Young naïve farmhand Jang-goon (played by Maeng Se-chang) is sent to war. While Jang-goon and his fellow soldiers are decked out in gear reminiscent of the Korean War and frequently watch planes fly overheard, there's also the occasional moment where we see a giant blue beautiful planet hanging in the sky. This sort of begs the question- in a film environment where Korean War stories are considered relevant and cutting edge, why did director Kim Jae-han choose to make a deliberately generic war movie?
Well, because the original stage play version of "Soldier's Mementos" also takes place in a generic not-really-fantasy world. More seriously though, "Soldier's Mementos" isn't about any individual real war. It's about all of them. That's who gets press-ganged into armies- idiots like Jang-goon who don't even know what they're fighting for. Of course it's not like anyone wants to tell Jang-goon what they're fighting for. Most of the time they take offense at the idea that anyone would even be curious.
Commanding officers constantly try to instill into the enlisted mens' minds the idea that murder of enemy forces is both just and necessary. For the most part they succeed. The film's darkest scene takes place when Jang-goon and Corporal Go (played by Ko Gun-han) are face-to-face with two enemy soldiers. We see Jang-goon take the wrong approach- the one that will allow everyone to leave alive. Corporal Go takes the right approach. Afterwards we can see that the poor young man is permanently traumatized.
Jang-goon doesn't fit in because he's too stupid to understand the logic of war. The twisted joke is that there is no logic to war, it's just people behaving in a senselessly vile and destructive because other people told them to. Jang-goon's constant lapses into daydreams, where he sees his female friend Flowey (played by Cho Hye-jung), or his Mom (played by Seo Kab-sook) are a completely rational coping mechanism. Jang-goon avoids the terror of war by emphasizing how he has a home to go back to.
The reality is that there is no home. Not literally, as far as we know. I mean that in the sense that Jang-goon is a soldier now, and if his commanding officers thought the war was going to end any time soon, they'd be saying so in order to improve the morale of the troops. The methods they resort to instead are horrible- yet all too common in this kind of environment. In the real world, pretty butterflies do not survive the war. One way or another, their spirit must be crushed into something more appropriately monstrous for the environment.
Oh, I forgot to mention, Flowey and Mom are dressed in traditional Korean clothes. This lends a very dreamy quality to Jang-goon's constant flashbacks. This lends a strong nostalgia to the proceedings, a reminder that Jang-goon's world is a simpler place. Are we really that much better off, knowing so much more than Jang-goon does? In that way Jang-goon's fate is merciful. Though inevitably tragic, Jang-goon at least manages to maintain some of his soul's purity.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Soldier's Mementos""
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