“My Way,” from one of Korea’s most famous and acclaimed directors, Kang Je-kyu, is a venture of expansive and expensive proportions, recounting two men’s overlapping lives, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. The film opens with a runner suddenly taking the lead at the 1948 Olympic Marathon in London. Just as quickly, we are pulled 20 years back and half the world away, to Korea under Japanese occupation. Two young boys – one the grandson of a prominent Japanese official, the other his Korean servant – run a footrace, and the metaphor for national conflict commences. Shots of their running feet transition from this playful moment to all-out competition, as the boys are swiftly replaced with teenaged versions of themselves, involved in a heated rivalry.
By 1938, the boys (well, men now) are competing in the Olympic trials, hoping for a spot on the Japanese marathon team in 1940. When the Korean competitor, Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun), is unfairly disqualified, and the Japanese runner, Tatsuo Hasegawa (Joe Odagiri) is named the winner, a riot breaks out between the Korean nationals and the Japanese Olympic officials, Jun-shik at its center. He is punished for this rebellion with conscription to the Japanese army, and is speedily dispatched to Mongolia. Two years later, the arrival of Tatsuo as a sadistic corporal, now hell-bent on destroying Jun-shik physically and mentally, only intensifies the horrors of war. Despite the characters’ best efforts, their two paths remain entwined, and the film follows Jun-shik and Tatsuo through their imprisonment in a Soviet POW camp, forced combat with German forces, a trek across the Ural Mountains into German-held territories, forced entry into the Nazi army, and, finally, into battle against the Allied armies on D-Day.
The most interesting aspect of the film is this varied perspective. With few exceptions (“Letters from Iwo Jima” and “The Longest Day”), combat movies about World War II rarely give agency to the Axis Powers’ stance. Certainly, the view from the underground barracks at Normandy, looking toward the Allied ships crossing the English Channel, is not one that Hollywood has seen very often. Equally uncommon is the truly international nature of the film. Shot on location in South Korea and Latvia with a multi-national crew, “My Way” capitalizes on its boundary-breaking production, shifting easily between Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, German, and English dialogue.
At $23 million, “My Way” is South Korea’s most expensive cinematic endeavor to date. And it shows. The settings and costumes are period-perfect, and the well-done special effects help to create immensely realistic combat sequences. Aerial shots of the Asian and European landscapes are breathtaking as stand-alone images, even littered with soldiers and tanks, and a beautifully crafted score from composer Lee Dong-Jun amplifies the effect. The misfortune of this funding is that much of the budget was spent unwisely. The use of a ferociously shaky handheld camera during the battle scenes is disorienting, and it feels a bit lazy, as though Kang is using a visual trick rather than directing his actors in order to illustrate the hell these men are experiencing. And the excessive inclusion of CGI has a similar effect, with the audience left waiting for all the smoke to clear so that the real acting can begin. Those moments are regrettably few and far between.
“My Way” clocks in at just under two and a half hours, yet the film clips along steadily, offering all its necessary set-up within the first 10 minutes. And from that point on, there is hardly a moment of quiet, as bloody clash after violent quarrel bursts onto the screen: there’s nary a minute in Jun-shik’s adult life where his face (and body, for that matter) isn’t bloodied. While this is a war movie, and war movies inevitably involve grisly fighting sequences, the repetitious brutality is wearying, and eclipses time that would be better spent developing the connections between characters. There is a too-constant reliance on the importance of these bonds for such little exploration: the lack of pause for character study leaves the portraits somewhat limp and unfinished, the motives cloudy at best. In a film that purports to be about two enemies that are finally united in their shared hardship, much more screen time should be devoted to their particular relationship, rather than having it upstaged by special effects only to emerge quite unexpectedly as a deep friendship at the three-quarter mark.
Similarly, the characters are drawn much too simply from the outset, and the rivalry between the entitled rich kid and diligent, benevolent servant boy emerges as a sketchy caricature of what should be a complex interaction shaded with the many gray tones of humanity. The unoriginal archetypes are employed ad nauseum, to the point that Tatsuo and Jun-shik more closely resemble a Disney villain and hero than two real people: when given the opportunity, Jun-shik refuses to kill his enemy, then goes on to save him in combat many times over despite the obviousness of Tatsuo’s hesitancy to ever return the favor. By film’s end, good has triumphed, making for a sweet and poignant ending, but this comes at the cost of the authenticity that, if nothing else, a war film should bring to the screen.
Kang found his inspiration in a documentary about a recently rediscovered photograph of a Korean soldier in Normandy; the story of how that man arrived as a German soldier in France is one that mirrors Tatsuo and Jun-shik’s exactly. So although “My Way” has basis in true events, reality is hard to come by in many aspects of the film. Escaping death by a hairsbreadth is a clearly dramatic move, and already a tough sell; drawing on this pattern on three separate occasions, the film asks a lot of its audience. Probably too much. To a certain degree, suspension of disbelief is a requirement for watching war films: even in the bloodiest and most horrific battle sequences, cinematic pleasure takes precedence over realism. However, that suspension has a window, and “My Way” goes through it and beyond, leaving a wake of bloody CGI trailing behind. In a movie that is so visually right – from costumes to sets to effects – it is highly disappointing to see the script go so wrong. [C+]
“My Way” is currently open in limited release and will expand to more cities this weekend.