The Korean presence in the Vietnam War has recently come to the fore, particularly through "Ode to My Father", which took a dramatic, but entertainment-focused approach to the actual events. If one was to see the real circumstances of the Koreans who fought there, though, one should look no further than "White Badge"
Based on Ahn Jeong-hyo's homonymous novel, the film revolves around Han Gi-joo, a Vietnam veteran who works for a local newspaper, writing articles about the war, while his editor is pressing him to write a book about his experiences. Eventually, the articles and the news of the book's release reach a comrade of his, Byeon, a man who suffers from a severe situation of PTSD, barely retaining his state of mind, who tries to reach Han. The pressure from the editor and the appearance of Byeon force Han to remember the war, despite his desperate efforts to forget completely.
Before we deal with the review, let me state some facts. South Korea provided the second largest contingent in support of South Vietnam, after the US. Providing what was effectively a mercenary force, South Korea earned payments from the US which kick-started her period of meteoric economic growth( source: https://londonkoreanlinks.net/2010/07/13/white-badge-korea-and-the-vietnamese-war/). However, both the war, and the rather abrupt economic boom took a toll on Koreans, particularly on the working class, who provided the main source of men for the Korean force. This last concept provides one of the many axes of the multilayered presentation of the war and its consequences in the film, as so eloquently presented in a dinner scene, where Han and his editor share the company of a man who became rich selling provisions to the army.
In order to depict the many comments of the film, Chung Ji-young implements an approach that moves in two axes, one taking place during the war, and the other in the present. The evident element of this presentation is that the second axis presents the consequences, while the first the events that instigated them. In that fashion, and regarding the war part, we witness how a group of men started with a happy-go-lucky mentality, actually being disappointed for not participating in the war, only to gradually lose their grip to reality and eventually turn into animals, as they experienced more of the real nature of war. An important factor in the process is the dehumanization of the Vietcong, which is presented in ingenious (and metaphorical) fashion, as we watch the soldiers kill a herd of water buffalos by mistake in the beginning of the film, with the same lack of remorse (the majority of them at least) as they kill soldiers and even non-combatants, later.
The ones who become animals seem to be more composed, but as the past axis progresses, we realize that their grip to reality is as thin as of the ones that could not abide by all the violence so easily or at all. This second group is chiefly presented through Byeon, who eventually becomes stupefied by the events, and particularly from the realization of what his comrades (and friends actually) have become, along with his forced participation in a series of despicable events. The worst consequences of the war (which one could say were worse for the ones that survived) are presented through his character and his truly sad, present life, with Lee Kyung-young being outstanding in his depiction of a truly broken man.
Han Gi-joo on the other hand, presents another aspect of the consequences, of people whose grip on reality is torturing them, both physically and mentally, making them pariahs in a society that seems to care very little for them, and only in terms of commercializing their memories. Han is a truly tragic figure, particularly because he tries desperately to forget about the war, although his memories are the only thing that actually allows him to survive financially. Ahn Sung-ki presents this dead-end in equally impressive fashion with Lee Kyung-young.
As stated before, Chung Ji-young includes a plethora of layers regarding the war, in a very analytical approach. In that fashion, the film deals with the role the Americans played during and after the war, the way the people who did not participate interpret the events (through Hollywood pictures, such as "The Deer hunter"), the consequences on the soldiers' relatives, and in general, the people left behind, the fact that the Vietnam war was the first televised one, and the way non-combatant Vietnamese perceived the war. Through all these layers, Chung presents a really dramatic, but actually quite realistic view on war as a concept, with the finale presenting a solution that, unfortunately, seems like the only way out.
In terms of production values, the movie is also quite good. Yoo Tong-kil's cinematography presents the events in very realistic terms, stripped of any kind of beautification due to heroics, in perfect resonance with the film's aesthetics. Through his images, one of Chung's main goals is delivered in eloquence: war does not create heroes, just victims, as depicted clearly in the final scene of the past timeline. Park Soon-deok's editing is equally good, retaining a nice enough pace and implementing the succession of the arcs in a fashion that benefits the narrative to the fullest.
"White Badge" is a great film, both in context, aesthetics and production values, while it provides one of the most sincere and thorough analyses about the Vietnam war ever to be presented on cinema.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Available on DVD from Amazon
DVD US (En Sub)
DVD US (En Sub)
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[Guest Film Review] "White Badge""
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