Seen in Jeonju

Five Marines (1961)

23rd June 2013

Five Marines– Director Kim Ki-duk (1)– starring: Shin Yeong-gyun, Choi Moo-ryong, Hwang Hae, Kwak Gyu-seok and Park No-shik. Running Time: 118 minutes.
five marines 1961 Last night I had the chance to watch this classic war movie and I could not pass it up. How could I? The cast list above reads like a Who’s Who of actors from late 50s/early 60s in Korean cinema and it also included such powerhouses as Kim Seung-ho, Hwang Jeong-soon and Dok Go-seong. It was also the debut film of one of the most prolific directors of the 1960s, Kim Ki-duk. No, not the Kim Ki-duk who is directing films such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter..and Spring and Pieta. This is the original Kim Ki-duk who made 66 films in the course of his 16 year career.. and 49 of them were in a 9 year period! Of course, just because he could wrap of shooting and move on to the next project quickly does not make him a great director. In fact, most of his films are just passable with a few standout movies. His best films include Barefoot Youth (1964) and South and North (1965) while his most memorable film is probably Yonggari, Monster From the Deep (1967). However, if I were to put together a list of five or so directors who best represented Korean filmmaking in the 60s, Kim Ki-duk would certainly make that list. As I said, his films may not have been the best or most creative, but they were all relatively mainstream for the time and closely followed the trends that audiences were following or the ideals the government demanded.

The Five Marines is an example of that. It follows the feeling and structure of many World War II movies made in the west just after that war. In fact, while I was watching this film, I jotted in my notes that John Wayne would have been in it if it had been made in the west– especially in some of the more unrealistic battle scenese. Now, that note might have been a little bit unfair. I do not care for John Wayne films at all and the Five Marines is better than the majority of his films as the machismo is kept to a minimum.

Of course, there is a lot of macho posturing in this film– it is almost inevitable in this type of movie where male egos compete or chaff against being a subordinate to a higher ranking officer. But it is moderated as the film attempts to humanize each of the priniciple characters with flashbacks to their home and civilian lives. We spend the most time learning about Oh Deok-soo played by Shin Yeong-gyun. He is in the unenviable position of serving on the front lines with his father as the commanding officer–a father he feels has let him down through the years prior to the war. Deok-soo is devoted to the memory of his mother. He feels his father is not doing enough to remember her. Worse, his elder brother seems to be self-destructing by taking to drink heavily and disrespecting their deceased parent by bringing home a young woman of ill-repute on the eve of the anniversary of their mother’s death. Of course, the dynamics in the Oh family household are meant to represent the situation in Korea building up to the war with Deok-soo representing the south, his brother representing the north and their mother representing the lost Joseon Empire which ended when the Japanese took control of the pennisula in 1910 and which was the last time that Korea was a whole, independent nation.

While Shin was an excellent actor, I feel this area of the film could have been improved by using a younger man to play the role of Deok-soo. At the time of filming, Shin was 33– which of course is not old at all. However, his character Oh Deok-soo is supposed to be hurt and bitter about how his father, by his inaction in punishing his older brother, seems to favor one over the other. This level of petulance, while never pretty, is at least understandable when a person is in their teens. It is far less sympathetic when a person is in their 30s and unfortunately, I just wanted to shake him and say, “Get over it!” rather than feel any empathy with him.

Each of the characters get a home seen as well and these are possibly easier for audience member to connect to as they say goodbye to their mothers, wives and/or girlfriends prior to leaving for the war. These little snippets into their personal lives are all touching in their own ways and do well to add a little bit of depth to these characters who otherwise would just be stereotypes of different age groups of parts of society. While the seen where Kim Hong-goo (Hwang Hae) leaves his elderly mother is supposed to be the most heart-wrenching, I was most interested in the goodbye-scene given to Ha Yong-gyu (Nam Yang-il). Yong-gyu, the nicest guy on the front, states at one point that he is an orphan and has no idea where he was born. When he says goodbye to the girl he loves, their are hardly any words spoken. He calls to her outside her window on the ground floor. When she goes to the window open window, the couple just hold hands, seperated by her house. I felt it was clear that the pair were not supposed to be meeting– that possibly her parents did not approve of their daughter meeting with an orphan (not an uncommon trope in Korean films from this era) and their love was in secret. It was a successful scene because I wanted to know more.

In this type of film, where a small group of soldiers volunteer for a dangerous mission for the greater good of the rest of their fellow military men, you have to expect that some, most or all will not make it back to base. This question kept me watching until the end of the movie which went rather later into the early morning than I would have liked. But it is to the movies credit that it kept me awake and curious until the end. I would give this film a 5 our of 10 stars. It is certainly a good film and representative for its time, but keep in mind that modern audiences.. who seem to have no patience for black and white films, understated special effects and slower pacing.. will probably not appreciate this movie.

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