Judge Joel Pearce is always ready to review a film by Korean director Kim Ki-duk.
"You'll be commemorated for killing a spy, and be specially discharged. You'll be honored for the rest of your life. But if you miss one, you'll bring disgrace to your life forever."—The Unit Commander
Never satisfied with the status quo, Kim Ki-duk has added yet another weapon to his arsenal: social commentary. Although The Coast Guard doesn't entirely work on those terms, it's yet another harrowing film from the black sheep of Korean directors.
Facts of the Case
In South Korea, all men are still required to have three years of military service. A large percentage of the military is used to patrol the coast of the Korean peninsula, guarding the it from North Korean spies. This continues, even though it's been confirmed that no spies have tried to enter since the year 2000. Still, every soldier's dream is to kill a spy sneaking in across the beach.
Private Kang (Jang Dong-gun, Taegukgi) is the most enthusiastic soldier in his unit, obsessed with nailing a spy for himself. He's a bit too hasty one night, gunning down a young local man who has sneaked into the forbidden zone with his girlfriend Mi-yeong (Ji-a Park, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring). This mid-coital murder does massive psychological damage to both Kang and Mi-yeong, and blossoms into a tragedy that affects the whole military base.
If we had conscription in North America, I imagine it would be much like the picture of this unit in Korea. Some young men would be excited at the chance to serve their country, relishing the opportunity to play with dangerous weapons and act tough around civilians. Others would be disaffected by the whole process, only present to serve their three years so they can get on with their lives. The Coast Guard is best when it focuses on the relationships between the soldiers, studying how each of them responds to the tragedy. Also interesting is the way that the commanders of the camp (who are still very low on the overall food chain) try to discipline these disaffected soldiers. Every problem has the same solution: The men are forced to suffer through physical exercises.
As with Ki-duk's other films, The Coast Guard is challenging and brilliantly constructed. The cinematography is so dark it's often hard to tell what's going on. It's no surprise that civilians are killed from time to time on the beach, as poorly trained soldiers are expected to shoot on sight in these conditions. As the characters descend into madness, the camera work also begins to fracture and break down. The beautiful green scenery gives way to bland shots of the pebble-strewn beach, and the uniforms of the characters are covered in mud. The violence is also unsettling, with several sequences that will bother many viewers.
The film is graced with two incredible performances. Few Korean actors are as consistently intense as Jang Dong-gun, and he easily demonstrates the charisma required for his role. He begins the film as the ideal young soldier, willing to train constantly for the sake of his country. His transformation after the murder rings true, starting with post-traumatic stress syndrome and quickly moving into a frightening and violent madness. Although Mi-yeong's descent into madness is similar, it takes a sexual form instead. She immediately breaks completely with reality, beginning to offer her body to the other soldiers on the base. It's almost as though the two characters become trapped in the moment of the murder. Kang is doomed to remain a murderer, and Mi-yeong becomes a siren, forever luring men to danger with her body.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the serious political and social approach in the first half of the film erodes in the second half. Ki-duk says The Coast Guard is an exploration of the tragedy of divided Korea, but its second half is so completely implausible that it damages some of the impact. The situation is unfair for these young men, thrust into a conflict for which they aren't prepared. Surely, sometimes civilians get caught in the crossfire. So much in the second half is highly symbolic, though, making the film harder to believe as a documentary-style exposé of the failure of the Korean military system.
Kim Ki-duk also seems to be up to some of his less appealing old tricks. While Kang's insanity is plausible and intelligently handled, Mi-yeong is little more than a temptress. She begins like Eve, drawing her lover into destruction, then quickly turns into Ophelia with her sexually-charged inability to discern between the men she meets. Ki-duk's more recent films have had some interesting and thoughtful female characters, but this role is pretty thankless and shallow. The Coast Guard isn't as viciously misogynistic as The Isle or Bad Guy, but it isn't going to win any gender sensitivity awards.
As always, Tartan Video has delivered a fantastic DVD. They have tapped Kim Ki-duk for an exclusive introduction to the film and interview, both aimed at contextualizing the film for an American audience. He feels it's an important film, considering America's recent enthusiasm for military efforts, that warns about what can happen when populations are dragged into military conflicts. He has also provided a commentary track for the film, joined by Jang Dong-gun. It's a good track, and speaks volumes about Ki-duk's quick and dirty directing style. The disc also contains a music video and some promotional materials.
The transfer is excellent as well. Some scenes of The Coast Guard are razor sharp, while others are quite fuzzy. This is clearly due to the quality of the print, though, not the transfer to DVD. Many of the scenes are almost too dark to tell what's happening, but it's a creative choice that works well in this particular case. The black levels are inky and rich, with enough shadow detail to make out important characters. The sound is serviceable but unremarkable, whether you go with the DTS or Dolby 5.1 tracks.
Thanks to an increasingly strange second half, The Coast Guard is not the brilliant social statement that Kim Ki-duk wanted it to be. It is, however, a highly symbolic descent into insanity that works as a harrowing emotional experience and yet another powerful entry into Ki-duk's increasingly diverse canon. Fans of either the controversial director or thoughtful war films will want to give this a spin, though few will want to add it to their collections.
Kim Ki-duk is free to go, but he really ought to stick to what he does best.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Commentary Track
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