Here’s the heads up on the new South Korean horror film “R-Point”, a movie set during the tail end of the Vietnam War: it’s not so much as scary as it is psychologically interesting, with a heavy dose of atmosphere to help you get over the lack of horror. Not much happens in the film that will make you jump or shriek in fright, and instead the action is generated from suspense and atmosphere, two things “R-Point” has in great abundance. As such, the Vietnam War setting is mostly incidental, and you could extract the characters and place them in, say, a German bunker during World War II and you would have the British horror film “The Bunker”.
“R-Point” stars Woo-seong Kam (“Crazy Marriage” and recently “Spider Forest”) as hardnosed Lieutenant Choi Tae-in. After an incident involving a Viet Cong saboteur at a Vietnamese motel, Choi is assigned to take a platoon and journey to the isolated area of Romeo Point (or R-Point), where a platoon of South Koreans had gone missing 6 months earlier. Arriving at the designated location, Choi finds an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the graves of those who entered R-Point, but never left. Before the platoon can figure out what’s going on, they discover a shocking revelation: a man in their platoon, who they all thought was one of them, turns out to be one of the missing men they were sent to find.
It’s “got one over you” twists like the above that makes “R-Point” a very entertaining film, the kind of movie that keeps you guessing until the very end. In truth, “R-Point” is not the anti-war movie many have claim it to be, and as mentioned, its Vietnam War setting is purely incidental. If writer/director Su-chang Kong (who also wrote “Tell Me Something”) had somehow pictured his film as being in the same veins as other Vietnam anti-war film as “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”, he failed miserably. Simply put, the film just isn’t deep, or intelligent, enough to make any kind of statement.
But as a purely psychological horror movie, “R-Point” is quite good. Up front and in charge is a very stout and dependable Woo-seong Kam, whose character sports a calm demeanor and a certain way about him that will remind people of Ronald Speirs from “Band of Brothers”. It’s uncanny how Choi remains in complete control throughout the entire ordeal, even as his men come unglued. In fact, the soldiers fall apart so easily and with such swiftness that you wonder if an army consisting of Madonna, Britney Spears, and J-Lo couldn’t have done a better job staying calm. I’m pretty sure the speed with which Choi’s men falls to pieces is some kind of record in a war movie.
To no one’s surprise, the cast blurs by as a series of indistinguishable faces and singular behavior traits or background information. We get the tough Sergeant (there’s always one in every war movie), the cowardly greenhorn (again, always one in every war movie), and of course there’s the guy that keeps showing the picture of his family back home to everyone. (Want to guess if this guy is going to make it?) Not surprisingly, when soldiers start dying, the viewers will simply be calculating the bodycount. Not that it matters in films like these. In a way, the genre has become so ridiculously unoriginal that the only way to make fans sit up and take notice is to write background characters that actually stand out as individuals.
The one important element that horror fans should know is that “R-Point” is not particularly gory. In fact, it’s not very gory at all, or at least nothing that would convince you the filmmakers put very much thought into how the characters will get their comeuppance. Most of the deaths come by way of gunshot wounds, although there is a relatively small bodycount until the film’s final 15 minutes, when the soldiers start dropping like flies at each other’s hands.
It should also be mentioned that “R-Point’s” ending is more than a little derivative of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, with Choi forcing the soldiers to “prove” their identity or get shot. Also, the film’s climactic Third Act is a bit of a letdown, not to mention anti-climactic. With all the ghostly visions and supernatural happenings that have occurred up to now, all we get are soldiers standing in a room shooting at — and stabbing — each other? It’s not much of a payoff, and feels as if Kong had written himself into a corner, and had no idea how to get out of it except to make his characters pull their guns on each other. And for you Asian horror film fans out there, the answer is, Yes, they do manage to toss in a female ghost with long black hair into “R-Point”.
Of course if you approached “R-Point” as purely a vessel of supernatural entertainment, it’s quite good. The direction by Su-chang Kong gets off to a slow start, with scenes of the soldiers in Vietnam looking ridiculously tame, at least in comparison to all the other Vietnam War movies we’re used to seeing. The film has a lot of good scenes, especially during moments with the platoon in the wide-open fields in search of their missing comrades. It’s actually in broad daylight, using some clever camera tricks, that the filmmakers achieve the film’s best moments. A scene, when a character stumbles across a squad of ghost soldiers, is one of the film’s highlights, eliciting some creepy vibes without any of the cheap gimmicks one is used to from the genre.
“R-Point” is a very well done supernatural thriller, with an excellent performance by Woo-seong Kam. It’s atmospheric when it needs to be, and the visuals are quite excellent across the board. The early moments are completely devoid of ghostly entanglements, making the rest of the film all the more effective. On the negative side, Su-chang Kong could have used more subtlety when it comes to the ghost-related scenes, and it might have been a good idea not to show us the POV of the ghosts using nightvision green light. Who knew ghosts wore nightvision goggles?
Aside from some minor complaints, as well as an ending that doesn’t quite come through with the expected slam-bang payoff, “R-Point” is nevertheless still better than most of its fellow Asian ghost stories by a mile and a half. At the very least, it’s different, and taken in consideration with the current sad state of the Korean horror scene, being “different” mind as well qualify “R-Point” for top honors.
Su-chang Kong (director) / Su-chang Kong (screenplay)
CAST: Woo-seong Kam …. Choi Tae-in