I don’t usually get into war movies, but I usually really like Korean films. There’s kind of a dichotomy there, because there are a lot of Korean war movies (many of which are about the Korean War, but others are simply war movies created by Korean filmmakers). Some of them, like J.S.A. and Tae Guk Gi, are phenomenal, but others like The Front Line (which was inexplicably South Korea’s submission for best foreign film last year) are underwhelming. Fortunately, while I would have preferred My Way to be a little shorter, it turned out to be one of the good ones.
The film opens in the 1920s, at a time when Korea was a colony of the Japanese Empire rather than an independent nation, and certainly before it was split into two countries. The Japanese living there (primarily as representatives of the imperial government) saw the Koreans as a lesser class of people, but they still mostly got along. Jun-shik Kim (played by Dong-gun Jang, who was also in Tae Guk Gi) was just a boy at the time, and he loved running. He was the fastest around, and had aspirations of one day running in an Olympic marathon. But when Tetsuo Hasegawa moved into the village with his father, Jun-shik found that he had some real competition. Over the years while they were growing up, they kept running against each other, and each repeatedly lost and reclaimed the honor of the village running champion.
As the years passed and the risk of another world war began to rise, there was also a rise in tension between the Japanese and Koreans. In Jun-shik’s village, this tension came to a head when war was imminent and Jun-shik emerged the victor after a close race for Olympic eligibility, only to be unfairly disqualified by the Japanese race officials. The Koreans began to riot, and after the dust settled, all Korean men involved in the fight were ordered to fight alongside the Japanese in the war. This included Jun-shik, and he found himself assigned as a subordinate of Tetsuo, who quickly acquired a reputation as a merciless taskmaster with little regard for the well-being of his underlings.
Although it’s probably an unusual comparison, My Way reminds me a bit of War Horse. Clearly all the main characters are human rather than equine, but there are actually a number of similarities between plots. But where I strongly disliked War Horse (because of a protagonist that didn’t do anything beyond self-preservation, and nothing at all that would be considered heroic), it worked better in My Way because of the humanity of those involved and their ability to make choices beyond themselves. The lines of “good” and “bad” weren’t always clear, particularly from the perspective of an American, but that helps underscore the reality of war.
What really sold the film to me was the way that it ended. Because of the way the story is told, you’ve got an idea how things are going to turn out, but it’s the way the pieces are put together, along with additional revelations, that really make things come together. Some may consider the ending to be a little too mainstream, but it worked for me. And since it’s based on a true story, it’s hard to call it out on something that actually happened.