Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Coast Guard

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 14, 2005

Directed and written by Kim Ki-Duk/starring Jang Kun-Dong, Park Ji-a/Tartan Video

A young Korean soldier becomes unraveled after killing an innocent civilian.

The Coast Guard is one of those movies that will seriously polarize people, for reasons that may have nothing to do with the film itself. It is, after all, a staunchly anti-military film in an era that finds Americans extremely divided on such issues. Never mind that the country of origin is South Korea, and their problems have nothing to do with ours. I can just picture some politically obtuse viewers dismissing this as “liberal propaganda”, and they might not be entirely wrong. But that would be a shame, because they’ll be missing out on an effective, emotionally wrenching drama about a tragic situation in a specific place and time.

Iconoclastic filmmaker Ki-Duk has crafted yet another piece on the nature of obsession, this time centering on one Private Kang (Kun-Dong), a Korean Army soldier at a remote outpost surrounded by water on three sides. Apparently in Korea, all young males are required to serve two years in the military, and they seem to do so willingly and without hesitation. The soldiers are taught to defend their base against North Korean “spies” at all cost, despite the fact that none have showed up there in decades (and there’s no indication that their outpost contains anything the opposition would be interested in), and that killing a spy is an action worthy of the highest honor. To that end, their policy is to shoot anyone who wanders into their military zone after 7 pm, and unfortunately the base is next to a small rural town where young people occasionally get drunk and foolishly defy the large posted warning signs.

So there’s a potential disaster waiting to happen, and sure enough a young couple under the heavy influence of alcohol decide to use the base’s beach to fornicate. Kang happens to be on guard duty at the time, and unable to see clearly through his night-vision goggles, mistakes the male for a possible spy storming the beach. Kang does what he’s been trained to do, ripping bullets through the poor bastard and only sparing the female because she’s positioned in such a way that he can’t see her.

When the dust settles, the truth of the situation is revealed and the shit hits the proverbial fan. While Kang’s military cohorts praise him for doing his duty, the townspeople go apeshit (understandably) and the surviving female, Mi-yeong (Ji-a) suffers from shock initially, then slowly becomes lost in a childlike fog of obsession and insanity. For his part, Kang becomes overcome with guilt and also gradually loses his mind, eventually forcing his superiors to discharge him. But Kang and Mi-yeong both keep returning to the base, as if in a deranged search for some part of themselves they’d lost there. The other soldiers are confounded by this phenomenon, and their lack of sensitivity and understanding eventually sets the pair on the road to tragedy.

As the director himself states in his introduction to the film, Ki-Duk obviously intended The Coast Guard to be a protest of his native country’s mandatory military service. While there’s plenty of inherent criticism in the film’s portrayal of its soldiers as brainwashed automatons and their leaders as clueless morons only concerned with their own advancement in the ranks (when one soldier is killed, their commander responds by barking at his subordinate, “are you trying to ruin my career?”) I think there’s plenty of blame to go around. The townspeople seem well aware of the base’s “shoot first and ask questions later” policy, so defying that under any circumstances seems unnecessarily stupid. Even though Kang assumes all of the guilt for what he’s done, it’s hard to really blame him for simply doing what he’s supposed to do, or for being there in the first place, since he had no choice in the matter.

So it’s one of those situations where the system itself has to be at fault, and perhaps could use a serious overhaul. You don’t have to understand much about South Korean politics to see that Ki-Duk convincingly makes his case for that. Yet its characters also seem to possess a disturbing lack of understanding of the psychological effects and consequences of violence itself (when it’s clear that Kang has gone over the edge, I kept wondering, “why don’t they get him some counseling already?”). There doesn’t appear to be any thought given to such matters, even by the soldiers themselves, who seem to spend most of their time playing soccer and discussing how awesome it would be to kill a spy. Not only are they prepared for violence, they’re eagerly anticipating it – the problem is, they have no idea how to handle it once it’s happened.

One could argue that this is the case with many soldiers, no matter where they’re from or who they’re fighting for. This is where the movie hits a universal truth that transcends its country’s particular politics. Yet The Coast Guard can also be seen as a distant spiritual cousin to A History of Violence. Once violence enters these characters’ lives, justified or not, nothing is ever the same. The perpetrator and its surviving victim are both changed irrevocably, and perhaps permanently damaged. Kang simply cannot escape the enormity of what he’s done; his tragic duty becomes his defining moment, and he finds it impossible to live sanely with the consequences.

That’s ultimately why The Coast Guard possesses such unshakable power; it moves beyond the politics and concerns of the moment to demonstrate an undeniable truth. While some may find it languorous and a bit random in its storytelling methods, Ki-Duk’s particular skill lies in stripping away extraneous nonsense to get right to the emotional heart of his characters, letting their painful struggles lead the story where they will. While I generally can’t recommend his films highly enough (especially the daring and bizarre, but strangely moving Bad Guy), The Coast Guard is one that’s particularly worth seeking out, whatever your feelings on its subject may be.

***1/2 10/14/05

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