The South Korean film “Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War” earned accolades from both international and domestic critics in 2004. It was director Kang Je-Gyu’s follow up to 1999’s box-office smash “Shiri”, another film that portrays the tension between the Southern and Northern sides of Korea. It is curious why director Kang waited 7 years to follow up his filmmaking success, but hey, better late than never. Well, Kang Je-Gyu may have abandoned the themes of tension and the war between the North and South Korean sides, but his next film is once again portrays the horror of war. “My Way” is a film that tells the story of two men during World War II, totally different and yet, in many ways, the same.
The story has been inspired by a real event during D-Day, when Americans had captured a Korean man called Yang Kyoungjong wearing a German uniform. This man had been conscripted in the Red Army, the Japanese army and the Wermacht. That fact aside, the screenplay of “My Way” takes us to 1928 in Japanese occupied Korea, when two young boys, Tatsuo and Jun-Shik (who will grow up to be played by Joe Odagiri and Jang Dong-gun) develop a playful rivalry in their love for running which will then become a bitter rivalry in the competitive sports of marathon running. After an incident in Korea left Jun-Shik to serve in the Japanese imperial army, he finds himself reunited with Tatsuo after a year, with him being Jun-Shik’s commander. Fate plays an ugly hand as Kim Jun-Shik and Tatsuo Hasegawa find themselves in the hell that is World War II, as they find themselves fighting endless, unpredictable battles under the Japanese, the Soviet and even the Nazi flag; the two find that they may need each other to survive and to cling on to the hope of one day going home.
Director Kang Je-Gyu’s film may carry the usual themes of brotherhood wrapped around a very human theme of survival. “My Way” may also carry the usual displays of capricious, inhuman treatment by one’s captors when placed in a position of authority during war. What this film does quite different and proves itself ambitious is the manner that it structures its story behind the eyes of two men. It begins as a battle of wills between the two rivals in their beloved sport as this battle then carries into their time as soldiers. As with most movies of this kind, the abuse brought upon by the Japanese upon the Koreans is nothing new, what makes it effective is the way that it went back many years, in an effort to make the viewer connect with the two protagonists.
“My Way” may seemed especially depressing, it seems almost unbelievable that two men would go through such suffering. It does take a very human route in the way its story is unfolded. People change, as seen in the character of Lee Jong-Dae (Kim In-Kwon) who becomes corrupt with power in the Soviet Gulags. Jun-Shik and Tatsuo then do all they can to stick to their beliefs, their pride and rules while others merely adapt to survive. There is something powerful in the film’s message as this message reminded me of Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” (albeit a lot less powerful). Some people stand tall while others either break and adapt to survive, does not matter what race, but sometimes, bad situations can call for bad solutions. Kang Je-Gyu wanted to say something about the strong human spirit, for good or ill, and how one’s journey can make one find his true self.
While I liked the way the direction had structured the film’s storyline to fit its powerful message, the screenplay may have some rough spots as I thought the film could have done have been paced a little tighter. I found the Shirai (played by Fan Bingbing) character to be a little unnecessary, her role was limited for a short while only to display the Japanese army’s abusive behavior. I also thought that Kang came dangerously close in rendering the film in becoming too melodramatic, as I felt that some scenes may have almost reduced our two male lead characters into cry babies; I mean I am all for emotional content but some parts were a little too heavy-handed. I understood what it was trying to do, but the film did have some minor transitional issues. I do have to give credit where credit is due, this film did its best to appear authentic, as the Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian and German languages all played a part in its dialogue.
For a war film, “My Way” can be incredibly brutal and bloody. There are a lot of epic battles to be seen in this Korean film and you can tell that the filmmakers spared no expense in the production of this film. The fighting and the horror of war was exquisitely depicted. You see limbs blown off and crushed, bodies burned and blown to pieces. Kang’s direction stayed within the realms of realism most of the time, and kept things restrained from becoming outrageous. The set pieces were nice (the Gulag scenes were great) and the costumes were accurate. For a war movie, it had some great cinematography and special effects were an improvement from “Tae Guk Gi”; but not in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” or Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” levels but certainly matching other war films of this kind (better than “Windtalkers“). I did see the direction struggling in some areas of the battle scenes. It can be hard to tell what was going on at times, and the battles can seem redundant. Kang also went for more showmanship than historical accuracy in the film’s final battle scene that portrayed the events of Normandy.
“My Way” may not be as effective as a war film but it sure was a fine exercise in a drama about the human condition. It is a well-made film with fantastic production values. There were times that I thought Kang overreached a little, and he came dangerously close in failing because of the film’s ambitious screenplay. The direction did get a little shaky and a bit episodic as it tried covering so many significant events in a 140 minute film. Kang Je-gyu managed to keep his footing through it all, and despite the film’s minor flaws, “My Way” is a fine, potent, human drama that was able to engage with a compelling story.