After taking a hokey Hollywood approach to the Korean War in “Tae Guk Gi,” writer-director Kang Je-kyu applies the same formula—interspersing lots of bombastic battle sequences with mawkishly melodramatic interludes, especially endless death scenes—to the Second World War in “My Way.” The story of two marathon runners—one Korean, the other Japanese—who play musical chairs with military uniforms in stumbling their way from China to Omaha Beach over the course of WWII, becoming unlikely friends in the process, might well have been titled “Chariots of Cliches.”
The first half-hour introduces Tatsuo Hasegawa (Joe Odagiri) and Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun) as boys during the years of Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. The former is the grandson of the military governor, the latter the son of a servant in the governor’s household. But they both love to run, and race at their first meeting. Soon they’re competitors representing their nations, exchanging victories and defeats. But the Japanese exclude Koreans from the Olympic tryouts, leading to a melodramatic episode that gains Kim a spot but results in an effort to steal his win that leads to a riot and his forced entrance into the Japanese army, then at war with the Chinese and the Soviets.
By coincidence—the first of many—Kim finds himself serving under Tatsuo, a rabid martinet who treats his childhood rival with all the cruelty he can muster. (Not that he’s any kinder to anyone else.) After a mawkish episode with a female Chinese sniper (the only woman of consequence in the whole film), there’s a big battle with Russian tank forces that turns out disastrously for the Japanese. But Tatsuo and Kim survive as prisoners and are hauled off to a Siberian work camp where they’re brutally abused for what seems an interminable period.
But just as they’re both about to be executed for instigating a riot, it’s announced that the Germans have invaded Russia, and they’re given the option of joining the Soviet army. They agree and are sent off to serve as cannon fodder in a Stalingrad-like battle. (Here, as elsewhere, the chronology is uncertain.) They survive, and wander off together to reach the German-occupied zone. And though they succeed, trudging across the mountains, they’re taken prisoner separately and—you guessed it—wind up in German uniforms. Not only that, they both wind up among the Nazi forces guarding the beach at Normandy, which is where they rediscover one another again. They’re just about to go AWOL together when the D-Day invasion occurs. In the course of it one shows the other an act of friendship so profound that the recipient feels obliged to reciprocate with a tribute that sends the heavenly choirs of Lee Dong-jun’s bombastic score into overdrive.
This utterly contrived and unbelievable scenario has exactly one basis in historical fact—there was, as an archival photo shows, a Korean captured in a German uniform during the action on the Normandy beaches. Everything else in “My Way” is sheer fiction, and ridiculous fiction at that. But Kang plays it for all it’s worth, obviously exulting in staging the numerous battle sequences and unafraid to drench every maudlin episode—especially the scenes of characters expiring ever so slowly—in shameless sentiment. (Much of the dialogue consists of characters endlessly shouting out one another’s names. It’s always “Kim Jun-shik!” rather than some shortened form.) His handling of the cast is primitive in the extreme, with the result that both Jang and Odagiri give unmodulated performances, the former blandly unemotive and the latter—like all the Japanese—a hissing sadist (until the last act, of course). Most of the other recognizable actors serve either as stock villains or comic relief (and sometimes both). And the ending—based on the idea that the Japanese and Koreans “look alike”—is distinctly odd, given the maker’s nationality. (The sappy song over the final credit roll is an added insult.)
With its widescreen cinematography, elaborate period detail and big battle scenes, lot of money has obviously been sunk into this movie—in the 1950s it probably would have been one of the most expensive pictures ever made. Unfortunately, its script would have seemed old-fashioned even in that decade. By now it feels positively antediluvian.