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Original Title:

South Korea 2003

Action, Drama

Kang Woo-suk

Sol Kyung-gu
Jeong Jae-yeong
Ahn Sung-kee
Heo Joon-ho
Im Won-hee
Kang Seong-jin
Lim Won-hui
Lee Jeong-heon
Kang Shin-il
Kim Kang-woo
Jeong Yu-mi
Jeong Gi-seong

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Story: It's the year 1968. Along with 30 other death-row candidates Kang In-chan (Sol Kyung-gu) gets recruted by the commander of a special unit (Ahn Sung-kee). This very unit is trained as a countermeasure to a unit recently sent by the northKorean government to assassinate the southKorean president. These soldiers trained under top secret conditions on the island Silmido are soon to be dispatched to North Korea to kill president Kim Il-sung. Kang doesn't only have to proof his worth to his country but also to himself as his father fled to North Korea when Kang was still a child which is why he himself gets treated like a communist. However, before he can go on this suicide mission along with his brothers-in-arms, among them hot-headed Sang-pil (Jeong Jae-yeong), he has to undergo a harsh training that not every soldier passes alive. But when the unit finally is about to fulfill their final duty their mission gets canceled. The political situation is now defused so that North and South Korea are having peaceful negotiations again. In the light of the new political development there seems to be no room for the secret military unit of the island Silmido so that Kang and his comrades don't just have to fight for keeping their identity, but also for their lives...

Review: "Silmido" has been a gigantic movie project, at least for Korean standards. With production costs of 8 million dollar there were quite some risks involved in the making. But a large-scale marketing camapaign made the film even surpass the producers' expectations. The feedback of the audience was enormous and the film made a record sum at the box-office. In fact, "Silmido" is in some respects even superior to "Taegukgi" which doesn't mean, though, that the movie doesn't have its share of problems. Director Kang Woo-suk ("Public Enemy") truely delivers entertaining popcorn entertainment, but he also centers his film around a true core which doesn't only add a good portion of drama to the movie, but also claims historical authenticity. Latter, however, is something you can't find in a movie that presents you with details which were obviously the creation of the writers' artistic freedom. Therefore, the actual problem is that Kang's attempt to go into two directions with "Silmido" doesn't really work out. Nonetheless, apart from that this is high quality cinema.

All in all "Silmido" is simply more epic in scale than your usual Korean action film. That already becomes apparent when you look at the locations the movie was shot, e.g. Malta or New Zealand. The film is based on the true happening that in the year 1968 a killer special unit consisting of death-row candidates was trained on the isle Silmido. Under inhumane conditions, which the movie also depicts in a sometimes brutal fashion, the army's aim was to create the perfect soldier, resp. the perfect killing machine.
A flaw of the movie is that it is not easily accessible for international audiences for the reason alone that the characters all look the same in their uniforms. The unexperienced viewer will easily mistake Sol Kyung-gu with one of the other soldiers. This also doesn't aid giving the characters more individuality which is where "Silmido" has some serious issues, anyway. No one really manages to stand out and those who actually do are the drillmasters, played by Ahn Sung-kee ("Musa", "A Battle of Wits") and Heo Joon-ho.

However, it's really hard to have sympathy for the instructors, because even though they apparently grow fond of the recruts, eventually, they are also the ones who are especially unforgiving in training them which is also why not everyone happens to come out of this training alive. Still, it's also the same when it comes to the soldiers. Some of them are hot-tempered, others at some point lose their nerves and sometimes it also shows through that these characters are in fact former criminals. Therefore one of the actually more likeable characters rapes a nurse, eventually. Unfortunately, Sol Kyung-gu ("Peppermint Candy", "Rikidozan") also doesn't succeed to give his character more depth. The script seemingly hasn't fleshed out the individuals, but only the military unit as a whole. Thus, it's naturally hard for the viewer to really care about the characters, even the more as they as already said are rather ambivalent when it comes to their attitude. Of course, this also leads to the fact that the drama doesn't show to advantage the way it was apparently intended. The fact that the soldiers get lost in an identity crisis when they get the notice of the disbandment of their unit also does only come across as a sidenote.

"Silmido" is full of patriotic dialogues and the mood, which is also created thanks to the fitting soundtrack, can even be somewhat of an overkill at times. But the intention behind these scenes is righteous. That is because the film is about North against South Korea in the end, and by letting the troop fight against their own men the director draws a picture that hits the nail right on the head: Koreans kill Koreans. Be it those of the north or the south. In this light the singing of the national anthem gets a somewhat different note to it and doesn't seem so patriotic anymore.
What's also well done is the contrasting juxtaposition of miltary and governmental machinery. Politicians soon don't care anymore about what the predecessors made when a change in staff has taken place and suddenly there is a completely new agenda on paper where such a highly trained unit like those around Kang In-chan doesn't has a place in anymore. Especially during the end, the director stresses with well composed last shots that policy claimed not only many victims in the North/South Korea conflict, but also made many of them vanish into oblivion.

Concerning the movie's presentation Kang Woo-suk seems to orientate himself by Michael Bay movies. The bombastic and very well done soundtrack reminds you of Hans Zimmer and his work for "The Rock" and that's also what makes this film so entertaining and captivating all of the time. However, behind all the action there is actually a message that you should by no means talk down. Unit 684 is no made-up stuff and also the fact that seven of the recruts died during the gruesome training is no lie at all. All in all the outer frame sticks pretty close to the facts which is why "Silmido" is a reminder of a sad chapter of South Korea's history. As the movie thankfully refrains from using unnecessary hero pathos it also doesn't have to struggle with the same problems as "Taegukgi". The only thing that lessens the quality of "Silmido" is the fact that the mix of action and drama never really works out that well and that the character development leaves a lot to be desired. Apart from that "Silmido" is a very well done film whose subject gives it a right to exist beyond its entertainment value as an action movie.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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