Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MY WAY: Kang Je-kyu's remarkable canvas of pre-/during/post-World War II -- plus a short Q&A with this impressive filmmaker

Looking for a big, bold, movie-movie that you can sink your teeth 'n heart 'n mind into, one at which you can laugh and cry and care about -- and not feel gypped by the next morning? Then stick the South Korean blockbuster MY WAY on your must-see list. This one-of-a-kind historical melodrama, said to be based on true events, begins in post-World War II London, as an Asian runner wins the marathon, then flashes back to the 1930s when its two protagonists -- one Korean, the other Japanese -- were kids and sprinting competitors (below) and Korea was under the thumb of Japan.

The film, directed and co-written (with Kim Byung-in) by one one Korea's major film-makers Kang Je-kyu, shown below, follows these two boys into manhood, taking them through so many surprising & dramatic events that, were it not for the filmmaker's ability to make each event (and the people involved) real and vital, we might grow tired, bored or incred-ulous. We never do. So skillful and forward-thrusting is the arc that Kang follows, instead, we hang on for dear life. 

From the kids who race in the neighbor-hood to the young men who compete for the chance to repre-sent their respective countries in the Olympics, Japan's nasty hold over Korea is reflected in both the events of the film, as Japan holds sway over Korea through-out the first half, at least, and in the character of Tatsuo (played as an adult by an intense and blin-kered Jô Odagiri). Korea is left to the noble rendering of Jang Dong-gun (below, center), as good-guy Jun-shik.

Mr. Kang captures not just the confusion of wartime and of the battleground, but also the craziness and horror of battle, not to mention to haphazardness of it all. Viewers, just as do the participants, will hardly know where to turn for relief. But the filmmaker is every bit as good in the quiet personal moments that dot the film -- most of all those that involve a Chinese POW, played with deep ferocity by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (below).

The movie is full of action, yet all of it is to the point (no car chases/crashes here). Explosions, fire, and death by all sorts of means is ever-present and yet the movie never takes on any sense of exploitation because the human element -- as well as the director's feeling for humanity in whatever uniform -- is so insistent. Along the way our Korean hero fights for Japan and then for Russia, and probably the most wonderful of all the movie's many successes is that we root for him, and finally for the Japanese solider, too, despite all we know from our own history. This is quite an accomplishment.

The old question, Which side are you on? crops up anew with My Way, and the answer, of course, is the side that we know best, the people we care for, whoever they are. I call the film a melodrama, and it is, but it is a very good example of the genre. Most war films are melodramas, including Saving Private Ryan, but not The Thin Red Line.

Fortunately the movie is also full of ironies, most of which are not hammered home too strongly. The biggest of these is what happens, finally, to our two boys/men. When you think about, post-viewing, just who it is running in that London marathon, and what he represents, it's rather staggering.

My Way, 137 minutes, from CJ Entertainment, opens this Friday, April 20, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25, and at City Cinemas' Beekman and Village East Cinema -- as well as in New Jersey at the AMC Loews Ridgefield Park 12


Meeting with the director/co-writer of My Way -- shown again, below -- was a real treat. A quiet, seemingly self-effacing fellow, Kang Je-kyu proved a most interesting interview, aided well by a smart and energetic translator, an attractive young Korean-American woman named Angela Killoren, who works for CJ Entertainment and proved a delightful help. In the following exchange, TrustMovies' questions/comments appear in boldface, while Kang's and his translator's appear in standard or italic type.

I didn’t look you up on the IMDB until after I’d seen My Way. It was then that I realized you’d also directed Tai Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War, another movie I really loved. As I was growing up, a half-century ago, our country was involved in what we then called The Korean War, and so I was inoculated with the whole anti-Communism message of the time. As an adult, it was so interesting to see all this from such a completely different angle as in your film. And it got me to thinking, as movies often do, that our country didn’t actually level with us citizens as to what that “Korean Conflict” -- and so much else -- was really about. 

 Right! Right! (says the translator, who then chuckles). 

And then to see MY WAY, which goes back ever farther to another war, WWII, and to see it also from a completely different angle. How wonderful! As we get older -- I would like to think so, anyway -- we can begin to identify with groups and peoples that we wouldn’t have identified with when we were younger. Does that make sense to you? Both your movies very strongly made that happen for me. And I think that’s wonderful. I want to talk more about Tae Guk Gi, but let’s concentrate on My Way for now. What really impressed me was the scope of the film. Much larger, say, than Saving Private Ryan. Just huge. The other odd thing, specifically, was that it made wartime seem so confusing. It captures the confusion of combat as well as any movie I’ve seen. 

Is there a question in there?

Sorry: Let’s see if I can phrase things like a question. (I think for a moment) Well, my big question -- and because I am over 70 and you might be 15 or 20 years younger, this may be unfair – but going back to Tae Guk Gi: What would have happened if Korea had not been separated. It seems like such a waste, such a stupid -- sorry, I’m not even Korean so I have no right to judge. But it still seems like a stupid waste to me. And what has come out of it, even worse. 

 The translator asks: You mean perhaps an alternate reality? 

 Maybe. But what might have happened had Korea stayed united. (So she translates my words for the director) 

Overall, Korea as a country, has a very long history and identity. We consider our country’s history to be 4,000 or 5,000 years long. So over that extremely long period of time, I consider the 36 years spent under Japanese colonialization, and the following 60 years during which the country has been separated, as possibly the greatest tragedy in Korea’s 4- to 5,000 year history.

You can talk about the great economic success story of South Korea. But when you contrast this with the extreme hardship and the dictatorship in North Korea, it is actually even more of a tragedy: that the same people are divided and have such different destinies.

We might also talk about a dictatorship in South Korea, too. Back awhile, maybe. As I grow older I am beginning to understand that dictatorships come in lots of different guises. 

(The translator laughs again) Right, right! (She continues) Well, the South Korean government has made a lot of… has changed a lot over the years into something more Democratic. In fact we’re having a big election, the National Assembly Election, today!

 Really?! Did Mr. Kang get an absentee ballot? 

(She asks him, and they chat together for a moment. And then they laugh.) He was not able to vote because South Korea does not have an absentee ballot. But he will be there for the Presidential election.

Well, good! You said that Korea had only been separated for some 60 years. But most people alive in the world today have only been alive for 60 years, if that. So this division is the only way they know Korea – as North and South. That’s all they know about it and that’s all they think about it. This is one reason why I believe movies are so important. They can open up whole worlds to people that they didn’t know about. (Sure, they could go to a history book, but most people tend not to do this.) So movies can reach them. And show them that it was not always like this. But let me ask another question: It says somewhere in your biography that before you made Shiri, you almost gave up on moviemaking entirely. Why? 

Actually this is related to what you were saying about dictatorships. Before I started directing and shot the movie Shiri, I had been only a screen-writer. From the mid to the late 1980 -- which was the period of the military dictatorship in Korea -- every single script I submitted was rejected by the government censors. So I thought, why am I doing this, and why would I want to be doing this in a country like this?! I felt this way because of the censorship only, not because I fell out of love with film-making. Eventually, however, society changed.

And things loosened up a bit? 

In fact, the society, the social issues, the political environment, all of this of that time is very much like what China is going through right now. My friends who are Chinese filmmakers, I can relate to them, because they are in this very same fight: trying to get things made, while the government is still holding control.

Was the censorship coming at you for political reasons, for sexual reason, or what? What were you putting into the films that they didn’t like? 

Obviously there was censorship around the violence and the sexuality and all that. But on a larger scale, the major thing was: Any film that inflamed a sense of identity, or the consciousness about class, about the haves vs. the have-nots, anything that seemed to be stirring up the established social order would be censored.

Woo! It’s good that The Housemaid waited a few years before the remake.

Anything like that would be censored because it might make the people feel something like rebellion in their hearts.

Just like over here, when anything like that is brought up, the Republicans all scream – (The translator chimes in with me) Class warfare! You can't say that! 

Your movie really reminded me in some ways of Peter Weir’s film….  Damn -- now I can't remember its title, but it's about the men who escape from a Russain prison camp and walk all the way home...

Yes, I saw that movie. But I cannot remember its name, either.

That probably means that it should have had a better title… 

(The translator looks it upon the IMDB: The Way Back, she tells us.)

Yes! Thank you. Your scenes in the Russian prison camp in My Way called Weir’s film to mind.  (He nods, yes.) Your film Shiri came out around the same time as JSA, right?

No, before.

Oh -- well, when I saw JSA and then Tae Guk Gi, I began to grow very interested in Korean history. So maybe I should see Shiri

It’s available on Netflix (the translator tells me).

I might watch Tae Guk Gi again, too.

That’s also available on Netflix (translator again).

Right! That’s how I first saw it. One more question (the PR person has alerted us that time is running out): Do you think the two Koreas will unite again, in our lifetime? 

I do believe that they will be reunited. You know how good friends -- who have had a falling-out or have grown apart -- can reunite, once they overcome that. It’s been long enough. We’re the same people still, so I believe reunification will come about.

Thank you so much Director Kang, for this movie and for your other movies – and for your time today.

All photos are from the film itself -- 
except those of its director Kang Je-kyu.

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