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Kim Ki-duk’s ‘The Coast Guard’ is the most scathing commentary on the South Korean military state

The Coast Guard

Directed by Ki-duk Kim

South Korea, 2002

With Ki-duk Kim releasing a new film at this year’s Cannes, his older material warrants a small retrospective.  Ki-duk’s best films – The Isle, Bad Guy, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, 3-Iron – are tender and violent portraits of mostly mute protagonists, often marked by sudden and unexpected acts of brutality.  The Coast Guard takes these similar tropes to form Ki-duk’s most scathing commentary on the South Korean military state.

Kang Sang-byeong (Dong-gun Jang) is the most gung-ho member of the Korean Coast Guard.  He obsesses over one day finding and killing a spy just beyond the borders he patrols.  He paints his face in camouflage for routine exercises, incessantly scans the shoreline with manic eyes, and lives the military code as bible. When a drunken couple crosses the forbidden fencing Kang finds his chance and doesn’t miss.  He fires once.  Then again.  Then empties his gun.  Then throws a grenade.  Body parts line the shore and the female survivor Mi-yeong loses her mind (Ji-a Park).

At its heart, The Coast Guard is truly about the horrors of violence.  Post-shooting Kang doesn’t celebrate the rush of the kill or blame the innocents for stupidly crossing the dangerous boundary.  He wallows in internal confusion before his mind also snaps and he finds himself inextricably drawn back to his guard post, even after being dismissed from duty.

Ki-duk riffs on Full Metal Jacket and Hamlet among other sources, while keeping his kinetic style intact. He spends much of the film focusing on two different types of madness in that of Kang and of Mi-yeong.  The frequent close-ups on their respective faces echo their actions post-shooting. Kang’s eyes are lost and wide and increasingly wild as he returns time and again to his former compatriots, eventually turning on them and acting out as the very spy he once sought to kill.  Mi-yeong’s features are soft, gentle and also lost.  She gradually seduces and sleeps with a majority of the coast guards as she futilely searches for her dead lover.

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Where Ki-duk falters is in his setup. He moves quickly through establishing Kang’s character, and the speed is less effective than it is hurried.  The ill-paced first act gives the feel of Ki-duk rushing to get to the meat of the story and relying on heavy-handed dialogue exposition rather than the strong, unique visuals that dominate the latter 2/3.

Luckily, Ki-duk remedies this quickly.  As the film gets closer to the final act he continues to cross-cut between Mi-yeong and Kang, comparing the disparate results of an overly militant state.  Ever the auteur, Ki-duk’s close-ups of Kang slowly change, and eventually we are looking at him as though through a watery lens or the haze of a summer heat.  The effect is surreal and makes Kang as ethereal and fictional as the unseen spies.  The message is clear: the South Korean military creates more violence and threats than it deters.

– Neal DHand