Even in a world of bomber fleets and atomic weapons, legends have their way of enthralling us. In South Korea, there is the mythical survivor Yang Kyoungjong, a hero in an ancient sense, whose main achievement is simply surviving World War II in service to three different armies. The story is that he started in the Imperial Japanese Army, was captured and pressed into service by the Red Army, then captured and pressed into service once again by the Wehrmacht, until finally being captured by the Americans at D-Day in Normandy. It’s a story that begs for a film.
In 2011, Kang Je-gyu made that film: My Way. Kang changed a number of things about the myth, but in doing so created a story that is perhaps even more potent. It starts in Japanese-occupied Korea, about rivals in running Kim Jun-sik (Jang Dong-gun) and Tetsuo Hanegawa (Joe Odagiri), who are both drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army to fight in China. The broad strokes of their journey mirror the original story.
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There was a time when the Korean Peninsula was divided into two dictatorships. One was communist and endures to this day. The other was capitalist and went through a tumultuous latter half of the twentieth century. Jang Hoon’s 2017 film A Taxi Driver deals with one of South Korea’s deadliest postwar upheavals: the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.
What is striking about the coming of the dictatorship, brought about by Chun Doo-hwan’s military coup in late 1979, is how quiet it seems at the start of the film. Kim Sa-bok (Song Kang-ho) is the titular taxi driver, simply trying to make enough money driving the streets of Seoul to provide a living for himself and his daughter, Eun-jeong (Yoo Eun-mi). He is an everyman, a sometimes painfully relatable character. He has no ambition to change the world or even his country. He is simple, honest — and about to have greatness thrust upon him.
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Few actions of the British Army are more infamous than the Charge of the Light Brigade, a doomed attack on the wrong Russian artillery emplacement during the Battle of Balaclava of the Crimean War. For the men under the command of Louis Nolan, it was “theirs but to do and die,” to quote Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem. It is an example of what the rich and powerful do to the poor and powerless in war: the former command and negotiate, the latter die ingloriously.
Tony Richardson brought this contrast to the silver screen in 1968 with his film The Charge of the Light Brigade. Befitting its time — it was made at a time of rising anger over America’s savage war in Vietnam — it is a bleak, cynical movie, similar to Peter Watkins’ 1964 Culloden and John Guillermin’s 1969 The Bridge at Remagen.
Britain at the time of the Crimean War is a country obsessed with class. This is made excruciatingly clear in the film, as it follows Nolan (David Hemmings) navigate the arcane structures of the British Army. He is the rare officer who earned his commission in India, rather than having bought it. (This was before the Cardwell Reforms of 1874, which abolished the sale of commissions.) Despite this, he is snubbed again and again and again, for reasons that are silly at best and incomprehensible at worst.
When it gets to the fateful battle at Balaclava, it is perhaps too peaceful. The battlefield is a simple valley between hills, with the Russians only visible in parts. That battle isn’t thrilling. Nolan dies, and it cuts away to his superiors. There is a distance to the fight that makes you think of it in a manner not unlike those noblemen, until you remember how horrible the thing really is.
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I know I’m rather late to the part with a review of this most excellent diesel-steam movie, but it has only just appeared on Netflix (in Belgium); a fine time to remind the world that this fine film is indeed out there.
First of all, I have not yet read the book, so I couldn’t say how well it has translated to screen. But I will say that regardless of its written word origins, this film is everything I expect from a genre film. It’s adventurous, fun, there’s magic and mischief and monsters coupled with a setting that is both dieselpunk and steampunk. Set in the 1950s, it has that splendid midcentury feel with fashions of the era, oldtimer cars and diners.
Aside from that, it also has a magical house, a sentient chair, warlocks and witches and bad guys. It is wholesome, the kind of movie that makes you smile — and we could all do with more of that these days.
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Munich: The Edge of War is an enjoyable fiction; viewers must not confuse it for dramatization of Neville Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia.
The movie is based on the novel by Robert Harris, who also wrote the dieselpunk classic Fatherland (review here). Jeremy Irons is predictably excellent. The costumes and sets are flawless. Scenes were shot in the actual Führerbau in Munich, where the 1938 conference took place.
The film adds a few action scenes to Harris’ plot to make it more thrilling, as well as two meaningful female characters to make the story less male-dominated.
Unfortunately, the one part of Harris’ novel the film downplays is a crucial one: the so-called Oster conspiracy, named after German counterespionage chief Hans Oster, to remove Hitler from power if he had attacked Czechoslovakia.
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There comes a point in every ideological society when reality impinges upon the beliefs held so dearly by the local elite. As complex and totalizing ideologies try to be, some aspect of reality inevitably throws the whole structure of feeling into doubt; Utah got its first Jewish governor in such a moment.
The communist world was prone to these moments. The Soviet Union, among other Marxist-Leninist states, billed itself as a workers’ paradise, free of the parasitic relationship between employer and employee. But, as Lenin dictated, there was a vanguard party that assumed the qualities of the boss not long after the overthrow of the tsar. This led to the unthinkable in the “workers’ state”: strikes.
The 2020 Russian film Dear Comrades!, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, tackles the violent breaking of a strike by the Soviet government in the industrial town of Novocherkassk, near Rostov, not far from the Black Sea and the Ukrainian border. It is a film about the massive hypocrisy undergirding the Soviet state, and how it constantly betrayed the people it purported to serve.
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The Christmas Truces of the First World War have become the stuff of legend. The actual history is frankly poetic: men of different nationalities seeing each other as human, friends even, in what had been no man’s land, where they had slaughtered each other only the day before. It’s great kindness among great horror, a juxtaposition that has inspired great stories.
One such take is the 2005 multinational film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion. It is a film that takes its time to be humanist, no small thing in today’s cynical culture. It revolves around six characters — one French, two German, two Scottish (not English, they insist) and one Danish — from a variety of backgrounds, with officers, enlisted and civilians represented. They are representations of how total the war was, and how it affected everyone in those countries, and beyond.
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The student of history soon learns that the road to utopia is paved with corpses. The People’s Republic of China starved millions of its own people in pursuit of a classless society. Israel expelled and massacred thousands of Arabs in the war that fashioned the modern state. The United States brutalized its indigenous peoples in an attempt to create an agrarian paradise.
The most infamous example is the original Marxist society-building project, the Soviet Union. In an attempt to bring a country barely out of feudalism into the industrial era, Lenin and Stalin starved their own people, including the Ukrainians in what is remembered as the Holodomor (“death by hunger”).
Before the 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, few in the West had heard of the Holodomor. The fact that Westerners learned about the tragedy at all is thanks to one man: Gareth Jones, a British journalist. His story is dramatized in the 2019 film Mr Jones, directed by Agneiszka Holland.
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As a half-white Filipino American, I am not a neutral reviewer of The Great War of Archimedes, a Japanese movie about the construction of the battleship Yamato. I was raised on stories about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. My grandfather served as a decoy for the resistance and my great-grandfather was a resistance fighter. A 14 year-old girl was married off to a 40 year-old man, so that she would not be taken as a comfort woman; that union produced an entire branch of my family.
Perhaps that is why, at the end of the film, I recalled that Joseph Goebbels is purported to have said that The Battleship Potemkin could turn anyone into a Bolshevik. The Great War of Archimedes might just convince anyone of the benevolence of the Japanese Empire. It is a deeply problematic, frankly jingoistic film, but one that is doubtlessly well-made and resembles, in isolation, a decent message about humanity.
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The memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I is all too often focused around a single battle, one ignominious defeat. I refer to the Battle of Gallipoli, a botched attempt to capture Istanbul.
But men from those countries were involved in other fronts, such as Iraq and Palestine. In 2010, Jeremy Sims made a movie about Australians serving in Belgium, at the Battle of Ypres: Beneath Hill 60.
One word describes this film superbly: claustrophobic. Many scenes are set underground, deep within the sprawling trenches that pockmarked the countryside of Belgium and France during the First World War. It is a dark movie, both in content and visuals. What little light there is serves to show you mere glimpses of the people and things that drive the war; you see them only as the trenches have cast them. The effect is dehumanizing. The Australians in Beneath Hill 60 might as well have been ants.
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