Judging by the massive box office score, I’m in the minority when I say I hated “Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War” (2004). It had good acting, action and drama, but it was far too sappy and a bit too contrived -- not uncommon criticism for Korean films.
“Battle of Jangsari” -- directed by Kwak Kyung-Taek and Kim Tae-Hoon -- is one that had the potential to be a great film, but fell short in delivery because of the problems it shares with “Taegukgi,” as well as the clunky delivery of its message. That being said, it was a worthy attempt at paying tribute to the unsung heroes that made a noble sacrifice to protect their loved ones.
The film takes us aboard the ship Munsan on Sept. 15, 1950, at the height of Korean War. Capt. Lee Myeong-jun (Kim Myung-min) and his troops of 772 student soldiers were preparing to invade the shores of Jangsa-ri, occupied by North Korean troops, providing a much-needed diversion for UN forces ahead of the Battle of Incheon.
Shorthanded and undertrained -- ranging from instruction of mere days to two weeks -- the middle and high school students. including Choi Sung-Pil (Choi Min-ho) and Gi Ha-ryun (Kim Sung-cheol) bravely fight off the North Koreans to take the beach and pull off the mission. But their ship running aground during the landing means they have to hold back a massive wave of North Korean retaliation with no means to escape.
Back at headquarters, American reporter Maggie (Megan Fox) desperately tries to persuade those in charge to come up with an extraction plan for the soldiers stranded in Jangsa-ri.
The opening sequence and subsequent 40 minutes of the film were possibly among the finest I’ve seen in a Korean war movie. The flick manages to introduce the main characters and their traits without feeling forced, and also depicting the gritty, grotesque face of war.
Of course the landing scene seemed more than a little influence by the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” -- from one of the soldiers throwing up on the boat to a dismembered man screaming in despair, and even to a soldier crying for his mother -- but it wasn’t anything the audience couldn’t overlook. The gravity of war and its tragic nature felt very real and right in my face, and the sequence of the two sides frantically slaughtering each other in the trenches felt particularly so.
How incredible it would’ve been had the film ended there.
Kwak is a talented veteran auteur. But he has a tendency to go one step too far in depicting the emotions and dramas of his films.
The conflict between Choi and Gi, the two standout members among the troops, is nearly as clumsily written as Gi’s backstory as to why he is always picking fights with Choi. Kim’s acting was good, but Choi -- better known as Minho of SHINee -- was awfully, but expectedly, bad. It was partially the director’s fault, casting an actor with very limited skills in a key role, but Choi’s awkward delivery and rigid facial expressions did nothing to dissuade my prejudice about idol singers-turned-actors.
The two biggest name in the credits left surprisingly little impression. Despite being among the most accomplished actors on the small screen, Kim Myung-min has never had any real success on the silver screen. His acting is as good as ever, but Capt. Lee is another rubber-stamp good guy on which Kim’s talents are wasted.
Fox has never been Oscar material, but her acting wasn’t half-bad compared to her usual standards. Her character, however, was a different story. In essence, Maggie was a plot device and pretty pointless. What was more problematic was that the character spells out the director’s message through her dialogue.
That was possibly my biggest issue with this film. While I understand and root for the message, it feels like the directors are trying to bluntly hammer it down.
There were other issues as well. For one, the plot itself is too contrived. Yes, the Korean War was a tragedy that pitted brothers against brothers, but what are the odds that you run into your cousin fighting for the other side during the war?
I was left scratching my head as to why the side story of a girl disguised as a boy to protect her twin brother, and relationship with her supposed-to-be-comic relief friend and semi-love interest was wedged in.
What started out looking like “Saving Private Ryan” goes rogue and treads down the path of “Pearl Harbor.”
The film’s shortcomings notwithstanding, it did have a poignant moment and a relevant message. Before the operation, Capt. Lee says to his troops, “You will be heroes. Your valiance will be forever remembered by your country.” Despite all of Lee’s efforts for the honor of his men -- well, boys -- their story has been largely forgotten in South Korea.
“Battle of Jangsari” opens in local theaters Wednesday.
By Yoon Min-sik