On the beaches of Normandy, Joon-sik and Tatsuo do all they can to survive

My Way (마이 웨이) – ★★★☆☆

My Way (마이 웨이)

My Way (마이 웨이)

Expectations were always going to be impossibly high for director Kang Je-gyu’s (강제규) follow up to Taegukgi. The 2004 film was revolutionary at the time, combining kinetic war scenes, an orchestral score, and strong nationalistic sentiment through the (somewhat allegorical) story of two brothers divided by civil war. Yet after a seven year hiatus the director chose to return to the war genre, bolstered by an enormous 28 billion won budget and the return of Jang Dong-gun (장동건) alongside a cast of international stars. Furthermore, his project was to be based on the mysteriously true story of the discovery of a Korean soldier during the D-Day landings in Normandy, an event still unexplained to this day. Curiosity, and expectations, naturally increased.

My Way (마이 웨이) continues the themes that have become a staple of the genre, including the notion of brotherhood and the brutality of war, albeit this time on an international scale. The grand scope and focus on historical events results in a lack of character development for the entire cast, and as such became a disappointment at the box office in Korea. However My Way boasts some of the most gloriously horrifying war sequences from Kang Je-gyu, whose vision and stylization have notably evolved from his prior films. Yet despite the spectacle, the lack of characterization and emphasis on more personal, intimate conflicts amounts to an attractive but somewhat hollow war film.

During the occupation of Korea by Japanese forces in the 1920s and ’30s, tensions are high on both sides with riots and assassinations commonplace. Despite the crackdown on the freedom of native Koreans, a rivalry emerges between two talented marathon athletes; a poor Korean rickshaw driver named Joon-sik, and rich Japanese student Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri). After Joon-sik wins a competition intended to prove the superiority of the Japanese, a corrupt ruling disqualifies the Korean athlete and rioting ensues. For their crimes, all involved in the riot are forced to become conscripts in the Japanese military. Sent to the frontline, Joon-sik and Tatsuo experience the sheer brutality of war on a variety of continents and through numerous armies, allaying their rivalry and instead forging the bonds of brotherhood.

Following a riot after a corrupt marathon decision, Joon-sik and his friends are forced to become conscripts in the Japanese army

Following a riot after a corrupt marathon decision, Joon-sik and his friends are forced to become conscripts in the Japanese army

My Way is a stunningly realized film, recreating the landscape of 1930s Korea as well as Asian and European battlegrounds with incredible realism. The mise-en-scene is wondrous throughout the film and deeply absorbing, from scenes such as Joon-sik racing throughout the streets of Korea with a rickshaw, to a grueling winter imprisoned in a Russian concentration camp, to being caught in a crossfire involving the Nazis. The variety of events and landscapes are genuine highlights of My Way as Kang Je-gyu showcases his talent in recreating historical scenes with superb attention to detail, moving from one location to the next with impetus. The camerawork and frenetic action sequences are exquisitely brutal, genuinely conveying the horrific incidents soldiers were forced to endure and as the landscape and military units continually change such sequences never become tiresome or dull. Yet therein also lies the greatest difficulty of the film, as while great emphasis is placed on moving the protagonists from Korea to Normandy the characterization is an afterthought, making the harsh war scenes stunning but without an emotional core. Joon-sik is very much the centre of the film, and while likable, has little-to-no reason to want to return home other than to continue running competitively. His journey is thus undermined, although his Korean compatriots suffer far worse as they are barely given an introduction before they are ruthlessly dispatched by the enemy in trying to create dramatic tension. The narrative does deserve credit for broaching the subject of brotherhood between Korea and Japan through Joon-sik and Tetsuo, attempting to convey a form of reconciliation and alleviating tensions between the two nations. But again, the pace of the narrative allows precious little space for their brotherhood to develop, which is of acute importance given their mutual hatred at the start of the film. As such the intimacy between Joon-sik and Tetsuo is (quite romantically) melodramatic and uplifting, yet also contrived.

The narrative does however explore the interchangeability of bloodthirsty inhumanity during the course of the film, and the corruption that power seemingly inevitably brings. Given the tumultuous history between Korea, Japan and China, depicting scenes of Japanese brutality are certainly nothing new; however Kang Je-gyu portrays the forces not only as barbaric but downright fanatical as soldiers are ordered on suicide missions for the glory of the empire or shot upon retreat. What may seem like the stirring of Korean nationalistic sentiment is allayed by the contrasts with Russian and German troops, all of whom convey the same ideological stance during battles. My Way blurs the boundaries of nationality in conveying the merciless nature of warfare, portraying all parties as equally accountable. The representation of German troops is quite perplexing however, as the kind, relaxed and joyous soldiers stands in stark contrast to the annals of history.

Joon-sik and Tatsuo find themselves working in a Russian concentration camp

Joon-sik and Tatsuo find themselves working in a Russian concentration camp

As Korean marathon runner Joon-sik, Jang Dong-gun (장동건) gives a highly capable performance although he is never stretched in the role. The actor conveys all the necessary emotions during the horrors of war and attempts to provide a heart to the film despite the limitations of the script. He is highly likable and attempts to shine a light of humanity during scenes of war as the narrative intends, but Jang Dong-gun’s presence is generally to give focus to the impressive battle sequences that rage around him. While battles commence on land, sea and air in spectacular fashion, the actor is usually running through the middle of the conflict giving scale and someone to root for as he takes the audience into the midst of war.

Interestingly it is Japanese actor Joe Odagiri as student/marathon runner Tatsuo that has the greatest character arc in My Way. From angry student to fanatically patriotic military officer to brother, the actor gives a competent performance throughout although as with his co-star Joe Odagiri is not stretched in the role. The film is very much his story due to his character evolution, and provides an interesting counter-balance to those featuring Jang Dong-gun.

As for famed Chinese actress Fan Bing-bing, it is a wonder why she choose to be part of the film at all given her incredibly short time on camera as Chinese sniper Sirai. She performs admirably, although she is ultimately just a device to spur the narrative forward.

On the beaches of Normandy, Joon-sik and Tatsup do all they can to survive

On the beaches of Normandy, Joon-sik and Tatsuo do all they can to survive

Verdict:

My Way is an incredible spectacle of a war film, with continually stunning sequences of war and featuring breathtaking cinematography in a variety of landscapes. Director Kang Je-gyu has clearly used the enormous budget to produce some of the most effective scenes of battle in recent memory, with the scope and scale allowing his vision to evolve tremendously. That said, the focus on visuals results in a lack of characterization making the depiction of war rather deprived of an emotional core, and audience interest by extension. My Way is a visually impressive, although somewhat hollow, tour de force and a notable entry in the war genre.

★★★☆☆

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Brotherhood [Taegukgi] (태극기 휘날리며) – ★★★★★

Brotherhood [Taegukgi]

Brotherhood/Taegukgi

When Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, the style in which war battle scenes were filmed was forever changed. The intensity that accompanied the hand-held, debris-hitting-the-camera, point-of-view shot served to (almost) place audiences within the action and offered a more thrilling, and more compelling, viewing experience. This ‘raw’ method of filming battle sequences is arguably why the film received such universal praise, and why so many war films since have attempted to emulate the formula.

Brotherhood [Taegukgi] (태극기 휘날리며) employs the same techniques in depicting the Korean War, yet the structure is markedly different and all the better for it. While Spielberg unloaded the horrors of war in the opening 20 minutes (consequently resulting in the rest of the film to be rather dull by comparison), director Kang Je-gyu (강제규) wisely uses the style sparingly at first before building to a brutal finale.

Brotherhood tells the story of two brothers, Jin Tae (Jang Dong Gun, 장동건) and Jin Seok (Won Bin, 원빈) who live a modest existence in central Seoul, 1950. Jin Tae, the eldest brother, is a street-smart shoe-shiner with ambitions to open his own shoe store. His younger 18 year old brother Jin Seok is a dedicated student, who carries the burden of the hopes of all the family. Jin Tae is soon to be married to Young Shin (Lee Eun Joo, 이은주), who co-owns a noodle restaurant with her future mother-in-law. The lifestyle of the makeshift family is humble but happy, and the cinematography is incredibly detailed in reinforcing the differences between the rich and poor, the city and country. When war inevitably breaks out, Jin Tae leads the family to the midland city of Daegu in an attempt to avoid the battle.

Brotherhood battle scene

An incredible battle sequence in Brotherhood

Traditionally, war films present an ‘us vs. them’ framework in order to inspire patriotism and align the viewer with the central protagonist(s). Brotherhood refrains from such a simplistic dichotomy, as when the family reaches Daegu, Jin Tae and Jin Seok are forced into drafting for the military; when Jin Tae protests that his sibling has a heart condition, he is beaten for defiance. On the frontline, the enemy is berated by the South Korean soldiers for being ‘Communist’, but the definition, and the ideology, is lost beneath the torrent of inhumane behaviour by both sides. When the northern forces murder villagers, the south brutally dispatches them with flamethrowers; while the southern forces execute everyone who had signed up for Communist rallies, the north hangs women outside cities as a warning. The ‘enemy’ becomes interchangeable to the point where the enemy doesn’t exist, only who wronged who last, and how gravely.

Jin Tae and Jin Seok are forced into the military draft

Jin Tae and Jin Seok are forced into the military draft

At the front line, it becomes apparent that Jin Seok’s health condition is serious. As such, Jin Tae volunteers for every risky mission that arises in the hope of earning a medal, and thus the influence to be able to send his younger brother home. Faults with the plan quickly become clear, as Jin Tae becomes increasingly adept at his missions and begins to lose his compassion, while Jin Seok begs his older brother to stop and retain his humanity. The relationship is reminiscent of Sgt. Barnes and Sgt. Elias in Platoon (1986), however the duality represented in Brotherhood is intensified as the brothers fight for each other in their own unique way. Even more compelling is how Jin Tae begins to lose himself in the accolades and cheers of his fellow soldiers until atrocities become second nature, forcing Jin Seok to reject his brother and his noble intentions.

As the American soldiers land in Incheon, and the South Korean forces push north toward China, the brothers are locked in the emotional battle with each, the appalling situations they are pitted against, and history as the Chinese forces will inevitably counterattack.  The acting by both leads is superb. Jang Dong Gun is incredible in his portrayal of shoe-shine boy turned psychotic soldier, and the rage in his eyes is genuinely terrifying. When he encounters the barbarity of war, his facial expressions of sorrow and anger convey more than words ever could. As the younger intellectual brother, Won Bin is equally tremendous as he continually gives an intense emotional performance whether suffering from health problems or fighting for his brothers conscience.

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

Equally as profound is the musical score, which adds tangible  intensity to the film. The incredible battle sequences, the tender emotional moments, and even the silences are all given extra poignancy thanks to the score, and the haunting orchestral soundtrack stays long after the final credits.

Critics of Brotherhood often cite that certain scenes and scenarios are rendered melodramatic, and detracted from the authenticity of the viewing experience. However, it’s this emotional intensity that makes Brotherhood such an incredible film. While war films traditionally tend to focus on the lack of humanity and portray ever-increasing scenes of violence – or ‘war pornography’ – Brotherhood veers away from that trend to focus on the emotional bonds between family, and emerges stronger for it.

★★★★★

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