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South Korea 2002


Kim Ki-duk

Jang Dong-gun
Park Ji-a
Kim Jeong-hak
Yu Hye-jin
Jeong Jin
Kim Goo-taek

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The Coast Guard

Story: Private Kang Sang-byeong (Jang Dong-gun) is stationed at the Korean coast and is ordered to prevent north-Korean spies to enter his fatherland. Kang is taking his task very serious and even practises military maneuvers during his free time. One night he discovers someone at the coast and opens fire. However, the man he sees is only someone who wanted to spend some romantic time with his girlfriend Mi-yeong (Park Ji-a). The man isn't just pierced by bullets but even blown to pieces by a grenade of Kang. The trauma this incident causes makes Mi-yeong lose her mind and go crazy so that she believes to see her boyfriend in any soldier she comes across leading her to seduce them one by one. The incident also had a certain effect on Kang, though, because the guilty conscience of having killed an innocent civilian sticks with him and he slowly dives into madness as well. Although he has been exempt from military service for a few days he can't leave his unit and is completely obsessed with catching a north-Korean spy. Gradually madness expands to the rest of the unit as well...

Review: How can you visualize the madness of war? Movies like "Taegukgi" have given an impression of that, but how exactly can you express the suffering that derives from a country being seperated? Park Chan-wook's "JSA" is a very well done drama-heavy thriller that deals exactly with this question. And of course it isn't the only one. As this subject is keeping writers busy even nowadays there are also numerous directors that are dealing with it. However, Kim Ki-duk isn't your usual director and so you have to expect of him a little different angle from which he observes this topic. A somewhat twisted angle, naturally. And Kim Ki-duk doesn't disappoint his audience when it comes to this. Unfortunately, his script is overly alienating this time so that it really becomes difficult to connect to the movie. The madness the protagonists fall victim to creates a wall between them and the viewer, among other things because their behavior isn't believable or rather comprehensible. That's a pity as "The Coast Guard" delivers some very strong and captivating scenes as well.

Problems already arise with the soldier Kang. Why is he so eager to kill a north-Korean spy? At any rate we don't get to know anything about his background and his actions are simply strange. When he has then killed a civilian by mistake he is shocked by the accident and that is the first time for the viewer that he becomes an individual to identify with. However, after that he goes crazy and despite being exempt from military service he sneaks into military ground over and over again to continue his search for a north-Korean spy. It seems to be the only thing he can still cling to. In some way you can understand that, but the way the other soldiers react to him is simply incomprehensible. In the beginning they try to reasonably argue with him to go back home but the more they understand that Kang isn't in full possession of his mind anymore the more inappropriate they behave. They even follow his military drill orders! Of course he has been their superior before the incident and he had the right to give them orders, but now that he is a civilian and has gone crazy it simply looks absurd that the soldiers follow his orders.

Jang Dong-gun ("Friend", "Taegukgi", "The Promise") plays his part outstandingly, there is always a certain kind of menace and madness to be found in his eyes. Park Ji-a, mainly to be seen in other works of Kim Ki-duk, plays the girl Mi-yeong, who has gone insane after the incident, pretty well, too. Park oftentimes plays characters like that as if she is removed from reality herself. Anyway, she is perfectly cast as the girl that is having fun with soldiers at random, because she believes to see his boyfriend in them.
Kim Ki-duk achieves to portray madness by use of certain strong pictures as well. Mi-yeong's boyfriend is riddled with bullets and after that is even blown to numerous pieces by a hand grenade. Unusually brutal for a director who normally depicts brutality on a rather more subtle level. Apart from that there are also some pictures that can be especially shocking because of their abstractness or absurdity, e.g. a soldier doing his military fighting stances with his rifle in the middle of a pedestrian area in a big city and while doing so stabbing one of the onlookers with his bayonet.

The purpose of these pictures is clear. The audience is supposed to be shaken up and sensibilized for the madness and absurdity of our, resp. Korean reality. However, "The Coast Guard" lacks additional motives of the subtle sort we usual get to see from Kim. Where is the symbolism here, where are the metaphors? Kim Ki-duk's work about a country's seperation is comparatively flimsily written and is only focused on the madness the different characters start to be taken by. One or two scenes might require a bit of interpretation, but this time the movie is actually also easily accessable to a wider audience, even the more as there are a lot more dialogues this time than we are used to hear in a Kim Ki-duk film. Moreover, we also get some insight into the everyday life of the soldiers, get to know more about the rough drill they have to endure day in day out and how they spend their free time. But all of this is only briefly touched and isn't enough to develop sympathy for any of the characters depicted.

The message Kim Ki-duk aims for in "The Coast Guard" is too obvious for a director like him and the screenplay simply doesn't offer enough to be really thought-provoking. Towards the end Kang and Mi-yeong even disappear completely from screen for a while and the focus is shifted to the soldiers who slowly start to lose their sanity as well. So the script has some serious flaws and despite its running time of merely 90 minutes the film would have offered enough space for more. At least some nice pictures can be captured by director Kim even though they mostly stand out with their usual tristesse. In the end, "The Coast Guard" lacks the originality and subtle emotional impact that we are used to get from Kim Ki-duk's works. Nonetheless, even this drama has a few moments which contents prove that Kim is actually capable of making movies far superior to this one.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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