“In Love and the War” (aka “Sleeping with the Enemy”) sees director Park Geon Yong following up his uplifting sports drama “Lifting King Kong” by tackling the always difficult subject of the Korean War. Unlike most other epics with the same theme, instead of focusing on the military conflict itself, the film chooses to depict the effects of the war on the lives of everyday people, in this case a small village whose inhabitants find themselves occupied by North Korean soldiers. The film is an ensemble piece, headlined by Kim Joo Hyuk (“My Wife Got Married”) and Jeong Ryeo Won (“Castaway on the Moon”), with a supporting cast of familiar faces including Yu Hae Jin (“The Unjust”), Kim Sang Ho (“Moby Dick”), Byun Hee Bong (“The Game”), and Shin Jung Geun.
The film begins in 1950 in peaceful rural village whose the local residents are just beginning to hear tales of the war that is slowly engulfing the country, being more concerned with the impending marriage of local beauty Seol Hee (Jeong Ryeo Won). Sadly, their planned celebrations are interrupted by North Korean troops, who set up base in the village and take over, forcing her anti-communist fiancé to flee. Led by local turncoat Baek (Kim Sang Ho), they set about trying to win over the populace, only to be met with a hostile reaction, much to the disappointment of North Korean soldier Jung Woong (Kim Joo Hyuk), who had met and fallen in love with Seol Hee some years back. Much as they had done under the Japanese, the villagers come to live with the presence of their occupiers, trying to keep them happy in order to survive. Barriers gradually break down, and Jung Woong and Seol Hee begin to rekindle their romance, through with the fortunes of war ever changing, tragedy looms on the horizon.
The film which most springs to mind when watching “In Love and the War” is the similarly themed 2005 hit “Welcome To Dongmakgol”, the two films having a great deal in common in terms of theme, look and plot. This really isn’t a bad thing by any means, and there is certainly room for more than one humanistic take on the calamity of the Korean War, especially when handled with as genuine and heartfelt a touch as it is here. Director Park does a very good job of balancing humorous subplots revolving around the everyday lives of the villagers with a history lesson about the events of the tumultuous period, and the film covers a lot of historical ground, giving it a surprisingly epic and sweeping feel. The film does have an intimate and personal feel, with everything playing out from the perspective of the villagers, and this makes for interesting viewing throughout. At times amusing and melodramatic, the film is also intelligent and realistic, showing its characters choosing and changing allegiances to stay alive, with grand concerns and the fate of the country not meaning as much as getting by day to day.
This works very well, mainly thanks to Park taking an even handed approach to politics, treating the North Korean soldiers with the same degree of humanity as the villagers, at least some of them having genuinely noble ideas. This helps to push the film beyond the usual rhetoric, and although there are villains revealed later on in the proceedings, they are on both sides of the border, and are even then generally driven by selfish rather than nationalistic aims. However, the film does get pretty harsh towards the end, with some surprising deaths and grim twists, and Park never tries to sidestep the awful reality of war, hammering home the civilian cost through executions, torture and a number of brutal scenes. Although some of these do feel at odds with the more jovial nature of some of the earlier sections of the film, they are vital in ensuring that it can still be taken seriously as a statement on the effects of the conflict on the Korean people.
It’s this balance which makes “In Love and the War” a worthy and engaging watch, both entertaining and thoughtful. While a touch melodramatic in places and painted with broad strokes, it successfully achieves its aim of portraying a group of everyday people tragically caught up in a war and events which are far beyond their control or comprehension.
Park Geon-yong (director) / Bae Se-yeong (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Joo-hyeok … Kim Jeong-woong
Jeong Ryeo-won … Park Seol-hee
Yoo Hae-jin … Jae-choon
Byeon Hee-bong … Man drom ballpark
Kim Sang-ho … Mr. Baek
Sin Jeong-geun … Bong-gi