When Kang Je-kyu’s Brotherhood was released in 2004 it was one of the most expensive and popular films in the history of South Korean cinema. But its impact was not simply restricted to the domestic scene; causing a considerable stir internationally, it hammered home the increasingly prominent message that Korean commercial cinema was very interesting indeed. Seven long years later and Kang returns to the epic war drama and similar themes of brotherhood and endurance. Watching the two and a half hour My Way it’s immediately apparent why it has taken him so long to follow up on his success.
It’s impossible to overstate how big this film is. Its scale is astonishing and its action sequences leave the majority of Hollywood war movies mewling in its dust. Loosely based on the story of an Asian man in a German uniform discovered by American troops after their invasion of Normandy, Kang weaves an astonishing saga around marathon runner Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun) following his journey from South Korea across Russia and Europe, passing through some of the most brutal battlefields of WWII; a tale of survival, hope and friendship against all odds. It’s the kind of story that Hollywood thrives on and so it’s hardly surprising (though still impressive) that Universal have bought the rights to distribution.
A true internationalist, whilst Kang undoubtedly has one foot in the Hollywood aesthetic, his other is firmly planted in South Korean cinema’s rich history of melodrama. If Korea didn’t invent the melodrama they certainly perfected its form; a century of suppression and division combined with a folk tradition that emphasised a deep and unrelenting sadness found the perfect form of expression in cinema. My Way takes this melodramatic tradition to bombastic new heights, lurching from one traumatic set piece to another with a sometimes jaw dropping eloquence, particularly during the powerful sequences within a Siberian POW camp. Historical accuracy is sometimes brushed away to smooth the path, but the end result is so utterly vibrant that it’s hard to be angry.
The film is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, arguably the country’s lowest ebb, and in the opening scenes we are introduced to the two protagonists as oppressor and oppressed: Tatsuo Hasegawa (Jô Odagiri) is the grandson of a colonel in the imperial army and Jun-shik is the son of his servant. Their rivalry is established from the get go as a proud Jun-shik challenges Tatsuo to a race. In a nod to the sentimentality of John Woo and the ending of Bullet in the Head, the film will later return to this relatively innocent scene of the two children running through the crowded streets, one dressed in rags and the other in a fine suit.
Throughout high school the pair compete in marathons, evenly matched, but when Jun-Shik finally beats Tatsuo in the Olympic trials he is disqualified by the judges. It seems the stakes are too high for the colonial power, whose rule is based on their supposed cultural superiority, to acknowledge that their brightest star could be beaten by a humble Korean Rikshaw driver, but this injustice sparks a riot amongst the Korean fans, who quickly find themselves shipped off to the Mongolian front to fight the Russians along with Jun-Shik. Tatsuo joins them as a colonel, his fanatical nationalism and opposition to Jun-Shik taken to new heights by the assassination of his grandfather, pushing him to order a suicide charge against an army of Soviet tanks, which is one of the most astonishingly vivid and violent battle sequences ever committed to celluloid. The survivors of this massacre are shipped to Siberia where Jun-shik and Tatsuo find themselves fellow POWs.
After many dramatic incidents in the camp the prisoners are given the choice to shore up the front line against the Germans or take a bullet in the head. Jun-shik, who is already being forced to fight for another nation, is quick to shed his uniform in order to survive like a lizard shedding its tail, but proud Tatsuo is reluctant to renounce the emperor. As the film progresses and the pair survive battle after battle, Tatsuo slowly comes around to Jun-shik’s outlook and the pair turn from rivals to friends, bonding through their shared traumatic experiences. Thanks to the excellent performance from Jô Odagiri, Tatsuo’s gradual transformation from nationalist to humanist via survivalist is thoroughly believable and a joy to behold, which only serves to make the ending that much more tragic.
In Brotherhood Kang expressed the futility of war through the story of two friends who find themselves on opposing sides, and found a perfect metaphor for his thematic preoccupation that humanity and friendship transcend national and ideological boundaries when their uniforms becoming so covered in mud that they become indistinguishable from one another as they fight. Here he explores the same theme using the metaphor of shedding the uniform, and with it all its national sentiments, in order to survive. The fact that the film has such a brilliant and believable international cast only serves to reinforce Kang’s message; Russians, Germans or English the film’s cast of hundreds do an excellent job, and the appearance of Fan Bingbing as a female Chinese sniper is particularly noteworthy. Kang is not only a master of creating epic, gritty battles of a staggering scale, but in weaving through them genuinely powerful humanistic stories. If Brotherhood made international audiences sit up and take note, then My Way should justifiably take the world by storm.
My Way is the opening film of this year’s Terracotta Far East Film Festival on 12 April.
Words > Dean Bowman