The real Kim Chang Soo, better known as Kim Koo, was a Korean resistance fighter against the Japanese Occupation. His history in the first half of the twentieth century in Korea is a long one that ends with his assassination in 1949 for being credible and well-liked in a time when popular leaders were murdered to insure the unpopular ones could maintain power. But none of that is relevant to "Man of Will", which focuses on the life of a twenty year old Chang-soo (played by Cho Jin-woong) surviving in a prison run by the evil wealthy collaborator Hyeong-sik (played by Song Seung-heon).
The main immediate problem with "Man of Will" is just the casting. Cho Jin-woong is forty years old, so I was surprised to learn that the real Kim Chang Soo died fifty years after the movie's last scene. Which leads into the next problem- "Man of Will" takes place entirely during the two years Chang-soo spends in prison. So we don't see him do any of the stuff he's actually famous for.
Confusion about proper plot focus is a constant running issue. Initially I thought "Man of Will" was going to be about injustice, but there's little context for the murder Chang-soo committed and the plot point is dropped almost immediately once he arrives in prison. Then I thought "Man of Will" was going to be basic nationalism, since we get all that exposition about how Hyeong-sik hates his poor fellow Koreans but loves his rich militaristic Japanese friends.
But then Chang-soo fosters Korean nationalism not through direct patriotic action but by teaching other prisoners how to read and write. While not an intrinsically awful storyline, this is more a feel-good plot along the lines of "Miracle in Cell No.7" than it is anything that feels grounded in the setting. It's also broken by Hyeong-sik's role as the designated villain, since he has to get mad about Chang-soo's literacy classes when logically Chang-soo is improving the quality of Hyeong-sik's labor force at no cost to him.
Really, Hyeong-sik's character is just completely unnecessary to begin with. If "Man of Will" wanted to be a movie about demoralized Korean convicts finding purpose through Chang-soo's leadership, that would actually be a perfectly good idea. It could even climax with everyone realizing that Chang-soo's nationalist ideas were the right ones all along, sowing the first seeds of resistance against the Japanese Occupation.
Unfortunately "Man of Will" is so busy with genre transitions it never gets around to giving personal stories to the many supporting cast members. Chang-soo is the only character with any kind of arc, but when his arc is learning to be a leader and inspiring people to do better things, we really do need to actually see the people inspired to do better things part of that to get much of an impact. Kim Chang Soo's life would be better material for a drama, which would have time enough to go through all the many critical subtleties that make him such an important personage in Korean history. In limited film form, the material feels wasted.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Man of Will""
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