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“My Way” has been one of the most eagerly anticipated Korean blockbusters for some time, marking the return of writer director Kang Je Gyu a long 7 years after his massive hit “Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War”. Inspired by a true story, the film is another war epic, following the fortunes of a Korean and a Japanese soldier, childhood marathon running rivals who end up fighting on the European battlefields of World War II. Said to be the most expensive Korean film ever made, it boasts two of Asia’s biggest stars in the lead roles, Jang Dong Gun (who also worked with the director on “Taegukgi”) and Japanese actor Odagiri Joe (“Warrior and the Wolf”), both of whom are no strangers to big budget, Pan-Asian productions. The film also has a fittingly international supporting cast, including top Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (“Bodyguards and Assassins”), Kim In Kwon (“Quick”), Lee Yeon Hee (“Hello Schoolgirl”), Cheon Ho Jin (“The Unjust”), Tsurumi Shingo (“Life Back Then”), Yamamoto Taro (“Battle Royale”), and Sano Shiro (“Hayabusa”).
Jang Dong Gun plays Jun Sik, who as a child during the Japanese occupation of Korea ends up working on the farm taken over by the family of another young boy called Tatsuo (Odagiri Joe). The two are both budding marathon runners, and quickly become rivals, their track feud culminating in a qualifying race for the Tokyo Olympics, Tatsuo being declared winner despite being beaten by Jun Sik. Riots ensue, and Jun Sik is imprisoned, being conscripted into the imperial Japanese army with the outbreak of World War II. Sent to fight the Soviets as part of the Japanese campaign in China, he is surprised to find that Tatsuo is his battalion commander, and the two end up captured and sent to Siberia. Escaping, they endure a torturous journey before being separated again, only to reunite in Normandy, forced into fighting for the Germans against the coming allied invasion.
“My Way” is nothing if not epic, with a sweeping scope that sees it filming in a variety of locations around the world (Latvia apparently standing in for Normandy and London) and packing in some stunning, spectacular landscapes and scenery. It’s very easy to believe that the film is the most expensive Korean production of all time, as it certainly gives any recent Hollywood blockbuster a run for its money, looking absolutely amazing throughout, with some jaw dropping visuals and excellent special effects. Kang Je Gyu is a director very skilled at painting on a grand canvas, and after a slow first half hour or so the film packs in the huge scale battle scenes one after the other.
It’s here that “My Way” is at its best, doing a great, shock and awe style job of recreating the chaos and deadly confusion of the battlefield, bombarding the viewer with sound and fury in frequently breathtaking fashion, and disorienting through the use of shaky camerawork. Explosive and violent, the film quite ruthlessly racks up an incalculable body count, with most of the supporting cast being cut down, emphasising the horrors of war and meaning that the film is gritty and harsh as well as thrilling.
This is probably just as well, as the film is somewhat lacking in other departments, with a script that never quite manages to do justice to the set up and source material. Although it wins points for having a central relationship based on a bond of rivalry rather than actual friendship or brotherhood, it fails to achieve the kind of powerful connection between Jun Sik and Tatsuo that would have certainly made it more moving. This is no fault of Jang Dong Gun or Odagiri Joe, both of whom are on fine form, being let down by writing which sees their characters falling back on predictable stereotypes. The supporting cast are sketchy, and while it’s fun to try and guess which poor sap will be cut down next, aside from Fan Bingbing in a brief though effective turn as a Chinese sniper, they’re a fairly nondescript bunch. The story itself is similarly a bit weak, and for the most part gets lost as a result of Kang’s decision to focus on action and mass slaughter rather than a compelling narrative.
Still, while a better script would have been welcome, this doesn’t prevent “My Way” from being a superior Korean war epic, and what it lacks in emotion or originality it makes up for with gorgeous visuals and astounding battle scenes. It’s certainly great to see Kang Je Gyu back in the director’s chair, and as he has shown in “Taegukgi”, “Shiri”, he again proves here that he is one of the country’s best helmers of grandiose, epic fare.
Je-kyu Kang (director) / Je-kyu Kang, Byung-in Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-gun Jang … Jun-shik Kim
Jô Odagiri … Tatsuo Hasegawa
Bingbing Fan … Shirai
In-kwon Kim … Lee Jong-dae