As the United States prepares to pull its military out of one country, how about a movie set in a time when the American military was in another country?
It is the year 1950. The Allied Forces have pushed back the Communist invasion of South Korea, and have started a bombing campaign to clear out any Northern troops hiding in the mountains.
This is US Navy Pilot Neal Smith.
His plane has been damaged and becomes increasingly damaged as he bounces it against the mountain until it finally stops at a rock.
A…let’s say a platoon of soldiers are walking through the mountains. Well, sort of, as about three quarters of them are wounded in some way. When the second-in-command tells the High Comrade Rhee Soo-hwa that the situation is untenable, the more able-bodied soldiers start pointing their guns at the injured ones. The injured beg for mercy and the High Comrade hesitates to give the kill order, ultimately refusing.
The second-in-command sees this as failing to obey orders from above and attempts to relieve the Rhee Soo-hwa of his post…permanently. However, that does not come to pass as the South Koreans who have been hiding all around take that time to ambush the entire group.
A South Korean medic named Moon Sang-sang has run into the forest, deserting his unit. He stops when all seems quiet and sits down to eat, only to see another South Korean soldier nearby, about to shoot himself in the face. Sang-sang runs over to stop the guy, but the guy just attacks him and almost shoots him in the head instead, only to…lose interest and wander off. Sang-sang follows him.
Somehow, Soo-hwa and three…erm…comrades, were able to escape the massacre, though one of those survivors fell off a cliff. So, now there are only three of them, Soo-hwa, an older soldier named Jang Young-hee, and Seo Taek-gi, who barely 18 if that. They stop at some random part of the forest, with High Comrade telling the others to sleep so that they can move after sunset.
Some time later, the three are woken by someone running past them. They are not sure who it was, but they sudden turn around, and point their guns at
She does not seem to acknowledge their guns, saying only that there are snakes around. When one of them asks if she was the one who ran past them, she grins, boasting that she can run fast without running out of breath. She tells them to move away from that area, but they do not listen until a snake lands on one of them. The three try to shoot at the snake until they all run out of bullets. The girl is curious about the noise, but not scared. Soo-hwa snaps and almost attacks her with a rock, but his comrades hold him back. As that is going on, the girl just casually walks off.
The three reason that, if she is here, then there must be a village. Could the Puppet Army be around too? Soo-hwa doubts it, since she seemed to have no understanding of the gun. That said, she seemed to have little understanding of much else. Either way, he says that they should go to the village as there must be food there.
The two South Korean deserters…uh…encounter a villager in the forest. He leads them up a mountain path to the village. He tells them that he usually does not come down this far, but he went to pick herbs to help treat some big guy who fell from the sky.
Welcome to Dongmakgol. The man, Dal-soo takes them through the village and the villagers stare curiously at these strangers with weird outfits.
Ah, right. The man from the sky. One of the villagers, Teacher Kim, attempts to communicate with Neal using what looks like a very outdated Korean-English book. Injured and suffering from something, Neal is not really receptive to this guy’s feeble attempts at English or the eight other onlookers. Teacher Kim obviously does not know what he is saying or why his response does not match what is in the book. When another villager runs up to tell them that there are two more outsiders, they all leave, including Teacher Kim. And Neal is upset about that too.
Sang-sang and the other guy, Pyo Hyun-chul, greet the village chief and his entourage. At the very least, they look less strange than Neal does, act much friendlier than he, and actually speak a language close enough to theirs. Dal-soo lead them to Neal and, after instinctively pointing their guns at him, Sang-sang and Hyun-chul recognize him as an ally.
Neal, for his part, smiles for probably the first time in days. Rescue has finally arrived. Well, that quickly dissipates as he realizes that there are only two of them, neither of them understand English, and they are not here for him.
Meanwhile, a boy named Dong-goo is playing around on the plane, with little idea as to what it is. The girl, Yeo-il, tells him that it is sleeping.
Dong-goo calls her crazy for…putting flowers in her hair? She is not happy to hear him say that, but she is happy to see the three North Korean soldiers again. While walking to the village, they come across Teacher Kim.
Well, at least he seems to know what a gun is. They continue their long trek to the village, accompanied by even more kids.
During dinner, Sang-sang tries to explain to the villagers that there is a war going on. The villagers do not understand. Is there a Japanese invasion? Chinese? Sang-sang struggles to describe the Northern Puppet Army, but it was not like he was ever expected to understand the details of the conflict either.
And…here comes Teacher Kim with the kids and…uh oh…
Lots of running, lots of shouting, lots of pushing, lots of gun-pointing. The villagers are confused and worried. What is going on?
Young-hee is understandably upset about the false assurance that there would be no Southern Army in the village. Taek-gi is more optimistic. They outnumber the Southerners three-to-two; nevermind that they are out of bullets. Meanwhile, Hyun-chul suggests that they take this confrontation away from the villagers. Soo-hwa responds by putting down his gun…and pulling out a grenade.
The other two soon follow suit. Hyun-chul, still perhaps holding a death wish, remains cool, while Sang-sang panics even worse than before. The villagers have no idea what guns are, let alone the significance of the grenades. So, when Soo-hwa orders them to put their hands up, only Teacher Kim complies immediately.
A villager named Yong-bong arrives and…uh…joins the pack of villagers. He tells them that wild boars have run through the newly-planted potato fields, which would cause real problems. Soo-hwa gets really ticked off that they stopped paying attention to him and his grenade. Then Yeo-il approaches him and asks if he is friends with the other guys. Getting no answer, she walks off.
It is around that time that Neal kind of falls out of the house where he had been in and the Chief’s mother walks out of her house, complaining about all of the noise outside. The rest of the villagers go back to talking about the boar problem.
Soo-hwa tells them to all shut up, which they eventually do…and all of them stay there…overnight.
Well, fun is over. Now with work to do and…whatever… the villagers start to leave. By the time it starts to rain, it is only the five soldiers there, though Yeo-il eventually hops over there to…be silly, I guess.
She stands in front of Taek-gi and wipes his face with…is that her sock? And then she takes the ring…the ring being attached to the pin of the grenade that he is holding. She gleefully runs off while the five soldiers start to panic.
But…they stay where they are…the day goes by, the rain stops, the villagers go about their business, and the soldiers start to get tired…and sleepy. Eventually, Taek-gi dozes off and…drops the grenade. That wakes up the other soldiers. Running, yelling. Hyun-chul the hero throws himself on top of the grenade.
Several seconds pass. Nothing. Hyun-chul, gets up. The others get up. Well, looks like the Southern troops have the upper hand. Hyun-chul tosses the grenade behind him. Figures, it was a dud.
Well…that was where the villagers stored their food. Good going, Hyun-chul. Between that and the potato fields, what are they going to eat?
Because it was their grenade, the North Korean soldiers decide out of obligation to help restore the lost harvest before they return to their army. Not wanting to look like the bad guys who left after depriving the villagers of their food, the South Korean soldiers stay to help as well. The American soldier stays because…well, he is still injured The Northern and Southern soldiers still view each other with distrust, but that starts to thaw over the course of the movie, as their goals transform from fighting each other to restoring the village and protecting it from the encroaching war.
They don’t know it yet, but the American and South Korean forces believe that Smith was shot down by the Northerners based on that mountain, and are looking to both find him and find that Communist base.
This film is adapted from a play and, while it shows at times, the movie still does a good job of being a movie. There are a few feats of fantasy in this movie and scenes that play up unreality. There is one particular scene just before the halfway point that is quite dissimilar in style from the rest of the movie. Perhaps it was due to the limits of the visual effects and the movie costing twice its original budget, but it seems as if it was decided to call attention to how fake it was by having obviously false backdrops and shooting the entire sequence in super-slow motion. It makes the scene both funny and kind of play-like. There are a few times when the transition does not quite work. There is a line that Smith says about life that is…not good. Perhaps it was a bad English translation of what would sound more poignant in Korean, but it came across as something that would work better in a play than a movie.
The story is not really about the horrors of war, the glory of war, or the politics; instead, it is more about protecting the peace and the traditional way of life. Or, at least an old fashioned way of life, since the village seemed to be a romanticized fantastical throwback even to the Korean soldiers of the 1950s. It is an idyllic fantasy, where ignorance of current affairs and modern technology (as well as them mistranslating “Smith” into something funny) is mined for comedy. Their charming ignorance is embodied in Yeo-il, a young woman whom everyone calls crazy, just because she loves to run and put flowers in her hair…and because she is crazy. But they are not always played for laughs. While young Dong-goo is fascinated with Smith and the technology that he has brought, Dong-goo’s mother fears that her son will follow his father into the outside world and never return.
Despite a fairly brutal first few minutes, there is little carnage or scenes of war in the movie. But, with six soldiers in the main cast, the war is always on the horizon. The seemingly cool and heroic Hyun-chul remains haunted by one particularly terrible act and the movie eventually reveals an important part of the story behind his suicide attempt. There is always the threat of violence even when not counting the main soldier characters. This threat is not really one that comes across as scary, but more sad. It is not necessarily lives that are in danger, but life itself. That even if the villagers manage to survive the ravages of war, they will be forever damaged. This is what is at stake in the movie.
One interesting thing about the movie (and I suppose the play), is that while the movie initially makes the North Koreans seem like the bad guys, it almost immediately does away with that conceit. Quite early on, it becomes pretty obvious that the South Koreans and the American forces are the antagonists. While this is nothing new in South Korean stories about the war, I found it interesting that, aside from the three main North Korean soldiers, there are no other North Korean soldiers to be used as a counterbalance to the South and the Americans after the first few minutes. I did tend to raise my eyebrows at the fact that, during the planning on the search for Smith and the mountain operation, a South Korean was the lone voice of reason against a bunch of impatient Americans. Nevermind that the actor’s English was bad, that role could have gone to an American who probably could not act. Still, there are other South Korean soldiers who are not exactly nice, though not beyond redemption. And while Smith never ever seems to learn any Korean whatsoever, he is still a good and likeable character, so there is that. Again, not particularly well-acted, but whatever.
Funny, sad, and slightly fantastical. This film is a good one.
WTF ASIA 171: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (India: 2015, approx. 138 minutes)
WTF ASIA 172: Vengeance is Mine (Japan: 1979, approx. 141 minutes)