Story: It is the year 1980. Taxi driver Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyeong) struggles to make ends meet for him and his
brother for them to lead a normal life. His brother Jin-woo (Lee Joon-ki) is supposed to go to law school some
day, and therefore Min-woo's wishes always take a backseat in favor of his brother's future. The only other interest
he has is towards nurse Shin-ae (Lee Yo-won), who he tries to win over despite his shy nature.
At the same time the streets of Gwangju are filled with students protesting against the new commencing military rule by Chun Doo-hwan. They demand a democratic government. Soon, the town is full of soldiers bludgeoning the students in a very brutal way. However, just at the time the students think to have won, the soldiers open fire. Suddenly, chaos and violence roam the streets of Gwangju. Many students and innocent bypassers are shot down. In the middle of this caldron of violence are Min-woo, Shin-ae and Jin-woo. Lead by a ex-military captain (Ahn Seong-gi) the protestants also take up arms in order to defend themselves. One of the darkest chapters of Korean history begins...
Review: "May 18" is supposed to show and educate Korea's younger generation about what exactly happened in the year
1980 at student demonstrations against a new military regime in Gwangju. The way things are depicted in this film make
the event seem like Korea's very own Tiananmen-massacre. The pictures are shocking and will make you speechless.
Even though the film gets quite some credit for this achievement, it soon loses some of its laurels again, as "May 18"
sadly isn't really correct concerning historical facts. When watching the movie I wasn't aware of this, but after
reading some background information I realized that director Kim Ji-hun took some liberties when it came to the
depiction of the story. In the end this means that he can't succeed in his goal to educate young Koreans, simply
because of the fact that the events shown didn't really happen that way. That gives this otherwise quite respectable
work a bitter aftertaste. And unfortunately, it doesn't stop there as "May 18" deals with the material it works with in a
perfunctory way, which the topic simply doesn't deserve, and because it builds in too much romantic drama in its story.
As a viewer you will have you problems with the way the soldiers and townspeople are drawn. Basically, the soldiers are the villians. Every now and then they have reservations and try to convince their superiors that it's not right what they are doing, but the next moment they stand before a crowd of protestants with guns at the ready and shot into the masses without batting an eye. And this even though they just laughed about the jester of the protestants. This really is an one-dimensional and incomprehensible picture drawn here.
Moreover, it's annoying that during the first half hour the residents are shown with their beautiful lives in bright colours. Everyone is in a happy mood, and this without a doubt only to make the massacre look more shocking and cinematically effective. "May 18" struggles with the fact that it doesn't really aim at being documentary, but instead mainly wants to be a drama of the kind we actually have seen enough already.
Therefore, the movie clearly gave away the opportunity of creating something special out of this explosive topic. Especially when taking into account the unnecessary love story, you begin to realize this fact even more. The main protagonist, who sadly is as shallow as all of the other characters in the film, falls in love with a nurse, who just happens to be the daughter of the man who is becoming the leader of the "freedom fighters" at arms. That's too contrived and can't win us over. There is nothing wrong with coming up with fictional characters, and concerning the portrayal of Min-woo's brother it makes sense to sketch the drama of that time by means of such characters in order for the emotional impact to strike the right notes, but sometimes throughout the film passes the invisible border of what's appropriate or fitting.
It gets worse thanks to incredibly cliched side characters, of whom some are almost ridiculous and seem totally out of place in the story. Lee Yo-won ("A.f.r.i.k.a", "When Romance meets Destiny") once again seems unlikely cold and emotionless, which brings up the question what so many people find so special about her?
Nevertheless, the bloody beat-downs of the protestants lead to some memorable scenes between students that gather together to demonstrate against unjustness and eventually get the support of their teachers. But all of this fades away because of a second half that looks chaotic and arbitrary. First, we get a somewhat shallow, yet appealing and conclusive introduction, but after the shoot-down of the protestants the film somehow loses its focus and never regains it. Many scenes feel like being put one after another without much thought of where the movie is heading to. Moreover, the pacing drops down on several ocassions, which becomes quite bothersome.
As already said, the pictures of the movie are quite appealing, there are some impressive masses of protestants seen on screen, but somehow we can't believe that this is all happening in the year 1980. Simply because everything "looks" like 2007. Nonetheless, the visuals aren't the true problem of "May 18". Cliched characters, artificially, dramatically constructed moments and TV-drama-like relationships between the different individuals leave no doubt that director Kim Ji-hun worked only at the surface of the topic.
As a movie "May 18" is quite entertaining, even if it phases down towards the end. Also, the shocking depiction of the shooting of the protestants is emotionally disturbing. But when you know that the director took some inexcusable liberties - he depicts the shooting of the students in an overdramatic manner as he lets the protestants sing the national hymne before the deadly bullets hit them - the end product just has to be described as disappointing. "May 18" is too much of a Korean drama and works only at the surface of this very gruesome event in Korean history. It would have been great to get to know more about the political circumstances, affairs etc., but instead we are presented with heroic deaths and tear-jerking farewells. The Gwangju-massacre is a sensitive issue, that would have deserved better than being wrapped-up in such a blockbuster-like manner. Being the first film that fully focused on depicting the events of that time, the moviemakers efforts should had been bigger. The Korean series "Sandglass" from the year 1995 is said to do the topic more justice. If you don't have the time to watch that show or can't get your hands on it, you can try "May 18". But then it would be good if you could see it more as an appetizer for delving deeper into the materia later on on your own, than an actual lesson in Korean history.