US forces at Normandy on D-Day. Drafted into the Japanese Army, he had been captured by the Russians in Manchurian Border skirmishes who pressed him into serving the Red Army, he was then in turn captured by the Germans who did much the same, forcing him to help build the Atlantic wall.
It sparked incredible interest and debate over his story in Korea. Unsurprisingly it’s already served as inspiration for artistic works, in particular a book by Jo Jung-rae, Sarameui Tal (Oh, God! aka Mask Of Man), which was published in 2006. Despite this being his first film since Taegukgi, some seven years ago, and even starring the same lead Jang Don-gun, director Kang Je-gyu’s interpretation builds on the relationship between two childhood friends (not brothers this time!) turned deadly rivals during war.
Kim Joon-sik (Jang Don-gun, Nowhere To Hide, The Promise, Typhoon, The Coast Guard) and Tatsuo Hasegawa (Joe Odagiri, Adrift In Tokyo, Dream, Blood And Bones, Black Kiss, Shinobi) meet as children, when Japanese born Tatsuo and his family moves into Joon-sik’s neighbourhood. Initially brought together by their joint dreams of becoming Olympic marathon runners, Joon-sik’s increasing success leads to them falling out. When Joon-sik is drafted against his will into the Imperial Japanese Army, he finds a newly enlisted Tatsuo his commanding officer and oppressor.
After a disastrous skirmish with Russian forces both are taken prisoner and forced into the Red Army, but their ordeal is just beginning…
Probably not for the first time this year, the filmmakers appear to have caught 2012 fever, sandwiching the story in flashback between an opening and closing sequence set at the last London Olympic games in 1948. As a device, it helps build the relationship between the two leads, but also I think, admittedly rather cynically, that it helps distinguish the film from its predecessor. The result rather comes off as a cross between Taegukgi and Chariots Of Fire… Oh hang on, isn’t that Gallipoli?
Personally I didn’t appreciate the hanging of one real event on another. Obviously both are dramatised, particularly since very little was known about the Korean shown in the photograph, but did we really need the device of Joon-sik running during the 1948 Olympics? Especially as to my knowledge the Korean contestants didn’t even do that well. It seems a falsehood too far for a film that all too easily introduces itself as being based on a true story. Kang even seems to pay reverence to some talk that the photographed soldier could have been Japanese.
Yet inside My Way, there’s one incredible tale fighting to get out. There have been plenty of films based around the Korean War, but few (if any) have shown the Koreans experience during the Russian-Japanese war and the World War (II) that followed. The horrific and relentless ordeals they are put through put me in mind of Werner Hertzog’s (by no means prefect) Rescue Dawn. Kang never pulls back for the true horror of war and inprisionment, showing all sorts of unpleasantness.
As reportedly the most expensive Korean movie ever, the set pieces on the battlefield are incredible. Te direction is as assured as you’d Exocet from Kang. Scenes are well orchestrated and as chaotic as you’d expect war to be, on a par with great scene like those at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan – but even here some aspects are more than a little familiar. When Joon-sik is chased down by a fighter pilot, there’s more than a little North By Northwest about it. The casting of Fan Bingbing (The Shinjuku Incident, Flash Point, Bodyguards and Assassins, Shaolin) as a Chinese sniper is rather too much like the character played by Kim Ok-bin in The Front Line, though I’m sure that’s merely accidental.
The film revolves around the core relationship between Joon-sik and Tatsuo, using every melodramatic device possible, often well over the top and far too contrived for Western audiences. Yet I defy any audience not to get swept up in the story by the end. Performances are strong, particularly Joe Odagiri – though still I feel uneasy with him appearing in such a mainstream film.
But here’s the thing: despite being very much aimed at an Asian audience for once this has been picked up by a major distributor for UK release, Universal Pictures. While that’s got most of us pundits wondering what the hell they’re playing at – they’re hardly known for foreign language films – it’ll be interesting to see what they make of it later this year.
For those of us that fell in love with Kang Je-gyu’s work from the first time we saw Shiri – another one of my early entries into Korean film and one that proved South Korea could make big-budget action thrillers every but as good as the West (and Hong Kong) – and Brotherhood: Taegukgi, the film might be a little disappointing, but isn’t that so often the way after such a long wait? It’s still a well made and produced movie, as it should be.
How fast can you run? How fast are you going to run?…
My Way was screened as the opening film of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival this year on Thursday 12 April. It is released on UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 24 September by Universal Pictures.
Review originally published 19 April 2012.
Distributor: Universal Pictures (UK)
Edition: Blu-Ray (2012)
DVD comes backed with A Way to My Way - a 40 minute 'Making of', while Blu-Ray adds an exclusive featurette, People Behind My Way - a 35 minute documentary with the cast, crew and director.