I remember looking at the film poster for "Hello Ghost" and seeing the stamp on it that read: "2010 Happy Comedy". A comedy is was, but it was also a deeply saddening tale that tickled the tear ducts. Happy tears, for sure, but it was not the emotion I was expecting to feel. Having had that experience, I now view Korean film posters with a pinch of salt in terms of how accurately they capture a film's emotive essence. "In Love and War" looks to be all cheers and chuckles but the filmmakers are definitely aiming for a specific emotional reaction from their audience outside of the it's silliness and comedic posturing.
Director Park Geon-yong's "In Love and the War" tackles the prickly topic of the Korean conflict and focuses his story in the political overlap of North and South. Two small villages and their inhabitants are victims of the incoming invasion by the North Koreans. The villagers offer little in the way of resistance and instead opt to appease the occupying forces as best they can, going so far as to compete with each other for the favour of their leader (Kim Jeong-woong played by Kim Joo-hyuk).
National loyalties are questioned in the film as Park subverts socio-political ideology, choosing to highlight the motivations and actions of individuals over any particular regime or the ideology they represent. Fitting then is the small village setting as 'big picture' politics seem to become inherently less predominant (as would be the case if perhaps Seoul or Incheon were chosen instead). There are no major strategic advantages to be gained by occupying them, only the battle for hearts and minds as the North Korean's attempt to "liberate" their southern brothers and sisters.
Amidst this occupation is an ideologically charged love triangle. Park Seol-hee (Jung Ryeo-won) is the fair maiden stuck in no man's land as control of her village fluctuates between larger powers and the lovers that represent each side. Her finance, a leader of the anti-communism youth league, is forced to flee having heard that the communist are at their gates. His sudden, and unannounced, disappearance leaves her feeling alone and a little bitter. But she finds new love through a forgotten childhood romance that emerges in the form of her new North Korean over watcher. It's all bitterly ironic, but the aims of the filmmaker are clear as he builds his own bridge between the two sides using shared history and love as his binding agent. And by the time Park Seol-hee's finance returns, with a liberating army behind him, you will no doubt have your vision blurred as to who is the knight in shinning armour and who is the invading force destroying all in their wake.
This is what "In Love and the War" does well, by personalising the conflict it avoids making huge political statements about the ideological righteousness of each side. If anything the film manages to strum a sympathetic cord for the North, its people, and their ideals. Although the film doesn't dive to deep into the benefits of communism, there is definitely an argument for some of its ideals within the film. Consider, for example, the inter-village conflict that stems from the air-raid shelter they are instructed to construct. Each village is ask to present their case for why the vital air-raid shelter should be built in their village. At first, each village attempts to outdo the other with persuasive attempts designed to superficially sway rather than legitimately justify their own village being the most suitable. Here we can see the cogs of democracy as work as each village is given a fair chance to succeed while still, in essence, competing with each other. But once the beginning digging the shelter, they put their differences aside in favour of the 'greater good' that they have both come to realise. Both villiagers decided that it would be in their best interest to ensure that the air-raid takes as long as possible to complete. But, however, the incomplete shelter causes the villagers to be unprotected from the bombing that follows. Death results and continues all the way the film's climax as the villages are herded into the ditch they collectively dug awaiting to be slaughtered by the North Korean general. From scenes like this you see how the film is an ironic affair that plays with contrasting themes and ideals. But by the time the credits begin to roll you might be left almost numb to the message within having been primed with an ill-serving cocktail of comedy and empathy.
"In Love and the War" as a very entertaining film whose cast pulled off the humour well, while still bearing a likeableness that was hard to ever discard. Despite this the film just miss the mark in Act III. Its final scene was rendered too hastily and it seemed to be the destination the film wasn't actually leading towards, at least on an emotional level. Thematically it made sense, but emotionally it lacked a bit of tack as it thrust a pseudo-nihilistic endpoint on the audience. "In Love and War" had some truly great and hilarious moments, showing off Korean comedy for all to see and enjoy. It is a politically minded film that almost seems to hush the ideological elephant in the room. Unfortunately though, when the lights are turned back on, you might find that same elephant blocking the way out.
-C.J. Wheeler (Chriscjw@gmail.com)
Available on DVD from YESASIA
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "In Love and the War": Cross-border Love and an Elephant. "
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