Monday, 20 February 2012

'My Way' Berlinale (Panorama) review:

It's bombastic and occasionally very silly - a tonal mess of genres and styles, which switches between slapstick comedy moments and bloody massacres without pause. Yet South Korean WWII movie 'Mai-Wei' (or 'My Way') is not only entirely entertaining but also quite brave and, if you can look beyond the CGI-fuelled excess, even fairly profound. It follows two marathon runners, lifelong rivals and occasional friends - one Japanese and one Korean - as they are enveloped by a war that will take them across the world on an all-star tour of man's darkest hour.

The spoiler-adverse should turn away now, but what's great about Kang Je-kyu's epic is the way it fundamentally rejects the wisdom of nationalism. It begins with our heroes separated by Korea's war against Japanese occupation and then by segregation within the Japanese army, as they fight together against the Soviets. Taken prisoner by the Soviets, the duo are then forced to fight in the Red Army against the Nazis. Then, you guessed it, they are captured and (recognised as Japanese allies) pressed into the German army to fight the Americans on the beaches of Normandy (giving us a rare looking at the D-day landings from the perspective of German soldiers).

That every army we see is forcing their men to fight, shooting those who run away in battle, suggests not only a commonality between those fighting in war, but also that the low-ranking soldier is a pawn in a much bigger game. That it doesn't ultimately matter who they are fighting for and who they are shooting is a challenge to the very idea of nation states. This is a point reinforced by the ending in which the surviving soldier competes in the London Olympics, appearing as the only runner whose shirt does not feature a national flag.

So there's this very important, anti-war, anti-nationalist sentiment which is entirely winning. Then there's also a crack-shot Chinese sniper woman who shoots down fighter planes with a rifle, and a guy who single handedly destroys armies of Russian tanks with nothing more than a sword. There's a romance sub-plot, a survival in the Siberian wilderness bit, an unflinching glimpse at the horrors of a Soviet prisoner of war camp, buckets of gore, and also a game of beach football between loveable Nazi soldiers. It's a pretty sprawling, occasionally mad, film but an honourable and thoroughly enjoyable one.

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