Director: Kang Je-gyu
Starring: Jang Dong Gun, Jo Odagiri, Fan Bingbing, Taro Yamamoto
Director Kang Je-gyu’s Tae Gukgi is among one of the most highly regarded films to come out of South Korea ever and indeed people have been waiting to see what he would do next for a follow-up. My Way arrives over 6 years later, touting the largest budget ever for a Korean film, a huge international cast, and a production schedule that lasted over 10 months. Having directed Shiri and Tae Gukgi, two films which forever changed the landscape of South Korean cinema; does My Way mark a hat trick for direct Kang? Or does he miss the mark?
After meeting as children and competing through adolescence as Olympic caliber marathon runners, Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-Gun) and Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri) find themselves entered into the Japanese Imperial Army, with Kim as forced punishment and Tatsuo as a high ranking officer. After fighting the Chinese and Soviets in Manchuria, they are taken prisoner and sent to a Soviet prison camp. As the onset of America’s entry into World War II looms, these lifelong enemies find themselves continually crossing paths across Europe and their destinies bring them to the shores of Normandy on the eve of the Allies’ now legendary attack.
Jang Dong-gun is typically good as the lionhearted Jun-shik. He’s compassionate, reluctant to fight, and truly invested in his running. Odagiri though, really steals the show as the vicious Tatsuo, who finds that his truth and beliefs are vastly outdated when it comes to his views on Imperial Japan. His growth as a character is dramatic and well engaging. Fan Bing Bing is woefully under utilized, but she is a very important character, even if her screen time doesn’t match that of the two leading men. Well known for her beauty, I have to say I had a bit of a crush on her seeing her fire a rifle.
The cast of supporting characters helps to enrich the film with Taro Yamamoto and Kim In-kwon standing out as partners of Tatsuo and Jun-shik respectively. Of note is the wide variety of languages used in the film. From Korean, Japanese, German, Russian, Chinese, and English, the languages the characters do speak, seems to have been done well and the international presence really puts you into the moments and each new locale. Proper recognition to the dialogue coaches and translators that worked on the film is in order.
The scope of the film is huge when following Jang and Odagiri. Their characters take them all across the continent and each stop promises large realistic sets, a new language, and many challenges to get through. The action scenes and battles are sprawling and clearly demonstrate the military philosophies of Japan and the Soviet Union as documented many times before. The battles are gruesome, well choreographed, and there are very interesting camera choices used that I have never seen before used in a war film.
The dynamic camera work owes a lot to works like Saving Private Ryan, but Kang puts a clear stamp on it as his. The music is as rousing and deep as you would expect from a war film of this size. The swells and tones clearly match the sequences on screen well, with international music matching the scenes in which they play out. Oppressive Soviet chants in prison camp, and the erhu for delicate moments in the Machuria; the composition is great and definitely adds to the film resonance with the audience.
One of the few gripes I have with the film is the fact that it is ‘inspired’ by true events when the films’ characters are clearly fabricated. The credence to the ‘true story’ tag is tenuous at best and while I do not mind it as long as the film is well put together, the fact that it is pushed to the fore is a bit irritating. Not enough to undermine the enthusiasm I have for the film, but worth noting nonetheless. Also, the length is wickedly long. At a running time of 143 minutes, I was engaged throughout, but the long runtime and dark heavy subject matter means the film is hardly ‘movie night’ material. That may be for the better since this is a film which deserves full concentration during viewing.
My Way is a gripping and deeply powerful war film and a worthy follow-up to director Kang’s seminal Tae Gukgi. Filled with superb performances and affecting scenes of battle, My Way expounds the anti-war ideal more eloquently than most war films. Greatly entertaining as well as moving, My Way deserves to be seen by anyone who has any affinity for war cinema. Highly recommended.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: The Duelists, Tae Gukgi, and The Front Line