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Where EAST meets the Northwest

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #8 (February 21, 2006), page 16.

The deadly effects of a divided country

The Coast Guard

Directed by Kim Ki-duk
Produced by Seung-jae Lee
Distributed by Tartan Video, 2005
DVD, 94 minutes, $24.99

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

International coverage of the divide between North and South Korea focuses largely on the demilitarized zone, the heavily guarded 2.5-mile-wide strip of land separating the two countries, but there is another border: the coastline. Along the entire South Korean coast, border guards maintain a constant vigilance against the infiltration of North Korean spies, unhesitatingly shooting nighttime intruders. Kim Ki-duk’s latest film, The Coast Guard, tells the story of one such occurrence and its harrowing effects on the lives of everyone involved, a story that becomes a political statement against the policies enforcing this divided nation.

While his fellow coast guard soldiers hope never to encounter a spy, Private Kang Hang-chul (Jang Dong-kun) longs for the opportunity to kill an enemy of South Korea, an act which would earn him both a military discharge and lifetime honors. Like the guy from high school ROTC who took things a little too seriously, Kang alone applies camouflage makeup before night patrol, watching the beach unblinkingly for his chance at glory. One night, a group of locals mocks Kang for guarding against a non-existent enemy, and Kang threatens to kill any of them if he spots them trespassing. The combination of temptation and Kang’s dare becomes too much for one of the couples to resist; under the influence of alcohol and lust, they flaunt the posted warnings and sneak onto the beach that night.

Though the couple has only passion in mind, Kang spots the moving bodies in his scope and guns the man down. The woman, Mi-yeong (Ji-a Park), is understandably traumatized, surrounded by the remains of her lover; Private Kang is also horrified at his mistake. In spite of the victim’s innocence, the military gives Kang a commendation and a week’s leave, even as the victim’s mother and friends shout insults from beyond the compound’s fence.

While on leave, Kang feels less and less like a hero, growing more depressed and despondent with each passing day. In the meantime, Mi-yeong has utterly lost her mind, and begins prowling around the coast guard compound, believing each of the soldiers to be her slain lover. Kang’s behavior becomes more erratic upon his return to his unit, leading to his discharge from the coast guard. He still thinks he’s a soldier, however, and becomes a dangerous nuisance to his former comrades-in-arms as he tries to return to his guard duties.

Kang and Mi-yeong follow a parallel spiral into insanity, as the effects of Kang’s mistake ripple out to his fellow soldiers and the local community, claiming more victims and creating havoc in the coast guard compound. Park’s performance as the insane, Ophelia-like Mi-yeong is utterly believable, though her transformation into dementia is almost immediate. Jang is equally effective as Private Kang undergoes a slower, more tortured mental deterioration, his dreams of military success twisting into psychological nightmares. The movie is further bolstered by strong performances from Kim Jeong-hak as Private Kim, Kang’s only friend and ally, and Jye-jin Yu as Mi-yeong’s brother, Cheol-gu.

Kim Ki-duk does not exercise the subtle skills and atmospherics he displayed in such earlier films as Samaritan Girl, however, and the movie at times seems as nuanced as a brick thrown through a window. His sometimes brutal, never understated stance may make the film hard to watch for some, though the gore and violence only rarely seem gratuitous. The Coast Guard’s biggest flaw may be its surfeit of ambition, alternately feeling like a horror movie, a military drama, a psychological exploration, or a political allegory. This creates an unevenness in tone, and a film that is at first fairly plausible begins to strain credulity as it progresses. As an example, in an atmosphere of violent military discipline — officers are routinely beaten and their lives threatened for mistakes — Kang’s clearly disturbed and dangerous presence is tolerated without consequence.

This excess of ambition comes from Kim’s desire to show the widespread self-destructive effects of a divided Korea, but — as often happens in a piece with didactic intentions — Kim’s message comes through so well that it dwarfs the other elements of the film. Grand, sweeping gestures are appropriate to his purposes, but the characters wallow in their misery, and the catastrophic consequences feel overblown. While The Coast Guard is still an engaging, enjoyable film with much to say about the effects of a divided Korea, its artistic achievements do not match the subtlety and grace of Kim Ki-duk’s prior works.

The Coast Guard is now available on DVD. To learn more about Tartan’s Asian film offerings, visit <www.tartanfilmsusa.com>.