Whenever a great South Korean art-house hit like “Oldboy,” “The Chaser,” or “Mother” reaches the United States, American critics invariably offer a glowing assessment of that country’s “screen quota,” which legally requires theaters to play native productions for at least 73 days out of the year. This regulation has undoubtedly grown the Korean film industry and made some of the most distinctive films of the last decade possible.
What these American critics fail to realize, however, is that most bigger-budget Korean productions, which they generally do not see because the movies play in Asian-specialty venues rather than the standard art-houses, are substantially less compelling. Distributed in the U.S. by CJ Entertainment, these movies tend to be sentimental and artificially melodramatic. I thought that last year’s “GLove” and “Hello Ghost” hit new highs on the schmaltz-scale, but they’ve got nothing on the period drama “My Way.”
Billed as the most expensive film in Korean history (it cost $23 million to make), “My Way” was inspired by one of the many unbelievable true stories of World War II, but is told in a way that makes it seem like all the rest. That’s no small feat, given that its POV is not Western, following main characters of Japanese and Korean descent as they are forced to fight against the Chinese, imprisoned by the Soviets, and taken in by the Germans just in time for D-Day. But with a swelling, string-laden score and incoherent battle sequences, writer/director Je-kyu Kang clearly learned from Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.”
Like the 2001 Bay film, “My Way” is a precarious mixture of melodrama and action, but here, the two are blended together even more, making neither style enjoyable even on the most primal level. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a film this haphazardly directed being enjoyable under any assembly. It begins with protagonist Jun-shik Kim’s (Dong-gun Jang) dream of becoming an Olympic runner despite the social inconvenience of being a Korean in 1940s Japan, telling the audience how to feel with artificial musical cues and cardboard antagonists. If it were in English, the first act would qualify for the Lifetime channel.
At least the running-related material is less headache-inducing than the World War II material, which dominates “My Way.” The war scenes are incoherently constructed, with shots so short that you’re liable to miss dozens just by blinking. Given the ubiquity of “Saving Private Ryan”’s take on the beaches of Normandy, watching the same events unfold from the enemy perspective could have been fascinating. Instead, director Kang delivers a muddled mess; if if weren’t for the viewer’s knowledge of basic history, they would have no idea what the outcome of the battle was.
Not to mention, Kang’s syrupy presentation doesn’t let up during the war — we’re constantly reminded of how in-peril Jun-shik and fellow lead Tatsuo (Jô Odagiri) are. For as much screaming and anguish the scenes in the Russian prison-camp contain, they are so manipulative that the viewer doesn’t feel a lick of compassion for those being tortured.
Of course, had the performances felt more authentic and aching–rather than just machinations of a schmaltz apparatus–then they could have transcended the limitations of the material. But leads Dong-gun Jang and Jô Odagiri are blank slates — they play their characters without truly allowing the audience in. I don’t know what reminded me of “The Pianist” while watching “My Way”–certainly not the quality of the movie–but I thought a lot about how deeply I felt for Adrien Brody in that film, how humanely he was able to depict an innocent bystander ravaged by an evil regime. You never even get the slightest hint of that out of Jang and Odagiri, who are playing different characters, granted, but should do more than just say their lines correctly.
At the end of “My Way”’s 2 hour and 17 minute runtime, viewers will feel like they have been through a war — not the one depicted in the film, but the battle of enduring a work lacking in both feeling and artistic competency. Who would have guessed that this incredible story could be told in a way that completely fails to move the audience?