Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Battle of Jangsari: Young Courage & Sacrifice

In the Korean War, Jangsari was to Inchon roughly what Calais was to Normandy during WWII. It was a massive decoy away from the Allies’ make-or-break landing point, but in this case, flesh-and-blood Korean soldiers were dispatched to sell the illusion. Even for seasoned troops, it would have largely been a suicide mission, but these were primarily students in their teens with mere weeks of training under their belts. Yet, they fought tenaciously, as viewers can tell from the bloody campaign dramatized in Kwak Kyung-taek’s Battle of Jangsari, which opens this Friday in New York.

American forces are barely holding the line, so Colonel Stevens can ill afford to send reinforcements to assist the Jangsari landing. At least he feels terrible about it, but war is war. On the other hand, his Korean counterpart appears completely unfazed. Col. Stevens will do what he can, in part because of the badgering of an American war correspondent transparently modeled after Marguerite Higgins, but they will mostly be on their own.

There were over 760-some student-soldiers at Jangsari, but we only really get to known four or five, in addition to their deeply conflicted captain. Even though he knows the commander will be set-up to be the scapegoat, Captain Lee Myung-joon volunteers to lead the mission, for the sake of the green troops. Choi Sung-pil, a refugee from the North, and Ki Ha-ryun, an emotionally abused and neglected teen from the South, initially clash violently, but mutual respect will be forged on the beaches and in the trenches. Jovial-looking Guk Man-deuk is definitely not a fighter, but he will do everything he can to protect Moon Jong-nyeo, a young woman passing for her brother, her family’s sole male heir.

You could say war is Hell in Jangsari, but it ends too quickly for so many soldiers. This is one of the grittiest, least romanticized war movies in years, but it still (rightfully and accurately) suggests the Communist North were the aggressors, while the South and their Allies were the good guys. Although it is not as entertaining as the rip-roaring Operation Chromite, it is considerably superior to even more downbeat and morally equivalent The Front Line.

Choi Min-ho and Kim Sung-cheol are both viscerally intense as Choi (Sung-pil) and Ki, respectively. The scenes in which their rivalry turns to friendship are really quite compelling. It is also quite amazing how convincingly Lee Ho-jung passes for a boy. Likewise, Jang Ji-gun radiates tragic dignity as Guk. However, Megan Fox basically just picks up a paycheck for her dozen-or-so line readings as the journalist, while CSI’s George Eads fares a bit better as the grimly realistic Col. Stevens (but Liam Neeson was much cooler in Chromite).

There is nothing glamorous about war in Jangsari. In fact, there is nothing glamorous about the film at all, besides Fox’s hair-and-makeup, but don’t mind that. Overall, this is a good, solid, technically-accomplished, and appropriately elegiac war drama. Recommended for all fans of the genre or Korean cinema in general, Battle of Jangsari opens this Friday (10/11) in New York, at the AMC Empire.