Directed by: Kang Je-gyu, Runtime: 137 minutes
There's a scene in My Way that shows a glimmer of hope behind it rising above the condensed ham-fisted emotion that often hampers war films. While in a prisoner-of-war camp, we see a soldier carving statues to pass the time and to remind him of his homeland, to which one of the aggressive, high-ranking generals in his regiment notices. The leader seems to embrace an outlook of futility behind this war they're caught up in, and it was enough of an expression to get that point across without anything else added. Shortly after, though, while doing labor, the soldier falls and violently smashes his head against a log in one of the film's many, many grueling acts of bloodshed, inciting other events. Brotherhood of War director Kang Je-gyu knows how to deliver furious, polished, well-intended war action -- and plenty of that can be found in this depiction of Korean and Japanese conflict leading into World War II, packaging in an intimate story of two marathon-running rivals -- but heavy-handed overexertion obscures its strengths.
My Way's foundation was inspired by the true story of a Korean soldier, Yang Kyoungjong, discovered in Normandy after D-Day, who was conscripted into the Japanese army before WWII and whose service shifted to Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany as he was captured. Kang Je-gyu's outlook on his story, which recalls vibes of Chariots of Fire, adds a stronger thematic angle: ever since they were children, two runners -- Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun), the Korean son of a commoner-farmer, and Hasegawa Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri), member of a prominent Japanese family who employs the father of his opponent -- exhibit a fierce and chronicled rivalry during the marathons of their youth, adding fuel to the conflict driven by Japan's occupation of Korea. Events change their course in life, though, where Kim Jun-shik becomes a rickshaw driver with Olympic-runner aspirations and Hasegawa Tatsuo develops fierce Japanese nationalism (and an anti-Korean attitude) that leads to military prominence. When WWII throws them into the same military regiment, their continued rivalry becomes a defining conflict as the Koreans serve under oppressive Japanese control.
Kang Je-gyu lucidly tells the marathoners' story through a clear, black-and-white perspective on the turmoils of war -- mostly from the Kim Jun-shik's vantage point -- yet his insistence on emotional button-pushing limits My Way's effectiveness by calling into question the film's genuineness. Since the man who inspired this story survived a great deal, it seems as if the script suffers from the compulsion to play up the two characters' abilities to stay alive and cross paths; Kim Jun-shik is outfitted with impenetrable plot armor as he runs from fighter planes and darts through the crumbled architecture of war-tone battlegrounds. The events surrounding the two rivals drag them together through snowy wildernesses and inside the grimy, destitute conditions of military camps, constantly and conveniently forcing their conflict to reemerge. And just as certain characters establish an emotional bond with the audience, they're often just as quickly removed in grueling "war is terrible" fashion. It's forceful and designed for bombast, and it rarely eases up.
The other side of that excess is the intensity of the battle sequences, an area where My Way succeeds despite the overkill. Kang Je-gyu, who directed a brilliant and highly-active war film with Brotherhood of War, racked up one of Korea's highest production budgets for this follow-up, and every dollar spent enhances the explosiveness; devastation on the battlefield, chest-pounding artillery rounds, pervasive blood spurting and semi-authentic planes soaring through the sky create a polished, visceral environment of anguish and tension. Gritty photography that recalls the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan captures the intensity from start to finish, reveling in a stark, near-colorless palette that drives home the already-palatable bleakness. With that, though, My Way again opts for excessive gore and brutality to drive its purpose home and sate those looking for a grueling military experience, where roughly twenty minutes of dirt-in-the-air, frantic action could've easily been cut and conveyed the same brutality, the same message, the same storytelling destination.
The overarching story detailing Kim Jun-shik and Hasegawa Tatsuo's journey, and how they play into messages of the balance of power and idealistic nationalism, does rally into a meaningful yet deflated expression once it arrives as a conclusion. No matter where he goes and for whom he fights, Kim Jun-shik continues with his marathon training to prepare for when the war's over, remaining one of the few characters that remains stalwart in Kang Je-gyu's depiction. Misguided patriotism wavers and once-innocent men become monsters in hollow, easy-to-digest fashion, yet this rickshaw driver -- despite unwillingly changing sides, having his shoes burned, and enduring the physical endurance of combat -- keeps pressing forward as a testament that war cannot contort all those in its grasp. The path that My Way sprints down to underscore its message isn't ideal, by implausibly bringing the two competing runners together and containing no down-time between explosions and oppressive emotional agendas, but it does ultimately arrive at a consequential destination. It's just a bit of a grind to get there.
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