Fallen heroes – two contrasting Korean war films

by Philip Gowman on 2 July, 2009 updated 19 November, 2017

in 1945-1960 | Film reviews and comment

June last year at the KCC saw the screening of two contrasting Korean War films from the 21st century. This year we saw two contrasting films from the last century, with very different perspectives.

Lee Man-hee’s The Marines who Never returned takes a heroic look at the South Korean forces as the allied troops move north after the fall of Seoul in 1950. After an epic amphibious landing, the troops seize control of a town only recently abandoned by the communists – a few defenders remain in the village, possibly to keep the southerners from seeing evidence of an atrocity: the villagers had been herded together and slaughtered by the communists. There is one survivor, a small girl called Young-hui who is adopted by the marines as a mascot for their platoon.

Apart from this encounter with North Korean communist troops early in the film, this is the last we see of the Northerners. And we don’t see any US or UN troops either. This is a war fought by South Koreans, though there is some evidence of the UN forces: the Lucky Club, which provides drink and women for the UN troops, is off-limits to Koreans. But one night our platoon decides to pay the club a visit – funded, interestingly, by a cash prize awarded to the platoon for exceptional service. In a carefree approach which still seems to plague the Korean film industry today, Lee Man-hee was unable to find any native American speakers to play the walk-on role of the foreign soldiers handing over Christmas presents to their favourite girls at the club: the actors’ accents are not recognisable as coming from any country participating in the UN forces.

The marines bear the brunt of the Chinese offensive in late 1950. Here we see an heroic group of soldiers, resisting the Chinese armies until their ammunition runs out – not the picture you read in some of the history books. Lee Man-hee invests in a large number of extras, leading to an authentically vivid portrayal of the Chinese hordes swarming down from the mountains onto the plucky Koreans below. A Royal Ulster rifleman present at the KCC for the screening noted a point of authenticity in the film: that many of the Chinese troops were unarmed because there were not enough weapons to go around: troops in the second wave of the attack would pick up the guns from their fallen comrades in the first wave. The same veteran noted an aspect which was less true to life: the South Korean troops looked far too well-fed: in real life they were much gaunter. Our rifleman recommended Taegukgi as an authentic portrayal of the Korean war.

Jeong Ji-yeong’s Nambugun is an unusual film in looking at the war from the perspective of the communists. The film is set among a large group of North Korean partisans operating in South Korea in 1951, after the armistice negotiations have started. The army lives off the land in the hills around Jiri-san, living in accordance with strict party discipline: lovers are separated from each other if one of them can be of better service to the Cause somewhere else; and one partisan is executed by his comrades for raping a villager.

The film has little in the way of plot (it could equally be called “the partisans who never returned”), but shows the ideology of the partisans, and their loyalty to the party and to the guerrilla leader. The hardships they face in the cold of the winter, operating behind enemy lines and living off the land while avoiding the “punitive forces”, is well portrayed. Somewhat over-long, the film is nevertheless worth watching for the cinematography (impressive countryside scenes) and for its different perspective.

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