Saharial at the Terracotta Festival: My Way

My Way - Jang Dong-gun in a tight corner
My Way - Jang Dong-gun in a tight corner

My Way, directed by Kang Je-gyu (Taegukgi) and with a pan Asian cast was the selected opening night film for the Terracotta Asian Film Festival. And whilst the top class cast of Jang Dong-gun (Taegukgi, Friend), Joe Odagiri (Azumi, Shinobi) and Fan Bingbing (Shaolin, Flashpoint) sounded very promising, I had heard from some of my Korean friends that it hadn’t done so well despite its the ambition and expense taken to make it. That being said, I did enjoy Taegukgi very much and perhaps not having a too high expectation of the film would be a positive in its favour. After all, there is no worse let down than that of an over hyped film. Not for me anyway. That it was chosen for the opening film for such a cool festival was also a point or two in its favour.

It is inevitable that a war film will be compared to Taegukgi, a film that evoked tears in several of the men watching at the Korean Cultural Centre a few years ago, and of course myself (I cry at happy endings too y’know). That it had the same director will increase that tendency for comparison. The story follows the varying fortunes of marathon runners Jun-Shik and Tatsuo, whose rivalry begins from the moment they meet during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Their complex relationship continues into the Second World War when Jun-Shik has been conscripted into the Japanese army and then across occupied Europe to the common ground they find on the battlefields of Normandy.

My Way - big on battle scenes
My Way - big on battle scenes

Jang Dong-gun is a well-known name in Korean film and I had seen some of his work already: Typhoon, Taegukgi and The Coast Guard. All good films and good roles that prove his skills as an actor. I didn’t think I had seen any of Jo Odagiri’s work before, until I saw he had been in Azumi and Adrift in Tokyo. The former I had seen a while back and didn’t recall his role, and the latter which I have not yet watched and wouldn’t get time to before seeing My Way. Fan Bingbing was a name I heard in my headline gazing of Chinese Entertainment news, and glancing over her filmography I recognised some good titles, though none I had yet seen.

When it came to the acting, I think Joe Odagiri did better than Jang Dong-gun, mostly because he had been given a far more complex role and one of the more interesting characters to play. He was someone who had to fundamentally change to survive and realise how his past behaviour had affected others. Jang Dong-gun was very good in the role of Jun-Shik, but his personality had to remain constant, and I felt the character himself was a little less of a challenge to play, unlike the complicated role of the terrorist Shin he took on in Typhoon and of course that of Jin-tae in Taegukgi. Fan Bingbing’s role was short but effective and perhaps a touch too convenient but she was very believable, and it would have been nice to see more of her part in the film. It was nice, though, that the romantic angle was only a brief hint: yet another reflection of what war itself destroys.

My Way - Fan Bingbing could have done with more screen time
My Way - Fan Bingbing could have done with more screen time

I did however find it difficult to really engage emotionally in the characters, shedding only a few tears compared to the full waterworks that occur when I watch Taegukgi. I think perhaps it’s the less personal feel to the film, that the characters were already separated by politics rather than being a family torn apart by the politics of war. Taegukgi is a far more compact film in its concept and, being set during the Korean war was perhaps a subject closer to the director’s heart. My Way seems a little too broad in its scope, as though it was trying to appeal to too many people at the same time and thus losing its impact.

The battle scenes, however, were some of the best I’ve seen: the chaos, the gore, the confusion and he mindless death that war produces were so well represented. Conjuring up the confusion of battle, it was often unclear what was going on, who was shooting whom and which side had the upper hand. There were many scenes that were quite painful to watch, but as a veteran of numerous horror movies I was less squeamish than the girl sat next to me who gasped quite a few times at them.

My Way - survival in an inhospitable climate
My Way - survival in an inhospitable climate

With its sweeping range of locations and situations, the story felt a little too thinned out, and I think a better film was actually missed – for example an extended version of the time in the Russian camp. The powerplay and role reversal that occurred there was definitely the most tense part of the film and it was far more involving than the rest: the idea of survival in an inhospitable climate, the elevation of one person over another and the choices made to survive under a harsh regime. That section had a lot of potential to have been a whole feature length film and one I would have been happy to watch!

One of the minor issues I had was the missing letters and numbers in the subtitling. During one scene, Tatsuo tells them that ‘0 men’ will go on a kamikaze mission and this lack of a defining digit happened a number of times, as did the omitting of the letter ‘z’ from crazy. I’m sure at one point there was a letter missed off a destination and for some odd reason ‘because’ kept getting reduced to ‘cu’ which made comprehension a little slower and some dialogue got missed. I hope this is something they fix for the DVD. After all, if it’s the most expensive movie made in Korea, a few extra bucks checking the subtitles wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The music, written by Lee Dong Jun, was effective and well placed, suiting the mood of the scenes be it a battle or something a little more personal. I did think that the music had a familiar feel to it, and on further research found that he had written the music for the drama IRIS as well as Taegukgi among other films, the multi choral elements a common theme.

Overall, it was the stunning battle scenes and effects that really made the movie stand out, with the chaos of war and its futility, the small power battles and relationships that it encourages. It will be one in my collection at some point, and I would be keen to see more about the making of the movie than rewatching it too soon. I want to see how the shots were composed, interviews about the technical difficulties, the original footage layered up to see the final version. Perhaps that’s the VFX artist in me, who knows, but I do think it’s worth watching.

Kang Je-gyu (강제규): My Way (마이 웨이), 2011. SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Originally posted on Saharial’s blog Countingpulses.com

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