[K-FILM REVIEWS] 천군 (Heaven's Soldiers)

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enterOne - 09/22/2005
천군 (Heaven`s Soldiers)
2005 - 2 Disc
Director: 민윤기 (Min Yoon-Gi)
Starring: 박중훈 (Park Joong-Hoon), 황정민 (Hwang Jung-Min), 김승우 (Kim Seung-Woo), 공효진 (Gong Hyo-Jin), 김병춘 (Kim Byung-Choon)

FILM: 6.5
I'm glad films like this exist in Korea. No, not because it's particularly good, or because I like this kind of films. But because it shows Chungmuro has finally matured, abandoning the soulless Hollywood-like blockbusters of three years ago and finally making their own brand of blockbusters, with a soul of their own. A lot of Western critics call Korea the cinema of 'genre-bending', but I find that very reductive. Chungmuro is slowly but surely abandoning any notion of genre itself, avoiding the extreme labeling that happens in Western filmmaking (we even have sub-genres now...), and all the burden that comes from that syndrome (horror has to be this, comedy has to be that). Picking what they need to build the story from every genre, those films develop something which could be called a genre of its own, the fusion drama (or, as I'd call it, 'non-genre'). There's a bit of everything here: it's both a local comedy, an action blockbuster, a 'flag-waving' Historical Drama with the kind of Tom Clancy-like obsession with gadgets that populates many Hollywood blockbusters, and more. Which, probably, is the reason this film won't work in the West. First problem would be that outside Korea and Japan few people know Admiral Lee Soon-Shin, although he's one of the greatest naval commanders of all time, deserving a place next to the Nelson's of the world. Many people in the West bring up nationalism when they see films like this. But I find it offensive certain segments of the worldwide film audience (and especially critic circles) only want social critiques from Asia. When Chinese Fifth Generation filmmakers criticized their governments, they made 'masterpieces'... but when they try to show some of their 'heroes' in a slightly more positive light, suddenly they become sellouts. Similarly, one shouldn't praise Korean filmmakers when they criticize their past leaders (Park Jung-Hee's last bang being the latest culprit, thanks to Im Sang-Soo's madly ingenious hand), and complain when they praise their national heroes. Another reason why this film won't work with Western audiences is because they'll expect the usual Hollywood-styled blockbuster, but they'll get a potboiler of different genres they won't be able to handle all at once. Why? Because Hollywood conditions you to expect simple monotone pap, and never tries to cut edges even a little. That's why the mix of silly comedy, brutal action, 'heroic' melodrama and north/south divide shenanigans won't appeal to people who expect another 2009 로스트 메모리즈 (2009 Lost Memories). But one also risks making another mistake: that of blindly accepting anything as simple pride for one's history, instead of acknowledging certain xenophobic undertones buried -- more or less explicitly -- inside films of this kind. While 안중근 (Ahn Joong-Geun) was full of annoying patriotism and flag-waving, what you can find in 'Heaven's Soldiers' is a bit more palatable. More pride than nationalism. Of course there's a lot of stereotyping in the film, the music is too intrusive, Kim Seung-Woo continues to try to expand his range when he should be perfectly happy with his comedies (where he's effective). But the last 20 Minutes of the film and the balancing of genre elements save the film from failure. I can't say I'll watch this more than twice, but it's not as bad it sounds, and as always Hwang Jung-Min, Park Joong-Hoon and Gong Hyo-Jin are reliable.


VIDEO: 6.5
The transfer is quite disappointing for a recent film like this. There's an immense amount of grain, much more than what the 'film-like' look would allow. Also, detail lacks, skin tones don't look natural at all, and there's a good amount of clipping. Also, the last 10 Minutes of the film have a slight white vertical line on one of the sides. Doesn't look horrible, but nothing special.
AUDIO: 7
Your satisfactory action-oriented track. Good use of the surround for the major action scenes, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary.
SUBTITLES: 6
Very lazy translation, especially when the dialogue gets a little more colourful. There's also a few grammar and spelling mistakes, lines missing or untranslated, and the overall feeling that not much time was spent working on these subtitles.
EXTRA FEATURES: 9.5
Is there a better DVD company than enterOne when it comes to extra features? Leave it to them to grant us with over 6 hours (commentaries included) of supplement material even for a film like this. The two commentaries are quite good on their own, especially the one with the cast and director. There's a reason why Park Joong-Hoon always ends up hosting award ceremonies: he's a complete riot. He cracks jokes all the time, but cast and director also talk about the film. Quite memorable in itself. Second commentary track is your usual 'tech-heavy' one, discussing shooting angles, lighting, location-specific commentary and similar things. A bit dry, but full of interesting info. Then there's 3 featurettes (15 Minutes each) talking about the music, the action in the film, and the art direction/production design. There's a 35 Minutes Making of with interviews with the cast, and a really nice 20 Minutes roundtable discussion with the top cast and director, who talk honestly about the film, their reaction to how it did in theaters, the reaction of the audience and critics, and more. Then there's the big daddy, a 60 Minutes Documentary where Director Min follows two experts to the Naval Academy Museum and the War Memorial, exploring all his life, the places he visited, the boats he used, the kind of utensils and even his war strategy. Incredibly fascinating and worth the price of the DVD alone. Closing this great little package is a fantastic booklet, full of pictures, interviews, cast and director introductions, and even a little history of Admiral Lee. Sure, the huge releases in the US -- like the Extended Lord of The Rings trilogy -- are better, but they have Millions to spend and plenty of time to produce. Considering the state of the Korean DVD market at the moment, with most titles having a hard time cracking the 5 figures, an effort of this kind even for mild hits is incredible.
VALUE FOR MONEY: 8
Certainly not a good movie, but it earns its points. There's a nice mix of comedy, historical and human drama. Perhaps because Admiral Lee is just about the most beloved and respected figure in Korean History (next to King Sejong), they didn't go further with the comedy, making a fool out of the character. So it does show the man without all the heroic hoopla this kind of film is often guilty of, and earns its heroic feats later. Above average film, fantastic extra features. Shame for the subtitles and the transfer, otherwise it would have been a top notch release.
OVERALL: 7.14

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