Before World War II, Korea had been conquered by Japan. The Koreans were treated as second class citizens and servants by the Japanese occupiers. Jun-shik Kim (Jang Dong-gun) was just a child when this was going on. His father worked as a servant for a Japanese military commander at his home. One day, the commander’s grandson Tatsuo came to live with him. He and Jun-shik both loved to run and considered themselves very fast. They instantly became running partners and rivals, and as they grew, the races they entered together would be won by one or the other depending on the day. Jun-shik’s dream was to one day run in the Olympics, but after another Korean athlete had insulted the Japanese at the Olympics, the Koreans were banned from trying out. Jun-shik never lost his desire though, and after they were banished from the commander’s house and his father beaten to the point of suffering brain damage for unknowingly delivering a bomb in a doll made to look like a gift for Tatsuo, Jun-shik ended up working as a rikshaw driver, running all over the city with sandbags around his ankles to keep up his running speed and strength in hopes that one day he would be able to live his dream. When he finally got the chance to try out however, he was cheated out of his victory, and it was awarded to Tatsuo. When the Korean spectators started a riot over the decision, they, including Jun-shik, were sentenced to serve in the Japanese army at the beginning of World War II.
Even in the army, the Korean soldiers were treated in a very third rate manner and abused frequently. After a severe routing received a severe routing and took heavy losses, Tatsuo showed up at camp with a new, fresh company of men. He was a colonel now, and fiercely devoted to the emperor with an almost religious fervor. He made the original company’s colonel commit Harakiri in front of his men for ordering the retreat.
From there, things went down hill badly. The camp was attacked again, and once again they took heavy losses. Tatsuo and Jun-shik were sent to a Soviet POW camp where they were later forced to fight for the Soviets against the Germans. Once again, more of their men were lost, and after Jun-shik saved Tatsuo’s life and was left mostly deafened by an incoming shell, he and Tatsuo, made their way into Germany to get away from the Soviets. There they were taken prisoner, made to serve in the German army, and three years later, finally found each other once again as their companies were both working to build beach head defenses on Normandy beach. Little did they know the horror that was coming to them, just as they were about to attempt an escape from the Germans so they could finally go back home. The allied forces had other plans for them however, as the very day they had planned to make their escape just happened to be D-Day. Will either of them live through it to finally return home? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
Ok, that’s a fairly long synopsis of the film, but barely scratches the surface of what’s in it. I’m not really sure where to begin, so I think I’ll start with talking about the main characters, because even though they were rivals and eventually very close friends, they had a very strange path in their relationship. Jun-shik was always a nice and honorable boy with a fiercely competitive spirit. Tatsuo on the other hand was just as competitive, but he’d grown up in a family of influence, wealth and power. When he became an adult, he entered into the army to serve the emperor with the same religious fervor that many other Japanese soldiers did. Nothing else mattered but serving the emperor, and most especically not the lives of his own men, whom he expected to strap on bombs so they could make suicide runs at the attacking tanks. Even his own life meant nothing. Serving the emperor was all that mattered. Once they got to the Soviet POW camp, and he discovered after some time there that the emperor had refused to re-patriate the Japanese prisoners, his attitude slowly started to change. Throughout the rest of the story, his character transforms in a very interesting way. He becomes more and more like Jun-shik, and after Jun-shik saves his life more than once, he comes to realize the value of life and friendship. This was a wonderful transformation in the character, and it was done in such a slow and meaningful way. It wasn’t just one incident that made him change, it was his experiences throughout the film that brought about the change gradually, and it was a wonderful way to handle the character.
Another character whose tranformation I found fascinating was that of Jun-shik’s friend Jong-dae. Back home he and Jun-shik were great friends, and he even had a crush on Jun-shik’s sister. Even through their time in the Japanese army, they remained very close friends. Once they were captured by the Soviets however, this all changed. The Soviets were notorious for re-educating prisoners. Turning their minds so they became loyal to the Soviet cause. Jong-dae chose to serve them as a leader of the prisoners, and adopted the name Anton to show his loyalty. The transformation in his character was directly the opposite of the changes that took place in Tatsuo and created a really nice contrast between the two, showing how events could change one man for the better, and turn one man from sweet and kind, to a fiercely devoted servant of the enemy.
The battle scenes in this film are not only incredibly realistic and bloody, they’re also unbelievably brutal. People being rolled over by tanks, soldiers blowing themselves up, guys getting torched by flame throwers, others being riddled with machine gun fire, prisoners being tortured and more. As much as the battle scenes put you right dead center in the middle of the war however, the non-battle parts of the film are equally as realistic. For example, in the Soviet POW camp, it was the middle of winter. Any POW who got frostbite was taken out and killed, as they could no longer work. As such, anyone who got it tried desperately to hide the fact. Another Korean POW was desperately hungry and had snuck into the foot storage area to steal some bread. He was caught when Jong-dae turned him into the soldiers when it looked like there was no way he could avoid it, and subsequently hanged. When the POWs were drafted into the Soviet army and were being transported by train to fight the Germans, men died along the way, and their bodies were lifted over the heads of the men and unceremoniously thrown out of the train. Humanity had truly been lost. Survival, and holding on to one last spark of hope was all that was left, if they could manage it.
South Korea has really become the Hollywood of Asia. I always though it would be Hong Kong that took up that role, and while there are some truly epic films coming out of Hong Kong, South Korea has just excelled at producing films that go above and beyond most of what is coming out of Hollywood even. With brilliantly produced films like My Way, The Front Line, War of the Arrows, The Host, Castaway on the Moon, Sophie’s Revenge and many others, the film industry in South Korea has truly proven to be a force to be reckoned with, and is capable of producing films in any genre that just absolutely shine.
This film is not only a brilliant character study, but it’s also an incredible experience for its historical representation of World War II and the horrors that went along with it. I really can’t recommend this one enough. I could compare it to the film The Front Line, which takes place during the Korean War, because both films contain wonderful characters that transform over the course of the film, and the realities of the war are depicted in every brutal detail. The difference between the two really is that at the end of The Front Line, I just felt absolutely emotionally drained, while this one, while very emotional at times didn’t really leave me feeling that way. More to the point, I felt hopeful that Jun-shik and Tatsuo would survive to finally make it home. I was really pulling for the characters. By the end you feel like you’ve gone through it all with them, and you really care about them and want them to be ok. Both films are a must see in my book, and you’d be doing yourself a great favor in picking yourself up a copy of either, or both. While you’re at it, give yourself a treat and grab yourself a copy of War of the Arrows as well. You won’t regret it.
The blu-ray release’s special features include a behind the scenes look at the making of the film, interviews with Jang Dong-gun, and the film’s director, Kang Je-kyu, and three trailers for the film.
If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out its page on the Well Go USA website here, and if you’d like to pick yourself up a copy, you can grab a copy of the blu-ray or DVD from Amazon, or any of the other usual outlets.