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Serving up a Korean take on “G.I. Jane” is “Republic of Korea 1%”, a comedy following a young woman’s efforts to break into the country’s elite Special Forces. Actress Lee Ah Lee (“The Legend”) is the petty officer in question stepping up to this considerable challenge, with director Jo Myung Nam (“A Bold Family”) attempting to play the scenario for a mixture of laughs, thrills and gender role commentary. With Lee as the only female soldier, the film also offers up a strong supporting cast of male rivals that includes comedian Lim Won Hee (recently in “Dachimawa Lee”) and Son Byung Ho (“Running Wild”).
The film’s title refers to the fact that only 1% of officers manage to make the Special Forces grade and become the best of the country’s best. Lee Ah Lee plays petty officer Lee Yu Mi, an attractive, driven young woman who is determined to beat the odds and overcome male chauvinism to take her place amongst the top dogs. Standing in her way is institutional prejudice, not to mention a number of guys who are willing to do anything to jump ahead of her in the race. The worst of these is a particularly nasty specimen called Jong Pal (Lim Won Hee), who reverts to all manner of cheap tricks to try and undermine her. Things seem to be going bad for Lee when she is assigned to lead the worst team in the company, forcing her to double her efforts in her fight to win respect.
It doesn’t take long to realise that despite the potentially searching subject matter, “Republic of Korea 1%” is not a film which takes itself too seriously, starting off in wacky “Police Academy” style with lots of leering close-ups of certain parts of Lee Ah Lee’s anatomy. Certainly, it’s hard to take most of the men seriously as would be special forces, given that the bulk of them are dropouts and clowns, and by grouping Lee in with them the film quickly becomes an underdog story rather than a confrontational piece about gender politics. Indeed, apart from a few vague dents to the collective male pride, it’s really neither here nor there that she is female, especially since Jong Pal is such a heel that he would clearly be scheming against anyone who got in his way. Similarly, despite the 99% male cast, most of whom are frequently shirtless and conspicuously drenched in sweat or oiled up, there really isn’t much testosterone in the air.
This doesn’t matter too much, as she makes for a likeable protagonist who is easy to root for, thanks to a charismatic performance from Lee, as well as the fact that she is the only properly fleshed out character in the cast. Although it does dip into a little soul searching and redemption story territory during the middle, the film is largely driven by her admirable refusal to give up, and this gives it a suitably rousing feel, making for some definite crowd pleasing moments as lessons are learned all round. More importantly, whilst the film could be seen as missed opportunity to tackle an important issue, on the other hand it also avoids the need to make a pretty obvious point, as there hopefully aren’t likely to be too many audience members hoping that Lee will fail just to teach the women of Korea their place.
Jo’s direction is impressively cinematic, with lots of swooping panoramic shots, and the film has a Hollywood, Michael Bay-lite feel, complete with an occasionally soaring soundtrack. This allows for the gags to sit quite comfortably alongside the action, and the film is funny in a way which never really undermines its attempts to thrill. This becomes increasingly important, as Jo introduces some real threat during the third act as the final training test goes badly wrong. This is probably just as well, since the lack of any conflict had previously left the viewer wondering how it would test its characters or provide any kind of catharsis. Although driven by coincidence this sudden injection of danger works well, bringing in some action and picking up the pace. This also pulls the film to a satisfying conclusion, not only in narrative terms but also its characters, with a few emotional, though suitable developments.
Like “Republic of Korea 1%” as a whole, the ending doesn’t really say anything unexpected, though it certainly doesn’t fail to entertain. With the cast on good form and with Jo’s direction fittingly bombastic when it needs to be, the film stands as a solid, enjoyable piece of commercial cinema.
Jo Myeong-Nam (director) / Jo Myeong-Nam (screenplay)
CAST: Son Byung-Ho, Lim Won-Hie, Lee Ah-Lee