Just one more fight about your leadership.
Once again, we get some textual context for the movie and…oh…boy…
Ah, yes. That true event being the Second World War.
The Super Important Framing Device
It is the 1948 Summer Olympics in London and there is the Marathon Race. Everything is going as it goes, but here comes some random Korean named Kim Jun-shik seemingly out of nowhere towards the front of the pack. Who is this guy? Whoever he is, I am sure that this framing device is super important for a movie that is already 143-minutes long.
The Past Is a 23-Minute Prologue
Well, before we find out who Kim Jun-shik is, we are introduced to Hasegawa Tatsuo, a boy who has been brought from Japan to Japan-occupied Korea, where his grandfather works. He does not appear to be happy to be here, despite assurances that he will make friends. But, hey, perhaps that Korean boy running alongside the car will become his friend.
Oh, wait. That Korean boy is Jun-shik. And he managed to outrun the car to its destination, where his father and sister are waiting. He is pretty proud to have beaten the car, but he is not the focus of this gathering.
That would Tatsuo, who is overjoyed to see his grandfather.
Jun-shik’s father brings him and his sister to greet the new masters. Tatsuo’s father comments that he now has a friend his age. I am not sure about that. Tatsuo mentions to Jun-shik that Tatsuo also runs well. Jun-shik’s sister, Eun-soo, claims that Jun-shik is the best runner in Kyung-sung, which was what Seoul was called during that time. Tatsuo asserts that he is the best in Tokyo. So, Jun-shik challenges Tatsuo to a race. And, so they race.
Jesus. For how long have they been running? Well, anyways, they seem to always be the first two to in any race. Sometimes Jun-shik wins. Sometimes Tatsuo wins. It kind of becomes a clash between nations, or at least for the announcers.
This time, Tatsuo won the National High School Marathon, and his grandfather considers this cause for a party. A party where Jun-shik has to serve drinks. Tatsuo doesn’t seem to notice; he is too busy glorifying the Emperor.
As Tatsuo’s grandfather shows him off to various bigwigs, Jun-shik’s father picks up a gift from the Japanese Minister of Defense. He gives it to Tatsuo’s grandfather, who has Tatsuo open it. It is some sort of doll. Tatsuo’s grandfather grabs it and yells at everyone to get away. He then falls to the ground to cover the box right before it fucking explodes.
Tatsuo and his father rush to the charred remains. Tatsuo begs for his father to do something. He is a doctor is he not. Tatsuo then looks up to see Jun-shik’s father, grabs him, and accuses him of killing his grandfather. Jun-shik tries to intervene, but Tatsuo just accuses all of them of killing his grandfather. Who is he talking about Jun-shik and his father? That whole family? Koreans? Either way, two Japanese troops…or cops…take Jun-shik’s father away. Jun-shik and Eun-soo try to stop them, but it is no use.
It is unclear how much time has passed, but Jun-shik’s father is in pretty bad shape when he is released. The streets are a-buzz with news that runner Sohn Ki-jung has won an Olympic Gold Medal, but he cannot rejoice along with the crowd. But maybe…he can find quiet inspiration. Someone else can win, then maybe he can as well…someday.
The movie then skips from August of 1936 to May of 1938. And…wow, Tatsuo has aged by a lot. Anyways, he is holding a press conference where he is saying that Sohn Ki-jung will be the last Korean to win at the Olympics.
Dang. Jun-shik has aged as well during those two years. He has been working as a rickshaw driver ever since Tatsuo expelled his family from the property under threat of death. His passenger notes that Korea has been banned from the Olympics because Sohn had covered the Japanese flag. If the passenger were a bomb, Jun-shik replies, then he would run all the way to the Athletics Association. I guess that that is where Tatsuo is holding the press conference. The passenger asks if Jun-shik could go faster, saying that he will pay double if they get to their destination in 30 minutes and triple if in 20. So, Jun-shik goes quickly and recklessly, through busy back alleys and in front of a trolley. The passenger is terrified, but also exhilarated. When they reach their destination, the passenger pays him and…oh…he knew Jun-shik’s name?
The passenger goes inside the building and…interrupts Tatsuo’s press conference. Of course, he is Sohn Ki-jung. He heaps scorn upon the association for banning Koreans from Olympic tryouts despite calling Japan and Korea one. And if Tatsuo is the superior racer (ahem), then what is the harm in letting someone like Jun-shik try out?
Meanwhile, Jun-shik’s friend, Lee Jong-dae, had recognized Ki-jung and has dragged a disbelieving Jun-shik into the press conference. One of the photographers recognizes Jun-shik and now everyone turns to him. Jun-shik tries to leave, but Jong-dae pushes him to the front. The reporters pepper him with questions, but he remains silent. So, a reporter asks Tatsuo if he is confident that he would win even if Jun-shik enters. After all, Jun-shik’s record was better. Tatsuo says that that was all in the past, and that a mere rickshaw driver could never stand a chance against a well-trained marathoner. What about Jun-shik? He finally speaks, saying pretty much the same thing, and that he would be grateful just to enter the race. Of course, that was a challenge barely disguised as blatantly false humility. Everyone must know that it is bait. But how would Tatsuo look if he didn’t take it? So…
Tatsuo has gotten accepted into Berlin Medical University. Awww…he is going to become a doctor like his daddy. Oh, he doesn’t want it. He wants to continue as a marathon runner. His father insists that he go to the university. Tatsuo says that their fellow countrymen are sacrificing their lives to build a Greater East Asia and he does not want to be a coward who runs away from war. Oh, are you going to marathon yourself all the way to Nanking? Tatsuo’s father argues that war is futile, which Tatsuo takes as an insult to his grandfather. Tatsuo’s mother tells him to watch his mouth; the first time she has spoken since…erm…anyways. Tatsuo’s father tells him to think of people before country, and that becoming a doctor will do that. Tatsuo says that he would rather die than treat the Koreans who killed his grandfather. Just like Sun Yat-sen, this guy. Rickshaw drivers and would-be doctors; I swear that I did not pick this movie to feature this week simply due to its tenuous connections to last week’s movie.
In a much less fancy house, Jong-dae is helping Jun-shik and Eun-soo make dinner. Eun-soo says that a picture is missing from her room and Jun-shik accuses Jong-dae of taking it. Jong-dae denies it; why would he do that? Gee. He tells Jun-shik to get extra firewood so that he can be alone with Eun-soo and give her a little hairpiece. She likes it and…Jong-dae practically crumbles.
Sohn Ki-jung arrives to give Jun-shik the tryout notice. Jun-shik is happy. The neighbors are happy. Eun-soo is overjoyed. Jong-dae is ecstatic. Jun-shik’s father…seems unable to display any emotion anymore until Jong-dae lifts him up and carries him around.
Time for the marathon. Is Jun-shik the only Korean taking part? In any case, we see that his father and sister are close to him. Meanwhile, Tatsuo only kind of cares when his mother calls to him from afar that his father will be there shortly. And they’re off.
Tatsuo’s father finally shows up, just before Tatsuo returns to the stadium, with a runner named Kimura behind him. Kimura, not Kim. Speaking of Kim, here comes Jun-shik, with Jong-dae riding a bike behind him. Another bicyclist yells to Kimura, and Kimura tries to knock over Jun-shik, but he falls over instead. I guess that escaping that cheating attempt gives Jun-shik a second wind and he passes Tatsuo to win.
Jong-dae lifts Jun-shik up. The Korean spectators go nuts. The Japanese spectators are crestfallen. And after the rest of the runners make their way to the finish line, it is announced that…Hasegawa Tatsuo won? And Jun-shik did not even qualify for second or third? What? The Japanese spectators celebrate. The Koreans start to chant “Kim Jun-shik” in protest. The announcer says that Jun-shik was disqualified for blocking Kimura’s way, and tells the spectators to calm down. Jun-shik goes up to the main…platform thing to confront the chairman, who tells him that he should have run fair and square. Jun-shik grabs him and, in turn, gets grabbed by a couple of cop troopers. And hit in the face. Jong-dae tries to retaliate and gets hit as well. And before you can work out why the Dutch were so angry about Belgium losing to Morocco in the World Cup, a bunch of the Korean spectators start rioting. Not Jun-shik’s father and sister, mind you, though Jun-shik throws his fair share of punches. Tatsuo tries to walk off, ignoring his father.
No good riot goes unpunished. So, Jun-shi, Jong-dae, and a bunch of other Korean men are sentenced to…become Imperial soldiers and swear allegiance to the Emperor. I guess that one way to punish someone who acts against your country is to give them the same duties that a patriot of your country would gladly perform. Obviously, the condemned protest and scream out. Their families scream out. But the Japanese cop troopers lead the condemned away.
Part One: Okay, this movie does not actually divide these sections into parts, but I do
It is July of 1939 and we are at Nomonhan, a small village in Inner Mongolia. Ah, so that means that we are in the middle of the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, which went on for four frigging months. And we are just dropped somewhere towards the end of it, when the Japanese…have to retreat from an oil field? I didn’t realize that they could do that. In any case, Jun-shik is pinned down and is about to get a Soviet bayonet in his throat when Jong-dae saves him. A bunch of other fatal things happen during the retreat, including a soldier getting run over by a tank and a few troops getting set on fire. It is a lot.
Jun-shik and a group of Korean soldiers are getting water out of well and loading it onto a truck when a sniper shoots a Japanese soldier through the head, sending all of the other soldiers scrambling. After a few more Japanese soldiers get killed, Jun-shik believes that he knows where the sniper is. He asks for cover fire and sprints towards the sniper until he finds cover close enough to throw a grenade.
Jun-shik makes his way into one of the houses where the sniper has most likely run into. The sniper lunges at him with a knife. He is too close to use his rifle properly, so his best bet is to keep that knife away. He eventually overpowers the sniper and is about to kill her when…I guess realizing that the sniper is a woman makes him hesitate…but his comrades bursts in before she can take advantage of that.
The Koreans take the woman prisoner and take the truck…wait…is that Fan Bingbing? Again? Okay…look. I absolutely did not deliberately pick this movie to follow the previous movie because they both had would-be doctors, rickshaws, or Fan Bingbing. It is total coincidence. Anyways…
Jong-dae commends the woman for taking down only Japanese troops, although their superior officer Noda will be unhappy about that. I am not sure that she understands enough Korean to get what he is saying. The troops go through her possessions and start fighting over a photograph of her with her family until they rip it in two. She is not happy about that, but she is tied up and outnumbered five-to-one, not including the truck driver. So, all she can do is tear up.
This must be Noda, who reacts to the news that the sniper had killed only Japanese soldiers by assaulting the Koreans. Meanwhile, the woman, Shirai, is being…harshly interrogated. It is only when Noda’s superior, Colonel Takakura, arrives and chews him out, that the beatings stop…for the moment. He tells the Koreans to get to their workstations.
I guess it is the next day when Colonel Takakura meets with Colonel…Hasegawa?? Well, of course, it was only a matter of time before Tatsuo showed up again. He has one of his underlings, Mukai, read out the order demoting Takakura to private for shamefully ordering a retreat. And, if that was not bad enough, he has to prove loyalty to the Emperor by…committing hara-kiri. Well, so long, Takakura. We hardly knew ye. Did I even take a screenshot of him? Ah, I’ll circle back to him. Anyways, he is dead.
Well, Tatsuo has no patience for retreating or for whatever. He wants a pontoon bridge built over the Khalkin River within 48 hours. He also wants to a special suicide unit of 50 men to demolish tanks. So, four sorts of suicide squads.
After his evening jog around the…grounds…of the…headquarters…Jun-shik goes to see the prisoners in the…are they oubliettes? After passing one that has maybe four Soviet soldiers stuffed in it, he finds Shirai. He gives her back her notebook and the photograph, which he glued back together. He apologizes and tries to bond with her by talking about his sister. Sure, she still doesn’t understand what he is saying and her whole family was murdered, but she at least appears to appreciate the gesture and says “shei-shei ni” to him. Now it is his turn to not understand what she is saying, but you communicate with the tools that you have.
The troops are busy building the bridge. Noda is shouting at the Koreans that the sun is about to set, so they have to go faster. Soldier Hwang Choon-bok grumbles that they have been working since dawn and need food, which only makes another soldier hungry. Jun-shik asks Choon-bok what “shei-shei ni” means. After some griping, Choon-bok says that it means thank you.
Tatsuo arrives to check on progress and sees Choon-bok with a fish from the river. So, he punishes the entire platoon, having Noda incinerate a bunch of their possessions, including Jun-shik’s running shoes that his family gave him. Jun-shik tries to stop Noda, but Noda tells him to run barefoot. Jun-shik insists and gets hit several times for his insubordination.
Oh, hey, the bridge is done. Well…it would have been done had Noda not removed a screw and gleefully thrown it into the river. The fuck? Tatsuo doesn’t notice him doing that, but does notice the loose plank. He has the engineering unit fix up the section while Jun-shik’s squad has to hold the faulty plank on their heads while they run to the base. By now, everyone knows that he and Jun-shik had been racing rivals, so he sneeringly says that the best marathon will lead the squad.
Jesus Christ, Noda is such a prick. At least it eventually starts raining on him.
Jun-shik, Jong-dae, and other Koreans are called up to take part in the suicide mission with Tatsuo, carrying bombs to demolish Soviet tanks. Tatsuo tells them to fight like Imperial soldiers and die with honor. Also, he will kill anyone who dares to retreat from this heroic mission. Jun-shik refuses, as he and the other Koreans did not voluntarily enlist in the first place and, thus, cannot consent to a mission that demands death. Mukai points a gun at Jun-shik’s head as Tatsuo asks him if he is disobeying him. Jun-shik calls the mission insane, so Tatsuo hits him multiple times with a rifle butt and then orders him to be executed along with the other prisoners.
Jun-shik gets tossed into Shirai’s cell and Noda tells him to have fun on his last night. Jun-shik says nothing. Shirai seems concerned about his well being, though not that it matters too much; she knows that she is to be executed at dawn. She is not afraid to die; she is just mad that she did not get to kill more Japanese. She would have killed them all if she could. Again, Jun-shik doesn’t understand much of this, so Shirai is mostly talking to herself.
Oh, Jong-dae, Choon-bok, and another Korean named Gwang-choon open the door. They want to rescue Jun-shik and make a run for it. Jun-shik insists that they rescue Shirai as well. They are not really into that, but hey, what if she yells for the guards as they are leaving? Anyways, the five of them manage to get outside. Jong-dae suggests that they get to the bridge and head south on the river to cross the border. Border? Border to where? Manchukuo or the Sea? Jun-shik asks about the others, but Jong-dae says that they cannot take all 100 Koreans.
The five run run run to the bridge and, hey, there’s a boat. They all get on except for Jun-shik…who hears something in the distance. He goes up the incline to check and oh dear.
Jong-dae is relieved that they did not stay at the base when this Soviet attack took place. He tells Jun-shik to hurry to the boat, but Jun-shik does not want to leave. He tells them to go without him and pushes the boat off. Then he runs back across the bridge and to the base.
A Soviet plane starts attacking him and it is kind of like that scene from North By Northwest. Jun-shik is pinned until Shirai appears out of nowhere with a rifle. She shoots the plane right in the propeller, setting the whole thing on fire. Unfortunately, the plane gets a bunch of shots off before plummeting to the ground, and a bunch of those shots go through Shirai. In her dying breath, Shirai tells him to go save his friends. So, that’s nice. He says “shei-shei ni” to her. She smiles…and dies. Well, I hope that you are happy, Jun-shik; Shirai got killed by a Soviet while saving your life before she could kill any Japanese people because you didn’t get on the boat.
Jun-shik runs towards the base to see the troops already on the move towards him…and the Soviet tanks are right behind him. Man, he should have just gotten on the boat. Tatsuo’s first instinct is to point his gun at Jun-shik, but then he sees the tanks. And just tanks…no infantry support or anything. Just tanks after tanks after tanks.
So, Plan A is scrapped, so Tatsuo has to shift to…Plan A. Have some guys with bombs strapped to them drive trucks filled with oil barrels towards the tanks. Then the foot-soldier bombs will run through the fire and smoke to destroy the rest of the tanks.
The truck tactic works about as well as expected. The foot-soldier tactic…perhaps less well than hoped, but a few manage to get under tanks and detonate themselves. Tatsuo even manages to shoot a Soviet gunner twice and dump a satchel charge into the tank. Wow…and he did that all without dying? Why did the rest of them have to blow themselves up? Actually, a bunch throw Molotov cocktails or…whatever the 1939 Japanese version of that was. And…Jesus Christ, Tatsuo stabs another gunner with his sword while the guy is already on fire.
Oh, right, Jun-shik. An explosion had knocked him out early on, rending his already failed rescue attempt even more failed. But he eventually regains consciousness to see the utter carnage that he had failed to stop. He sees Noda trying to force one of his friends, Min-woo, against a tank. Jun-shik attacks Noda and puts the bomb over his neck. Noda, the prick, is visibly scared now. It doesn’t matter, because Jun-shik gets distracted by Min-woo getting his legs crushed under a tank.
Tatsuo is still on his rampage after almost getting hit by one of those big shells. He finally gets to the last tank to see…a second wave of tanks.
Whatever adrenaline had kept the Imperial troops going is gone. Almost all of them start to retreat, and one by one, Tatsuo starts shooting the retreating troops himself. Shoots and shoots until he runs out of bullets. He is about to throw a bomb at whatever when Jun-shik knocks him to the ground. He says that Tatsuo can die on his own, but he has to order the retreat. Mukai knocks Jun-shik off and Tatsuo picks him up…with the bomb. He walks towards a tank…which shoots at him. Jun-shik, Tatsuo, and the unexploded bomb go flying.
Part Two: Well, that was abrupt.
Did I mention that part one started with a train through the desert? No? Well, this one starts with a train through a snowy forest. Japanese and Koreans are just stuffed into the trains…and freezing. One guy freezes to death and gets tossed off a bridge.
In February of 1940, the train makes its way to the Kungursk Prisoner of War Camp located in…the middle of goddamn nowhere Western Russia. An interpreter has the prisoners state that they are not prisoners or war, but criminals who started the war and will repay their debts to the Soviet Union with dedicated labor and reform. Many repeat this pledge; some don’t, such as Tatsuo.
The head of the prison singles out Tatsuo as the leader and orders him to step on the Japanese flag. Tatsuo refuses, saying that they are proud Imperial soldiers under no obligation to reform. He turns to his men and declares that Imperial Japan will not abandon them, that they must retain their dignity until they can once again fight with honor. He lifts up the flag and shouts glory to the Emperor. But this is not his party. No one cheers with him. Not even his fellow Japanese. Instead, he gets rifle butted all over and then dragged away to be…not quite hanged, but kind of dangled out in the open.
Somehow, Jun-shik catches sight of Choon-bok and Gwang-choon within a crowd of prisoners. It is a bittersweet reunion. I mean they survived, but they are all prisoners. I guess Jun-shik would have ended up in the same place regardless, but would the Soviets had let Shirai go free? Probably not. Anyways, Jun-shik asks about Jong-dae. Well…he is alive, but…well…um…well, he is no longer Jong-dae. He is Supervisor Anton.
“Anton” gives a rather harsh speech about prisoner duties, but Jun-shik doesn’t care. He is just happy to see his friend again. And Jong-dae is happy to see him. They embrace and Jong-dae says that he rules this place after having arrived two months back. Their reunion is interrupted by Noda, as prickly as ever, who says that he dislikes how Jong-dae was talking. Jong-dae apologizes…but then Anton smacks Noda in the face. YEAH!! KICK HIS ASS!! Then he punches Noda several times, hits him with a log, and then smashes his face into the snowy ground. Anton then declares that he is the colonel. He is the king. Suddenly, Jun-shik is a lot less happy about this reunion. Well, Gwang-choon did warn him.
To be honest, I kind of ignored this movie when I first heard of it. It was by the same director of the acclaimed Taegukgi and…well…I didn’t like that movie all that much. Additionally, this movie’s premise seemed absolutely silly and kind of distasteful. So, I kept the buzz out of my mind for years. And when I finally decided to check it out…I liked it. It was only after I watched it that I found out that it was a complete box office flop. I had no idea. There seemed to be so much hype and…no one liked it. Except, I guess, me. Huh. Go figure.
I can see why people had some issues with the movie. First off…the premise is still ludicrous, and perhaps more than a little offensive. It is supposedly based on Yang Kyoungjong, whose story became known in South Korea by 2002, but whose actual identity had been called into question at least six years before the release of the movie. It is not that there could not have been any people with East Asian features at Normandy, but their reasons for being there were probably less complicated. Secondly, the military tactics in pretty much every battle scene have believability issues. I mean, sure, the Soviet tank company may have had absolutely no infantry support whatsoever, but I am guessing that the main reason is to portray the battle as fragile organic bombs against giant faceless machines; the inhumane against the inhuman. Thirdly, the marathon race thing takes up a lot of the movie, particularly at the beginning. There is a throughline in the movie regarding it, which…fine. It does lead to unanswered questions at the end though.
It could, perhaps, be the fourth thing that may have caused the most problems. Now, there are a few parallels between this movie and Taegukgi, but with some major differences. Both seemed to be how war can disrupt one’s own allegiance, identity, and personhood; how it can break one’s soul. It is a while since I saw Taegukgi, but the focus of it was on a pair of brothers and a theme of it seemed to be how the Korean War tore families apart. In My Way, the political power dynamics of national identity and status that turned what could be a friendly rivalry into an existential enmity get violently upended, leaving only the personal grudges and opportunism. And, while I didn’t particularly like how that played out in Taegukgi, I found this movie’s depiction fascinating in a way that I can see that others might dislike.
There are a couple of Japanese characters who are…not necessarily pro-Empire. Tatsuo’s father displays a lot of skepticism towards the fighting, which could be why his relationship with Tatsuo’s grandfather is very very very formal. And Tatsuo rejects him. Takakura may believe in the cause, but he tries to be reasonable and look after his men…and Tatsuo kills him for that. It is Tatsuo who is the main Japanese character and he is a fanatic. Yet, he is not a cowardly bully like Noda. He simply is a true believer. The movie tries to treat his personal journey with respect and sympathy. That is a big risk for a Korean movie about World War II and that Korean character would have to be an Imperial collaborator of sorts. And that is not the case here. Did it pay off? Well, not financially. But, again, I found it fascinating.
Oh, right. Here is Takakura.
Perhaps the movie could have done a bit more work on the battle scenes, but the focusing on whether they are authentic or not (I don’t know) risks missing one major thing: every battle scene in the movie show Jun-shik and his comrades on the losing side. The closest they come to a victory is stopping Shirai’s ambush or Jun-shik surviving the Soviet plane attack by not doing anything. But in the big scenes? Nope. This was perhaps the reason why the battle with the tanks showed only tanks, to make it looks like they were doomed from the start. Defeat was not likely, but inevitable. It may make everything seem like a bit of a downer. That may have been necessary for the narrative to move forward, but even the first battle sequence did not necessarily have to portray the Japanese forces losing, let along focus almost entirely on the retreating. But maybe it does. There is no glory, just loss after loss. Granted, there may be a hint of gleeful dwelling upon the brutality, though that could just be my reading of the presentation. It is just that it can feel a little gorier that it actually is.
That the Korean characters are never fighting for their homeland of Korea dampens any patriotic reason for fighting. Tatsuo’s nationalistic zeal makes him want to give himself a glorious death while sending everyone else to a horrific one. When that glorious death is denied to him, then what? Revenge? That does not get someone far. Well, there is fighting and risking your life to protect your comrades. That one seems to stick the best in the movie, but when sides are constantly shifting, then who are one’s comrades? What if they all die before you can do anything? If everything breaks down and it is all about survival, then what reason is there to continue fighting? Get the heck out of there. Oh, right. Your superior officers will shoot you.
I am actually kind of glad that I avoided the talk about this movie back when, so I would be able to watch it with…okay, not fresh eyes, but…I was probably able to enjoy it better than I would have back then. Yeah.
WTF ASIA 243: Badhaai Do (India: 2022, approx. 148 minutes)
WTF ASIA 244: Tomiris (Kazakhstan: 2019, approx. 155 minutes)