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MY WAY – The Review

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Review by David Henry

The Korean film MY WAY is an ambitious, continents-sprawling epic set against the backdrop of World War II, and simultaneously an intimate drama about two men who find themselves swept up in the tsunami of history, with their destinies intertwined. In some ways it is not unlike Ben Hur, minus the Christian elements. Filmmaker Kang Je-kyu, known in his native land as a top-notch director of action films, demonstrates an uncanny ability to juggle both of these normally disparate elements in a way that seems effortless, so that the movie feels big and small at the same time. In a way, it almost feels like three or four films playing back-to-back, or even an epic miniseries. Kang is telling a very episodic story here, one that eschews the traditional Western 3-act model of filmmaking and adapts a 4-act structure which makes the film seem longer than its 143 minute running time, but in the best way possible. My Way is always compelling and always engaging, and I honestly wouldn’t have minded if this had been 3-4 hours long.

As a Westerner, I found it fascinating to see World War II depicted from the ‘other side’, as it were, although My Way is really not about the war at all, but rather about the experiences of its two main characters, Korean marathon runner Kim Jun-shik and Japanese aristocrat and soldier Tatsuo Hasegawa. We follow them from Korea to Russia to Europe, seeing the war from the perspectives of a Japanese base, a Russian POW camp, and the German encampment at Normandy Beach.

Kang Je-kyu’s reputation as one of Korea’s top-acclaimed filmmakers is well-earned. He shows off his skills quite well with this film, assisted by a terrific ensemble of artists that have come together to communicate his vision. Cinematographer Lee Mo-gae has photographed a gorgeous-looking film that is always breathtaking to look at. At $23 million dollars, My Way is the most expensive movie ever made in Korea, and it looks like it cost twice as much. The battle scenes (of which there are plenty) look amazing, and Kang manages to communicate the chaotic nature of modern warfare while never confusing the viewer. You feel the claustrophobic bedlam of every surrounding battle and yet you never lose track of what is happening. The special effects are also top-notch, and I found that I was so immersed in the action that I couldn’t tell where the practical effects ended and the CG began. Kang wisely doesn’t dwell on his effects as if they are the story, but rather uses them to tell the story, a lesson that a few Western filmmakers could certainly stand to learn.

One Western filmmaker Kang may draw comparisons to with this film is Steven Spielberg. I expect that the battle sequences in My Way will certainly remind people of Spielberg’s own WW2 opus, Saving Private Ryan, especially as both films feature an epic depiction of the storming of Normandy Beach on D-Day (interestingly enough, while Saving Private Ryan begins with that battle, My Way ends with it). If so, the comparison will be well-earned, because Kang echoes Spielberg’s instinct for camera placement and the cause-and-effect structuring of action scenes that draw the viewer in rather than distancing or confusing them as so much of today’s films that pass for “action” are guilty of.

Kang is also helped along here by a fantastic cast. Korean leading man Jang Dong-gun plays the leading role of Kim Jun-shik, and reminds me of a young Chow Yun-Fat, bringing a similar type of brooding intensity to the role. Curiously enough, the role of Jun-shik is an anomalous one in My Way, as he is the only character who stays relatively the same throughout the war while everyone around him changes. My Way never shies away from the horrors of war, and demonstrates in a very real way how those horrors can change people, both for worse and for better. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. There is some powerful character development going on in this movie, particularly in the character of Hasegawa Tatsuo, played by Joe Odagiri, who is the other main character of My Way. Oddly enough though, while everyone else is represented in various shades of grey, Jun-shik is consistently depicted as more or less heroic. His decent humanity never really falters, unlike the other characters in the film. Could this be because he is the Korean hero in a Korean film? I admit I don’t know about Korean filmmaking to hazard a guess, but I can’t help but wonder about it, especially when the film deals with such difficult and sensitive topics of Korean history such as the Japanese occupation during World War II that serves as the setting of the film. I wonder if Kang Je-kyu (who also produced the film and co-wrote the script) felt the need to feature a consistently noble Korean hero whose dignity always remains intact?

It’s a minor complaint, though, in what turns out be a terrific film; one of the best I’ve seen in 2012. MY WAY deserves to earn a place in the pantheon of great WW2 films alongside modern classics like Saving Private Ryan. And it certainly deserves your patronage as a great movie.

4 of 5 Stars

MY WAY opens wide today, May 4th, though not in St. Louis

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