Welcome to the article best of Korean cinema, in which we look at the best Korea has to offer since it explosion of quality films and output since 200. We look at everything from emotionally heightened Romances to the uniquely Korean line of comedic thrillers. This time we are looking at the output of Kang Je-Gyu, although we aren’t covering his debut film. Shiri (Swiri) was a personal introduction to the new wave. The films we will be covering are Brotherhood and My Way, two thematic companion pieces looking at personal drama in the Korean world war and World War II.
2004, South Korea
Kang Je-Kyu’s sophomore effort is the first of his war films and this time it is the Korean Civil War that draws attention. Won Bin (Jin-seok Lee) and Jong Dong-gun (Jin-tae Lee) are very close brothers in peace time. They may not be in the most comfortable of circumstances, as without their noodle stand they would be flirting with poverty. Then one day as younger brother Jin-Seok is coming back from school to see his brother, only to be told out the blue that war has broken out with the North.. Together the family (completed by Jin-Tae’s fiancée Young-shin Kim (Eun-ju Lee), their mother who has lost the ability to speak and 3 young children) try to keep one step ahead of the violence heading its way for Busan and Seoul. Inevitably war catches up and claims all men between the age of 18-30 for the war effort, which includes Jin-Seok against his and his furious elder brother Jin-tae’s wishes. Without going into further plot detail the central aim of Brotherhood sees Jin-Tae carelessly throwing himself into dangerous scenarios to earn a medal and a pardon for his sickly younger brother.
That which immediately strikes you about Kang’s work makes a persistent point of reference out of Stephen Spielberg. This is for two reasons, the first is the melodrama and the second makes a connection of Saving Private Ryan. That film was profoundly celebrated because of the ferocity of its set pieces. They captured the sheer violence, unpredictability in the chaos of war; it reached a pinnacle of what could be achieved in cinema. One scene that was picked out above all others was the Normandy landing. Getting back to Brotherhood, every battle scene is shot with that level of brutality making this an exceedingly fierce film. Limbs are blown off, heads are shattered by gun fire and there is an incredible flurry of blood and gore in every single battle scene. At the same time, both armies stop using their guns as, well, guns at regular intervals, instead opting to use their guns as swords and blunt heavy sticks to beat their enemies. It’s a curious contrast.
As well as possessing visceral qualities, Kang also uses this platform to present anti-war ideals. At first the North is shown to be despicable in the extreme, treating human life as an expendable tool if it can be used to kill, stop or maim the enemy, which leads to equally extreme retaliation in response. When the South no longer is in the ascendancy, they too carry out atrocities and war crimes in the pursuit of victory, through this director and screenwriter Kang is suggesting desperation is a great driving force for both good and bad.
Brotherhood is a film that takes dramatic weight out the constantly shifting relationship of two brothers as it does out of the heat of war. There are four or five occasions throughout the film where the score is bleating out with its atypical strains implying that ‘this is an emotional bit’, only for the two brothers to be screaming at each other in a battlefield, as their friends are being torn apart by gunfire. It makes suspension of disbelief somewhat difficult and makes its brand of melodrama somewhat excessive. Likewise, the film is bordered with the most unnecessary framing device, which is sadly becoming more and more common in Asian period dramas, When the Last Sword is Drawn employed similar tactics. The film opens in the modern day, with an elderly Jin-Seok saddened by his missing brother only to present the Korean war as a flashback, the way in which this ‘tool’ is closed is awkward, bordering on the exploitative and questionable tactics that saw Spielberg’s Warhorse develop such a divisive reputation.
Whether the film draws comparisons with the most magnificent and gaudy elements of one of Hollywood’s biggest names, the comparison is still there. Whatever it is successful with, whatever problems they are, this is still a director who is making Korean cinema at its most accessible. With its anti-war sentiments, hugely powerful (if slightly repetitive) war zones and emotionally layered performances from its two leads, Brotherhood is one of the dozen or so films that should be watched before first, when getting into the magnificent world of the Korean New Wave.
2012, South Korea
Even with that closing statement, there is one complaint that could easily be pointed towards Brotherhood. That film was repetitive taking a war-drama-war-drama-war line of attack. As spectacular as that film could be, it doesn’t have much range. With his follow up My Way, Kang Je-Gyu has incorporated a wider spectrum of influences into his language.
Jong Dong-gun (Jun-Shik Kim) (for a second time in the director’s work) and Jô Odagiri (Tatsuo Hasegawa) are competing marathon runners, the best that the Asian high school circuit has to offer. Such firm competitors should be the best of friends, but because of the historical legacy of Korean and Japanese relations as well as gap in social class means that the two are at bitter adversaries. A fate aided by the unfortunate death of Tatsuo’s beloved grandfather. Years after this event the two are thrust into competition at an Olympic qualifying event only for the Japanese authorities to alter the result in their favour, an act that incites a riot. The punishment of which sees all the Korean offenders forced to serve the Japanese military against their will. The scene in which the Korean’s are forced into the army strongly echoes the equivalent scene in his last film. This isn’t the first time either Tetsuo or Jun-Shik are thrust into a foreign army either, throughout the course of the film this happens a further two times, making the film guilty of the grandest contrivance. It is either repetitive in a different way or the two leads suffer from the worst bad luck; the optimist in me is priming for the latter.
Yet at the same time, Kang has actively shown he is more varied in his depiction of war. For example it doesn’t employ the on-off mechanic of his earlier film; instead the two men are subjected to the worst experiences one could endure as a victim of wartime, surviving the Russians & Germans as well as a brutal prisoner of war camp in Siberia. The Germans, Japanese and Russians are embodied as moustache flicking bad guys; all they need are suited and booted minions and a loyal animal. The gore and violence may be less excessive here, bar the inordinate number of people who are ran over by tanks, nonetheless the velocity of these war scenes is just as prominent as before with the added advantage that they are given the room to breathe.
Another commonality between the two films is the overriding theme of brotherhood. Before his film depicted how war drove two brothers apart, in My Way it depicts how war can bring empathy and understanding to two men that hate each as a product of war, violence and subjugation. It’s a weird thesis, almost suggesting that war is the answer to war.
War and Melodrama, those are the two bullet points of the director’s filmography. Through that it would too easy to call Kang Ye-Gyu the Spielberg of Korean Cinema. Talking about the melodrama for a moment, throughout the course of this article it would be easy to ascertain that I have an issue with this school of dramatic expression. That just isn’t the case, Melodrama is fine when it is achieved via strong characterisation and writing, which is the case here. Instead the dramatic sub-set will always be hard to swallow when the melody in question is of the aching strings and choirs division, director Kang place great value in the type of score and arrangement.
As I suggested however, Kang and his writers do write characters and express their growth and development well. It’s one of the national qualities that has made Korean cinema such an attractive proposition, their writers and in this case Kang, write traditional genre pieces only they add a depth of character and story that is stronger than most other countries. As such seeing these two men grow from enemies to the best of friends is a worthy and moving journey. That growth and the variation of scenarios twinned with all the qualities that made Brotherhood such a fan favourite make My Way an even better directorial piece from Kang Je-Gyu. Problematic it may be, but as good as this is, it draws a line in the sand for the director. If he was to continue making war movies, he would become explicitly flirtatious with that which has come before. Too many Asian directors have fallen into the trap of repeating themselves ad nauseam, here’s hoping Kang won’t be the latest addition to that list.