Silmido (2003) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Jerry White) “Silmido” tries to be two things: a scathing indictment of an embarrassing footnote in Korean history, and a high-octane action blockbuster. This split personality — political treatise/money maker — creates a movie that is certainly watchable, but too inconsistent in tone to be either adrenalin pumping or emotionally captivating. The film opens in 1986, with the South Korean government conscripting a group of death row convicts into a the top-secret Silmido unit, whose sole purpose is the assassination of North Korean president Kim Il-Sung.

The first half of “Silmido” is an extended training sequence and follows the men as they train under the merciless gaze of the camp Commander, trying to endure not only physical pain but also the emotional turmoil of training camp cliché. Most of these can be categorized by montage sequences. For example: out-of-shape convicts can’t keep up with the trainers, movie time passes, now their trainers can’t keep up with them! And then there’s this: the convicts are shooting at targets and missing terribly. Look! Now they’re hitting the targets with ludicrous accuracy.

You get the picture.

The prisoners gradually shed their tough skin (actually, not too tough; they’re pretty nice for convicted felons), do the bonding thing, and completely sacrifice their individual identity for the “cause.” This is the upbeat part of the movie. By the time Assassination Day Eve arrives, the Silmido unit has been transformed into a single-minded killing machine. They’re so well trained that the Commander decides to give them the night off so they can bond as all men do, by drinking alcohol out of a gigantic jug and pretending to be women, of course.

This was a pretty boring/disturbing scene, so I amused myself by listing, in my head, the order in which the major characters would die. I figured we would be branching off into Dirty Dozen territory soon. That’s when I got a surprise. At the very last moment the mission is cancelled, but the Silmido troops are already in their boats and about to do a little suicide missioning. The Commander’s men have to threaten the assassins with gunfire in order to get them to return.

The prisoners have become more obsessed with the mission than the military. And here’s where the movie gets interesting. The now purposeless Silmido troops begin to revert back to their former ways. Training becomes lackadaisical and senseless, tempers short and dangerous. Even the commanding officers grow complacent; there is, simply put, nothing for any of them to do now that the mission, the sole purpose of their existence, has been taken away.

Things escalate until two members slip off base and rape a nurse, a scene filmed in a blas’ manner that serves to remind the audience, if just for a moment, the kind of men they may have found themselves rooting for. And it gets worse. Things have settled down on the political front, so the original purpose of the Silmido troops has come to pass. The Commander suggests to his higher ups that they assign the unit somewhere else, but the government won’t hear of it. They want the Silmido troops terminated.

This leads to one of the strangest action sequences I’ve ever seen. The two sides of the training camp — prisoners and soldiers — engage in a battle that neither side wants to happen. It’s the government that’s clearly to blame, and if we haven’t gotten it yet, there’s still another two or three epilogues left, ending in a standoff between the Silmido troops and the Korean army.

“Silmido” is not a bad movie. It’s well made, and though the characters are paper thin, the acting is quite good. Unfortunately, it can’t decide what type of movie it wants to be. “Silmido” is not realistic enough to be a convincing historical drama, nor does it have enough action to qualify as a slam-bang war flick. In the end “Silmido,” much like the men it portrays, lacks identity.

Woo-Suk Kang (director) / Hie-jae Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn
Kyung-gu Sol
Jun-ho Heo …. Sergeant Jo

Buy Silmido on DVD