Kang Je-kyu is probably best known for the Korean War epic Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War and international blockbuster Shiri. His latest film, My Way, is again a war film but this time the action moves to the Second World War and travels geographically from Korea to the Normandy beaches. Based on the true story of the discovery of a Korean soldier wearing a German uniform during the D-Day landings, the film seeks to dramatise how something that seems so incongruous could have come to be.
The film begins in the late 1920s in Japanese occupied Korea. Jun-Shik’s (Dong-gun Jang) family work for a Japanese official who’s shortly to be joined by his son’s family. The old general’s grandson, Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri), like Jun-shik, turns out to be a keen runner and he and Jun-shik engage in a friendly rivalry. Moving on a little, a party is being thrown to celebrate Tatsuo’s victory in the high school marathon competition but one of the presents he’s given turns out to be a bomb - the grandfather acts quickly and hurls himself on top of it saving the party guests but obviously losing his own life in the process. From this moment on, Tatsuo appears to develop an intense hatred for all Koreans, blaming them for the death of his grandfather. Jun-shik and his family are dismissed while Jun-shik’s father is taken away for some kind of questioning which sees him badly beaten and presumably unable to work ever again.
Still a keen runner, Jun-shik is working as a rickshaw driver when the trial runs for the Japanese entrant for the next Olympics are due to take place. The Japanese have banned Koreans from entering but luckily for Jun-shik a chance encounter with an important person means he’ll be able to compete. Things don’t go to plan however and a riot breaks out at the racetrack, all the young Korean men are arrested and sentenced to serve in the Japanese Imperial army. They are abruptly shipped off to fight the Russians in China and who should turn up when they get there but ‘Colonel’ Tatsuo. It seems Tatsuo has become one of those officers obsessed with dying for the Emperor and wants to take as many people with him as possible. Personal quarrels aside, serving under a single-minded leader hellbent on suicide isn’t going to do much for your chances of going home and the whole company eventually finds itself in a Russian POW camp in Siberia being force fed Soviet propaganda.
Sent off again to fight the Germans in Europe (despite obviously being on completely the wrong side now), our two heroes find themselves stranded with no idea what to do. Dressing in German uniforms, they manage to make it into German territory before being separated and re-united in Normandy. You might call it a far fetched tale, if something similar hadn’t actually happened to someone else.
Really, it’s the story that’s at fault with this film. It’s riddled with so many clichés and coincidences that it’s very difficult to take it seriously at all. First off we have the familiar trope of two boys from opposing cultures who share a passion and a genial rivalry which then develops into jealousy and animosity before coming full circle and turning in to a sort of brotherhood. Then we have the twenty-minute love interest, who is also a female assassin (which seems to be the norm recently) played by Fan Bing Bing so that we can get a (very shallow) Chinese perspective on the war that’s being fought on their land. It doesn’t help that Jun-Shik and Tatsuo seem to be some kind of superheroes protected from on high who are always saved at the very last second by a friend’s sacrifice or a change in the international situation. It’s also strange that everyone seems to understand every language they’re addressed in be it Korean, English, German, Russian, Japanese or Mandarin. Unfortunately it feels as if the film has been put together by numbers where everything is just incredibly loud; there isn’t very much room for characterisation or genuine emotion above the overly familiar and sentimentalised plotline.
Having said that, the battle scenes are all very well done and convincing. My Way is reportedly Korea’s most expensive film and you can see all of that investment on the screen; Kang Je-kyu has definitely proved it isn’t just Hollywood that’s capable of producing something on this epic scale. It’s just a shame that the film as a whole can’t match the same high standard.
My Way isn’t a bad film but its flaws vastly outnumber its strengths. For those looking for a solid war film with well staged action sequences My Way may well suffice, but its lack of subtlety and sentimental patriotism will put off those who’d prefer something with a little more grit.
My Way will open the Terracotta Film Festival on 12th April at London's Prince Charles Cinema