Blu-ray Review: My Way
Review by Marc Patterson
If you’re planning on making an epic war film centered on the devastating drama of World War II, your last name better be Hanks and your first name should be Tom. Otherwise you’re running up against a formidable force in cinema, a guy who has set the gold standard for what a proper war film should be. For the record I will accept entries from Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola. Each of them has encapsulated the hell of war with their respective entries based around a variety of American conflicts. However, when you think of World War II specifically you just can’t get past Tom Hanks’ superiority. And thus I’m faced with a challenging conundrum, a direct-to-disc (in the US) release from Korean filmmaker Kang Je-Kyu (director of Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War), a film that has been called the “most powerful war film since Saving Private Ryan”. I think that’s setting the bar a bit high, don’t you?
Let’s step back for a minute. My Way is in fact based on a true story and presents a rather riveting tale of brotherhood from a perspective not often seen by American audiences, that of the “other side”. It follows two young men who have been both friends and rivals since childhood. One is Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun), a Korean marathoner who dreams of earning a spot at the Olympics to compete for his country. Opposite him is Tatsuo (Joe Odagjri), Japan’s best young marathoner and the competitor most expected to win the gold medal. We watch these two as they grow up and compete against each other from a very young age, until their rivalry reaches a bitter and explosive peak that turns their friendship into a bitter hatred, and results in Jun-shik being forced to fight as a front line infantryman for the Japanese in the war, while Tatsuo willingly joins the upper echelons of the army, becoming a fierce and feared Colonel. Director Kang Je-Kyu is uncompromising in showing the brash racism expressed by the Japanese towards the Koreans, a county under Japanese control during that era.
We closely follow the journey these two men take as they are captured and become POWs of the Soviet Union, eventually forced to fight for them on their front lines against Germany before they are again captured by “the enemy” and forced to wear the German uniform, serving on the beaches of Normandy during the famous D-Day invasion, all the while trying to survive long enough to return home as free men.
My Way was an incredible tale of courage and bravery. It’s even more astounding that it’s actually true. Well, kind of. In fact the US did discover a young Korean wearing a German uniform during the invasion of D-Day. That soldier was originally forced to fight for the Japanese, the Soviets, and eventually the Germans before the Americans captured him. Kyoungjong Yang was the real soldier’s name and it’s a miracle he ever survived the ordeal. He was eventually released from a British POW camp in 1947, when he did not return to Korea, but rather immigrated to the US, where he lived out the rest of his days. You can obviously see that Je-Kyu took some broad liberties with this story to create a deep chasm of tension between Jun-shik and Tatsuo, but it works. Ultimately they must forge a deep brotherhood to prevail over the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in.
The question begs though – yes, this is an incredible story, but was it really the second coming of Saving Private Ryan? In many regards, yes, it was. The action sequences are brilliantly choreographed and shot and our two leads deliver near tear-jerking performances at times. Kang Je-Kyu is unarguably an accomplished storyteller and I found myself glued to the television as this mind-blowing tale unfolded. I honestly can’t find fault with his script in nearly any way and would be happy to go back and re-watch this again. Personally it was refreshing to experience a new perspective from a foreign point-of-view and I wish there were more filmmakers like Je-Kyu who were willing to tell their countries’ tales for the world to see. It’s important that we learn to look at history through more than just one viewpoint; this film explores clinging to one’s honor and beliefs in the face of the most fierce oppression and persecution a man could ever endure.
However, Je-Kyu’s direction faltered at several points. Most noticeably his transitions are rough and the battle scenes seemed violent to near superfluous extremes, almost as if they were constructed in an attempt to upstage the carnage of Hanks. There’s no quiet segue where we watch the troops as they move towards a beach contemplating the hell that awaits them in only a few short moments. Instead we go from a moving and dramatically illustrated backstory to being dropped into the deafening barrage of artillery and explosions without so much as half a breath taken. As the audience we are left as shell-shocked as the troops running around chaotically on screen, except as an audience member I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to feel that confused. Not to make a bigger deal around this than I should, I have to admit that these sort of minor glitches are truly quite minor and are easily overlooked by the larger, more engaging story taking place. Clearly Je-Kyu knows how to tell a tale and knows how to make his budget go as far as he can take it. All in all, this is a very impressive film and doubly so since I’m consistently vocal about how I never want to sit through a film longer than 90 minutes. Well folks, I don’t think I moved a muscle for the near two and a half hour run-time. Now that’s the real tell-all.
My Way is proof that not all war drama has to be a perfect representation of the truth. Sometimes an incredible tale is incredible no matter how it’s told and is, in fact, a better tale when told with proper embellishments. Would I rank this up there with the likes of Hanks, Malick and Coppola? Probably not, but I’d be damned if I won’t make a strong argument for why you should watch this film. No questions asked, if you’re a fan of war cinema then My Way comes highly recommended.
My Way is available July 24, 2012 on Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go USA