Dallas IFF 2012 Review: MY WAY

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Since the release of Tae-Guk-Gi, South Korea has produced a handful of decent films concerning their great national conflagration, however, none has ever really managed to overtake Tae-Guk-Gi in the hearts and minds of Korean film fans. Kang Je-gyu's (Shiri) My Way is an earnest attempt to deliver the kind of heartfelt yet harrowing war film that Steven Spielberg gave America with Saving Private Ryan. In some ways, My Way succeeds in delivering that same visceral gut-punch that Spielberg's film did with brutal war scenarios and some heart-rending melodrama. While the former element of My Way, the battle sequences, are incredible and invigorating, the melodrama takes several turns toward the fanciful that drains a bit of the film's impact in its waning moments.

In 1928, Korea is a Japanese-occupied state. Kim Joon-sik is a young boy who loves to run who is soon met by the son of a Japanese diplomat named Tatsuo Hasegawa. The two form a friendly rivalry as competitive marathoners, but the friendliness leaves the relationship as the two grow up, and the Japan bans ethnic Koreans from competing in Olympic trials. When an old Korean Olympic hero convinces the Japanese big shots to allow Kim to compete against Hasegawa, the scheme backfires, and Kim ends up conscripted into the Japanese military, to fight the Allied powers wherever Japan decides to send him.

Soon, Kim and several other Korean conscripts find out that their new commanding officer is none other than Tatsuo Hasegawa, still bitter over losing that race at the Olympic trials. Hasegawa puts Kim and his countrymen through the wringer, even going so far as to draft them all for a suicide mission against Russian tanks, however, all does not go according to plan, and the rival pair travel thousands of miles against their wills as prisoners of war and conscripts of other rival forces. They battle an ever-changing set of enemies, all the while battling one another.

The plot synopsis above is about the most skeletal I can offer. The film takes one turn after another for over two hours. Hasegawa and Kim, played as adults by normally scruffy Japanese heart-throb Odagiri Jo (Bright Future, Scrap Heaven) and the stoic Jang Dong-gun (2009: Lost Memories, Tae-Guk-Gi), are the glue that holds this film together. Though there are numerous characters who get nice moments, if Odagiri and Jang don't pull off their rivalry, the film falls apart. The bad news is that a lot of these twists are very contrived, but the good news is that each new scenario provides the opportunity for a new and fantastic action sequence, which is where the film truly excels.

Director Kang is no stranger to big budget action, having ushered in the modern Korean blockbuster with his 1999 film Shiri, and he takes that aptitude to incredible new levels with My Way. Once we get past a good twenty-five minutes of hokey exposition, the mind-blowing cinematographic acrobatics and visceral carnage begin, and boy does it ever deliver. My Way has some the most beautiful, and most brutal, war recreation footage I've ever seen. There are at least a dozen amazingly staged action set pieces that would stand up to Saving Private Ryan any day of the week. The first major eye-opener is a thrilling tribute to the famous cornfield sequence from North By Northwest that had me ducking left and right as Kim ran for his life.  From there on out, the action is what the film is all about, and it is all the better for it.

Two hours sounds like a long time, but any fan of Korean cinema is certainly used to this kind of extended runtime, but what I'm not used to is films that use it quite as well as My Way. With loads of brilliant, bloody, and boisterous action crammed into the film, there is hardly any room to breathe. These action sequences do more than deliver on their premises, they help the viewer to forget the hackneyed rivalry set up in the beginning and frequently revisited throughout the film. There was a good hour long stretch where I forgot about the opening scenes that I found so uninspiring, and it wasn't until the film returned to those scenes for the wrap around ending that I recalled how silly I thought it all was. However, by that time, I was putty in Kang's hands. He could've finished the film with Hasegawa and Kim holding hands and jumping over a rainbow on magical unicorns and I still would've walked out of the film thinking about the incredible action and not much else.

My Way is among the best of a new breed of Asian war films. The last decade has presented quite a few greats, however, few have managed to marry extremely kinetic action with a solid narrative. Most films do one or the other very well, and I'd say that as far as the action is concerned, My Way is probably the best war films I've seen out of east Asia in years, at least since Assembly. This is one you've got to see!
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