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A group of American soldiers on duty near a Korean community in the early 70s initially seems harmless; but it is soon clear that their posting has had a deep mental impact on the Koreans. One married a black American soldier and had a son, but the husband later disappeared and left mother and son (Chang-guk) to live on with a stigma attached to everything they do. The mother tries to trace her husband, who she believes has moved to America, but the letters are constantly returned. Then there is Eunok, whose eye was blinded by her brother in a shooting accident - he was copying the American soldiers. And there is Jihum, who is in love with Eunok, but cannot get close to her because she is involved with an American soldier. Will any of them be able to lead normal lives again? And will the American soldiers take away anything positive from their time in Korea?
This is one of the most bleak and relentlessly depressing films that I have ever seen - and I watch a good number of violent horror films - and I think that anyone thinking of watching it deserves to be warned. Throughout the course of the film, there is murder, rape, suicide, self-mutilation, dog-beating, arrow shooting, drug-taking and much beating up of seemingly innocent people. This is most certainly not a film for those who are not prepared; and to be honest, I don't think many of those who are prepared will come away without having been affected. Overall, it is deeply depressing and there is nothing to mitigate this - I kept hoping for something to lighten the mood or for something that could help me understand why it was so disturbing, but nothing happens.
A word about the dog-beating, which is easily the most disturbing part of the film for me and very nearly made me switch off - as it is, I looked away when dogs were being injured (it may have been done by special effects, but it looked real to me). As you may know, dog is a popular form of meat in Korea and dogs are killed on a regular basis for the purpose of being eaten. As a Westerner, this sounds horrific; however, I do think it is important to remember that it is part of Korean culture. Of course, if you don't want to watch it, you don't have to - just make sure that you are informed beforehand. Personally, even after living in China for a number of years where I'm sure I was served the odd dish of dog, I still found it very hard to take. And one scene where a dog is persuaded to masturbate a young girl is particularly obnoxious. Yes, you did read that correctly.
The plot is really quite confusing and it takes a while to get into the story. Firstly, it is difficult to work out the relationships between all the characters; I thought that Chang-guk and his mother were husband and wife to begin with. And secondly, there seems no rhyme nor reason for what is happening - it really is a hotch-potch of characters and emotions, but none of it really seems to flow properly. Once I had grasped that the film was a criticism of the American presence in Korea, it did all begin to make a lot more sense. Although this is shown mainly from the Korean side, about the effect the American presence has on local inhabitants, it does also show the effect on American soldiers, or at least one in particular. The soldier in question lives on drugs to get through his time in Korea and sees his time there as pointless, just completing exercises because he is told to. I do not know enough about the American military and their presence in Korea to comment, but it has to be said that director Kim Ki-duk has done a particularly good job of getting his point across. If it is possible to judge a film by the effect it has on its audience, then this is a truly excellent film.
The acting is mixed. Min-jung Ban, who plays Eunok, is particularly good and is one of the only characters that really develops during the course of the film. She starts off as a sullen teenager, bitter that she is forced to go through life with only one eye, but progresses into a sexually attractive girl who attracts the eye of an American soldier. Her mood swings are quite pronounced, but usually err on the side of angry and frustrated, much in line with the film. Yet, the performance is flawless and she will be the one character that I shall remember for a long time to come. Dong-kun Yang is also good as Chang-guk. He is a very angry young man, bullied by his peers for being half-black and furious for his mother for putting him in that position. But most of all, he hates his father for having left him. This is a very powerful performance and one that does attract a little sympathy - if only he hadn't constantly beat his mother up.
The actress who plays Chang-guk's mother (unnamed) does deserve a mention - Eun-jing Bang starts off in a delicate state of mind and gets slowly more delicate until she is completely mad at one point. The way the actress does it is very subtle, however, and it works very well. Less impressive is the American actor brought in to play the soldier. I imagine it wasn't all that easy to find someone to play such a role - it doesn't exactly show the best side of the American military - nevertheless, picking someone who could actually act would have been a good idea. They probably randomly picked some unsuspecting foreign student off a University campus. Whatever, the result is poor - the actor in question grossly over-exaggerates and isn't in the slightest bit convincing. Other performances are average.
One thing I usually appreciate about Korean film is the cinematography. Here, there is little that stands out, apart from the continuous bleakness - the setting is in the countryside with field after field of sandy soil and very little in the way of colour. Even the clothes are drab - none of the vivid reds and pinks that I have become used to. It does fit in incredibly well with the mood of the film, but I found it all combined to be a bit too much - some splashes of colour here and there might just have been a little bit uplifting.
There are a couple of extras. One is an introduction by the director and writer, Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle, Coast Guard, Bad Guy), in which he explains briefly his reasons for making the film (made in 2001) - basically to show the Korean and American people how wrong the presence of the American military is. The second is a continutation of this, explaining his feelings in a little more depth - the dog-beating, for example, is apparently a metaphor for the way that the Americans are treating the Koreans. Finally, there is a selection of trailers for other Asian Extreme films, such as Dumplings, Lady Vengeance and Infection.
The film is in Korean with English subtitles. They are very straight-forward to follow; at least I didn't have any problems. However, it does require a little more concentration than a film in one's own language, and the names, in particular, can be a little difficult to process, especially when they are just flashed across the screen.
I honestly don't know how to rate this film; hence three stars out of five. In some ways, I think it was extremely powerful, and is certainly one of the first films for a long time to really extract deep feelings from me. Then again, it is so disturbing and depressing that I don't know who I would actually recommend it to - I think a lot of people would be deeply upset by it. Probably those interested in Korean history will find it more interesting than most. If you do decide to watch it, at least know what you're letting yourself in for.
The DVD is available from play.com for £14.99.
Running time: 117 minutes