Soft power helped win the Cold War. For many behind the Iron Curtain, Voice of America’s jazz DJ Willis Conover made a conclusive case for freedom with the music of swing and bop. That toe-tapping music will do it every time. For one hard-case North Korean POW, it is the tapping toes that win him over. Much to his own surprise, he joins a camp tap dancing troupe in Kang Hyoung-chul’s Swing Kids (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Rho Ki-soo is a true believer in Communism and King Kim Il-sung. His legendary brother is even fiercer. However, Ki-soo is more adept at causing havoc, guerrilla-style. That makes him particularly dangerous in a tinder box like the Geoje prison camp. Often open conflict breaks out between the pro- and anti-communist POW factions. Frankly, the large percentage of prisoners who want to stay in the South should be cause for embarrassment to the Communist cause, but instead the North has exploited the near anarchy of Geoje for propaganda purposes.
Then Rho gets a good eyeful of Sgt. M. Jackson, a Broadway hoofer in his civilian life, practicing his tap steps. Jackson is trying to mold two unlikely POWs and Yang Pan-rae, a young civilian woman from town into some kind of ensemble, on the orders of the camp commander, Gen. Roberts. The idea is to put on a show for the media during the Red Cross’s Christmas visit. As fate would dictate, Rho has tons of natural tap talent. He also craves the freedom he feels while dancing, but the inherent Americanness of tap puts him in an awkward position with his fanatical comrades.
Simply in terms of music, Swing Kids does not make a lot of sense, starting with the “swing” part, in this case, largely equating with big band jazz, which was definitely out of favor in the early 1950s. Honestly, the one person in the camp most likely to have a copy of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” featuring Gene Krupa (Jackson’s tune of choice), would be old man Roberts. (Most GIs would be listening to Frankie Laine and Doris Day.) As a hip cat, Jackson would probably be digging bop—most likely Miles Davis. Frankly, even calling themselves the “Swing Kids” sounds anachronistic.
Be that as it was, it should be clearly stipulated the dance numbers in this Swing Kids (not to be confused with the 1993 film about jazz-listening teenagers in National Socialist Germany) are surprisingly snappy and Kang and cinematographer Kim Ji-young shoot them in an especially cinematic manner. On the other hand, the film attributes outright war crimes to the American military, which is highly offensive (yes, I write as the grandson of a Korean War veteran, who helped rebuild the South Korean Marine Corps after the war). Regardless, the suggestion that an American general would order MPs to indiscriminately murder Koreans is highly problematic, to the point of libelous.
So, it is hard to say what to make of this film. Jared Grimes (one of the choreographers of After Midnight on Broadway) is really terrific as Jackson and Park Hye-soo is quite endearing as the resilient Yang. However, Do Kyung-soo’s Rho comes across as a smirky kid, who couldn’t inspire rebellion in the world’s strictest Catholic School, while Ross Kettle plays Roberts as the broadest martinet stereotype imaginable.