Ah, the holidays…what would they be at Shamrockmom’s house without some RL drama?! My daughter announced back on December 16th that her boyfriend had proposed, and she said “Yes!”. That was all well and good–no surprises, they’ve been living together for a couple of years. But the very next day, she told me they decided to get married at the local courthouse on January 7. As in less than a month! OMG! Cue a life derailment, as I plan a wedding with my daughter in a big hurry. With all that going on, plus the holidays, incredible stress at my workplace and my youngest son’s upcoming wedding in April, I wondered how I would ever squeeze in time for something fun and relaxing this Christmas–like watching a Kmovie at the theater.
I’d had my eye on “Swing Kids” for some time. I’ve been super impressed with Do Kyung Soo’s acting for the last 3 years; he keeps getting better and better. The music and dancing looked like it would be top notch. The trailers seemed to reinforce those assumptions. After trying unsuccessfully to coordinate with some DramaBeans readers to meet up at the CGV theater at the Source in OC (my schedule was not terribly cooperative) I went by myself on a Saturday night.
I was really pleased to see the shopping center bustling with people and a nearly full movie theater. Even more restaurants and stores are being opened, and I am thrilled that with a minimum of local promotion it’s been so successful. The movie trailers and advertisements before the main movie are almost all in English and Korean now, which I like. Better yet, the movie trailers are not just for US movies, but Korean movies as well. Daebak!
The theater was more than 3/4 full; an interesting mix of Asian people from 25-60+, and some kids as well. Nearly everyone had the ginormous tub of popcorn divided into two–half caramel corn and half regular popcorn. It looked delicious, but I am trying to do Weight Watchers with my Bestie, so it was a no-go. I walked in with a minimum of knowledge about the film and didn’t read any reviews before I started.
Here’s the quick take:
“Swing Kids” is an overly long and tonally weird movie that can’t make up its mind whether it’s going for surrealism or for reality. The strange musical choices also derail what could have been an A+ movie. The ending is out of step (sorry for the bad pun) with the rest of the film and left me with a headache from shaking my head.
Two givens: a great performance by Do Kyung Soo and the dancing is spectacular. If you like movies like “Fame”, “Footloose”, “Flashdance” or “Dirty Dancing”, this may be up your alley. I can tell you all my friends dragged me to those movies at some point during the 1980s, gushing over and over about how awesome they were. I agreed–the dancing was fantastic. The rest of the movie, including important things for Shamrockmom like the plot and the dialogue–were not so fantastic. The same holds true for “Swing Kids”. It had the potential to further the education of US audiences that get all their knowledge about the Korean War from endless re-runs of “M*A*S*H”. But it was not to be.
This film could have been edited down to 100 minutes from the 133-minute runtime, and it would have helped a great deal. Also, if you are gonna make a film called “Swing Kids” and set it in the early 1950s, then don’t have musical choices like David Bowie/Freddie Mercury singing “Under Pressure”! from the mid-1980s! That’s just…strange. There are some 1960’s Motown tunes and a Beatles song in the movie too. Throw in some classical pieces played on the piano, and the music is a mish-mash of styles and genres–many of which don’t seem to belong in a movie set in the early 1950s about tap dancing. The Michael Jackson-esque and Backstreet Boys dance moves also seem oddly out of place.
Whether it’s a Kdrama or a Kmovie, the social commentary is always something that Shamrockmom looks forward to. But this time, it was handled badly. Overly simplistic and heavy-handed, the social commentary also sunk this film for me–and probably a lot of other people too. More on that later.
As good as Do Kyung Soo is in this movie, he deserves a better venue to showcase his acting talent.
Here is the English subbed trailer:
All screenshots from the movie as credited.
“Swing Kids” is a fictional story set during the Korean war at a real POW camp run by the US military at Geoje (alternately Koje) Island which is off the southern coast of South Korea near Busan. The camp housed about 170,000 POW’s and was a veritable pressure cooker of anger and violence during the war. The movie’s premise is that the US military wants to reduce the friction between the North Korean (aka Communist) soldiers, and the South Korean citizens/soldiers that were dragooned into fighting for the North. There were also a sizeable number of (Communist) Chinese soldiers in this camp as well. The camp is divided into 2 sections, pro-Communist and anti-Communist. Friction between the two sides doesn’t begin to describe the conflict. It’s pretty much a war within the camp.
The clueless and racist US generals in charge task Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes) with finding some talent amongst the Communist prisoners in order to put on a show for the reporters at Christmastime. The news from the prison camp has been grim and looks like the US military is not really in control. (Hint: they’re not.)
But the propaganda show must go on, and since Sergeant Jackson has some experience with dancing, musicals and playing the piano, he’s tapped (sorry not sorry for the pun) to make this happen–or his paperwork to be transferred back to Okinawa where his wife currently resides won’t happen. Sgt. Jackson is routinely dissed and threatened by the other US soldiers and officers simply for being black.
Racism between the white US soldiers and Sgt. Jackson is made very obvious–and although it’s difficult to watch, it’s definitely period-correct. It’s the same thing with the US soldiers and how they perceive the Koreans–“Gook” is used multiple times, often prefaced with “Yellow” or a worse epithet, and again, although difficult to watch, it fits the time and setting. (See my review of the movie “Gook” for a complete explanation of that word.) PD-nim doesn’t hold back in portraying the US military (both soldiers and officers) as violent, racist, angry jerks. There’s a scene or two of heavily implied sexual exploitation of women by the US soldiers which increases the jerk factor for me exponentially.
Sgt. Jackson is assisted by local gal Pan Rae (Park Hye Soo) a smart and cheerful young lady who translates for him. She is the de facto head of her household after her parents died during the war. A terrific but slightly overweight Chinese dancer named Xiaofang (Kim Min Ho, who I recognized as the faithful wingman from “My Love Eun Dong”) and a Korean citizen falsely accused of being a communist sympathizer who only wants to go back home to his wife (Oh Jung Se, who was the creepy Public Defender in “Fabricated City”) round out the dance crew.
The star talent that Sgt. Jackson really needs on the team is Roh Ki Soo (Do Kyung Soo, or D.O.)
Trained in NK by Russian dance teachers, his talent is undeniable. (In RL, D.O. trained for 5 months to master the tap dance moves we see in the movie!)
RKS is a respected rabble-rouser and instigator of all kinds of plots against the US and the anti-Communist forces within the camp. He is also the younger brother of an important NK Communist leader. RKS is clearly torn between his pro-Communist beliefs, and the need to dance “Yankee Style” which to him and his fellow Communists looks and feels more than slightly traitorous.
BTW, Dramamilk.com is a fantastic site for highly detailed Kdrama recaps, music, reviews, and general information. I highly recommend it.
There’s one scene where the American GI’s confront RKS and Sgt. Jackson while they are dancing, and I was pretty sure someone was going to be killed or beaten to a pulp. But no! Instead, the US soldiers challenge the guys to a dance-off, with plenty of 90’s boy band dance moves thrown in! WTH! Okay, I thought–the movie is going for this surreal, disassociative vibe because life is so tough in the POW camp. Uhhhm, then again maybe not. In another scene, a Korean woman who is prostituting herself to the US soldiers for food to keep her (and presumably her family) alive is stoned to death by the locals. **face-palm** I’m sure her starving children will appreciate the community’s concern for their mother’s life choices. /sarc
Procuring professional level tap shoes during wartime? No Problem! (Another line repeated often in the movie.) A few cans of Spam, and a carton or two of cigarettes to the local shoemaker produce gorgeous tap shoes similar to those a person could buy in the US or Europe for stage use. I admit I found that mildly humorous since knockoff designer goods are rampant both in Korea and in the US.
Side Note: I cannot stretch my imagination far enough to believe this could actually happen, given what I know now about the poverty level in Korea during and after the war. I’ve had a major education in that over the last year, thanks to the terrific drama “Waves, Waves” and from the childhood tales of the Korean Pastor of my church who was born just after the war. His two older brothers born during the war years did not survive until the 100-day mark. Seeing the Pastor with tears in his eyes as he talked about his two Hyungs who he’s never met but watch over him from Heaven was incredibly moving.
The movie meanders along with RKS alternately practicing with the team of misfits and working with his mates as they are plotting to kill the American General who runs the camp on the night of the Christmas Show. Yeah, that ought to make life better for everyone in the POW camp! /sarc I have to wonder what the thought process is to come up with an idea like that. Hey dudes, how many of your own guys have to die, and for what? The POW camp is on an island, and between two mountains. How are you gonna escape back to the mainland, and who will be waiting there if you manage to get that far?
RKS is torn between doing what his comrades want, and doing what he knows is the right thing, aka not killing the General. In the end, his brother (a giant guy who’s like 6’8″, go figure…maybe a metaphor that his brother is a Larger than Life figure?) decides to do it, and spare RKS’s life. Of course, that plan doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to, and the result is a sickening bloodbath.
The very end of the movie is somewhat touching, as it shows a group of Korean war veterans from the US getting off a bus to tour the Geoje POW camp now that it has been turned into a tourist attraction.
We are led to believe that Sgt. Jackson gets off the bus and goes to the dance hall where his memories of the past bring his dance crew back to life–and dancing with joy and abandon.
The social commentary in “Swing Kids” really falls flat. The idea is floated that whether communist or capitalist, Koreans should remember that they are a people first, and ideology should be second. That devolves into Sgt. Jackson announcing that the title of the dance the team is doing for the Christmas show is “F**k Ideology” Oh. Really? Okay. On one hand, I get it.
The average Korean citizen in 1950, whether in the North or the South probably want the same things:
- to have a job and support their family
- to be rewarded for difficult or exemplary work
- to live where they want without hassle from the governing powers
- to make sure the kids are well educated and have a shot at doing better than the parents
- to have adequate food and shelter, with the occasional extra treat thrown in.
- to enjoy their free time as they please, including the unrestricted practice of the religion of their choice
I am sure Sgt. Jackson would love a change in ideology also. He’s clearly miserable with his status as a second-class citizen in the Army and in civilian life, just because of the color of his skin.
The problem with the idea of “F**k ideology” is that in Real Life….ideology does matter. The racism ideology keeps Sgt. Jackson from having the life he wants. The Communist ideology was what led to the invasion of South Korea by Chinese backed North Korean forces and started the war. (Korea was split after WW2 after Japan’s defeat, and divided at the 38th Parallel). The ideology needs to change in both situations. As always, it’s about who has the power and control. Racism is all about wielding power and control over someone because of their skin color and/or nationality. Communism does the same thing, but it’s control over someone economically. Both are wrong, and the redeeming parts of the movie are when RKS begins to realize that killing the US General is not going to fix anything in his life, and Sgt. Jackson befriends and protects the dance crew as if they were indeed his family, regardless of the color of their skin or their country of origin.
IMHO, what RKS really craves is freedom. Freedom to dance, freedom to be the best person he can be, to become famous…and that same freedom is what Sgt. Jackson wants as well. He wants the freedom to do what he wants, live where he wants, marry who he wants, and be respected regardless of his skin color. You could argue that all the members of the dance team would like some freedom as well–to take care of their families, be free to go back home or work at the profession they enjoy.
The other part of this equation is choice. The racism and the communism restrict the choices that can be made by individuals. Sure, you can suppress it for a while by force–but it always erupts later on, and often violently. Racially motivated riots and political revolutions both start this way.
I included this poster from the movie because I want to draw attention to the signage on the building in English:
“We Celebrate Peace” and “Freedom Hall”. Wow. That’s the height of irony right there.
In 1997, the Geoje POW camp was opened to the public as a Historical Park. It has many exhibitions translated into English for tourists, and informational dioramas showing the life of the POW’s in the camp. Many items were left behind by both the Americans and the Koreans, and it’s a bona fide time capsule from the 1950s. While educational in many ways, there are some issues. This blogger describes the atmosphere as “carnival”, and he notes a distinct lack of respect for the prisoners. In keeping with the incongruous feel of the movie, the park also has a zip line (!) for kids and this utterly jaw-dropping photo op–Yes, you too can pretend you are a POW!
I have had a few dental patients over the years that were in Manzanar as children or had parents/grandparents or other relatives imprisoned there. I can’t imagine how they would feel if something like this was at Manzanar today.
I’ve stated before that I have no cinematic taste whatsoever. Maybe this movie will work for you. Although the dancing is nothing short of amazing, Do Kyung Soo can only do so much with the script and the direction of “Swing Kids”.