Based on a true story of 1968 Korean Republic Army plan to assassinate North Korean president Kim Il-Sung. 31 criminals and death row inmates are recruited into secret training on the island of Silmi; for two years they are subjected to maximum mental and physical abuse before the mission is cancelled and the unit terminated.
User Reviews: This one shouldn’t be seen while feeling vulnerable.
In 1968, a group of 31 death-row prisoners were selected by the South Korean military with the intention of crafting them into a super-tough unit to slash the throat of the North’s President, in retaliation for a similar attempt by the Communist government.
The endured an unspeakably gruelling training, but became the ultimate fighting unit: no past and no worries about the fate (just as long as they don’t get captured). However, at the 11th Hour, the South Korean government altered policy and retracted the standing orders: no go on the mission. So the condemned men, ‘Unit 684’, who lived, trained and survived together were left with no purpose, and were a potential powder keg on the diplomatic level I expect you can guess what happened next.
This movie went stellar in Korea, and given the success of films like Shiri, JSA, Taegukgi and Champion I can appreciate why. This is concerned heavily with national identity, loyalty, responsibility, duty, faith and friendship. It’s also gutsy, violent and tough so much so you might end up feeling you’ve trained with the men themselves. One of the strengths of Woo-Suk Kang’s film is that it’s engaging: you feel like you evolve with the men, that you live with them. Is this isn’t brought about by any particularly subtle techniques, but by cinematic brute force. The film pummels you over the head with images of torment, crushing, bombastic Hans Zimmer-esquire music, gunfire, widescreen effects, explosions, and close-ups of bodies smashing rocks.
It’s melodramatic to the bone. OTT, posturing and hard to take seriously.
But for some reason, I was moved, and impressed. Despite it’s excesses and bombast, the film gets under your skin. The issues surrounding the country’s responsibility to the men it sentences, then entrusts with its dirty work are raised, but not properly examined, ditched in favour of loud speeches and actors being manly. But the film’s resolve to take itself absolutely seriously pays off. Despite the length and tracks of boredom that set in, director Kang’s decision to milk scenes for all their worth makes you care. And you will be moved for the men.
There is also some genuine food for thought. The film lacks the scale to examine some of its more controversial issues properly, and the villains it creates are your basic dispassionate men-in-high-places-in-suits, but the betrayal wrought on the prisoners is made more complex by the changes in some superiors’ characters, and by the ideas of bravery and cowardice that are briefly raised.
I find it slightly dispiriting that a Hollywood-like lack if complexity has seeped into some of South Korea’s film (e.g. Shiri, Tube, Taegukgi), this is an angry dog of a film, committed to the men it depicts. I’m sure major historical liberties were taken, and for Korean cinema, sample Save The Green Planet above this, but this still an accomplishment, and a tough experience.