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Director Kim Ki-duk’s (“3-Iron”) 2002 military drama, “The Coast Guard”, now out on Region 1 Blu-ray courtesy of Palisades Tartan, begins with a great deal of promise. The film starts out as a powerful, emotionally intense portrait of the casualties of war, even in a time of relative peace. As “The Coast Guard” progresses, however, the film spirals out of control, fractures into multiple stories that each distract from the other, and ultimately gets away from what made it engaging and watchable.
The South Korean Coast Guard is tasked with protecting the barbed wire covered shores of their homeland from spies from the North. To kill a spy is a high honor. You receive a nice leave from your compulsory military service, and all manner of accolades and honors. The only problem is that there haven’t been any spies to speak of in years. Most of these young men will leave the service having done battle with nothing more than horny kids who wander onto the beach for some illicit, moonlight lovin’, even though there are signs warning that anyone caught after dark will be shot as a spy.
Kang (Jang Dong-Kim, “A Warrior’s Way”) is a super gung-ho private, the kind of guy who lives for this shit, who wants nothing more than the glory of killing a spy for his country, and who slathers his face with camouflage paint despite the fact that even his superiors make fun of him for it. While his compatriots goof around and play soccer, Kang lies motionless in the tall grass surrounding the base, practicing for a surprise attack. Every moment of his life is war.
One moonlit night Kang gets his chance, or so he thinks. What his mind immediately identifies as a spy is really a drunk couple having sex on the beach. Without hesitation, Kang shoots the man from a distance, and when the wounded lover tries to crawl away into the sea, Kang blows him up with a hand grenade. Overkill, perhaps, but Kang isn’t about to let a dying potential spy out of his grasp. Kang is cleared of all wrong doing—they were trespassing after all, and this wasn’t the first time an intruder was mistaken for an enemy spy—given leave, and commended. Both Kang and Mee-yeong (Park Ji-a), the female half of the couple on the beach, begin to unravel as a result of that evening. The weight of guilt and grief is too much for their minds to handle, and they spin off into separate whirlpools of self-destruction.
This is where “The Coast Guard” is at its best, in the depiction of Kang and Mee-yeong attempting, unsuccessfully, to cope with tragedy and trauma. Kang tries to return to his life, to his civilian girlfriend and friends, only to become increasingly isolated because he no longer knows how to relate. He violently lashes out until he is discharged from service. When your entire life revolves around one thing, how do you survive when it is taken away? Under the heavy press of constant despair, Mee-yeong descends into a manic state, almost poetic, not unlike Ophelia in “Hamlet”. She sees her dead lover in every soldier, and seduces them in the bushes. The film raises questions about unchecked military power and about hyping people up, whipping them into a fever state for what is largely a perceived threat.
After this, however, is where “The Coast Guard” begins to fray and ultimately unravel completely. Part of the problem is structural, while the more resides in the story itself. Large portions of the movie focus on either Kang’s story or Mee-yeong’s. It’s fine to have parallel stories, but they aren’t balanced particularly well. For 20 minutes at a time the film ignores one or the other story. With some editing work the two threads, which are inherently connected anyway, could have been integrated, which would only have served the finished product.
Repetition is another huge issue with both stories. Kang shows up at his former base, pestering his colleagues and friends, but he does the same thing over and over again before anything actually happens. Mee-yeong’s story plays out in a similar manner. She can only do so many wacky things and throw herself at so many soldiers in the waving grass, before you’re tired of it. Kim is trying to make a point about the absurdity of the border situation in his country, and the dangers of a military that operates with complete autonomy, but the heavy-handed reiteration causes the pace to mire down and stop just when it needs to keep moving and building tension. When Kim and company try to make things ridiculous, like when Kang’s nocturnal pestering of the company results in their not being allowed to wear uniforms, thus they have to perform their duties in their skivvies, it is too ridiculous, and loses what is left of your attention. Trying to make a point, The Coast Guard teeters on the edge of silly.
The Blu-ray of “The Coast Guard” arrives full of bonus material, some previously released, though others bits are brand spanking new. Kim gives a brief introduction to his film, indicating some of the themes and his intentions. More along these lines is featured in exclusive interview with the director. There are TV spots, a couple of trailers, photo galleries, and even a music video.
The centerpieces of the extras, however, are the behind-the-scenes feature, and the audio commentary track with Kim and star Jang. The making of extra is nearly 40 minutes long, and is full to overflowing with footage from the set, pictures, stories from production, and discussion of the controversy surrounding the film. The commentary tack is fun, but is also full of good information, background, and anecdotes that illuminate “The Coast Guard”.
Kim Ki-duk (writer/director)
CAST: Jang Dong-gun…Kang
Kim Jeong-hak…Kim Sang-byeong