In case you'd forgotten, war is quite ugly
It's hard to shock me. My time on the internet has done a lot to desensitize me. But if there's one type of movie that should continue to make me feel truly uncomfortable, it's a war film. War is hell, the saying goes, and any movie with any kind of message about war has an obligation to show that.
My Way succeeds in showing that better than any other war film I've seen, and it didn't need to try very hard. Apparently, all you need to do to horrify me is show someone split in half by a tank tread.
My Way (Mai Wei)
My Way is best thought of as a series of bizarrely connected scenarios. There are reasons why a Korean marathoner/rickshaw-driver (Jang Dong-Gun) becomes a soldier fighting for the Nazis on D-Day, but they are mostly irrelevant. The moments that get the main characters from A to B to C are either glossed over or ignored entirely, and that's completely fine. It's not a miniseries like Das Boot, so it doesn't have time to really connect the dots. But the film says it's based on true events, so skipping the scenes that could possibly explain how they fit together seems kind of counter-intuitive.
Regardless, I didn't care all that much. In fact, for most of My Way, I didn't even think about it. It was only in the final section, where the main characters find themselves on the beaches of Normandy, that I realized how ludicrous the whole thing had become. Up until that point I had been so engrossed in the action and the characters that I hadn't stopped to think about much of anything.
My Way takes place during World War II, and it uses its characters's international exploits to show the similarities and differences between the ways different countries fought during that war. Kim Joon-Sik, that rickshaw-driver I mentioned earlier, finds himself in the midst of a riot in Japan after he is unfairly disqualified from an Olympic marathon tryout. He is then sentenced, along with everyone else who participated in the riot, to serve in the Japanese Imperial Army in their fight against the Soviet Union. Eventually, Kim Joon-Sik and a number of other soldiers are captured by the Soviets, forced to work in labor camps, and eventually enlisted to help fight the Nazis after Hitler declares war. After that battle goes poorly, Kim Joon-Sik walks to a German outpost and eventually finds himself fighting the Americans on D-Day.
This means that there is a lot of action, and it's very different, because each faction treats battle very differently. That is one of My Way's greatest strengths. The battles themselves, especially the earlier ones, are probably the best I have ever seen. This was South The film had used over 16,000 extras (though not all of them were soldiers), over 50,000 bullets, thousands of military uniforms and a generally crazy amount of actual, tangible materials to make the battlefield come alive. What the filmmakers did on a budget of ~$23 million (the largest in Korea to date) puts all American studio films, war-themed or otherwise, to shame.
As I mentioned, My Way legitimately shocked me. After some of the more intense deaths, I actually shouted in surprise. I can't think of the last time I did that, and I did it more than a couple of times. Like the man run over by a tank. It was sudden, intense, and incredibly brutal. It's probably the most shocking single moment in the film, but there is a pervasive sense of horror as the battlefield changes.
When I said that the different countries had different ways of dealing with war, I really meant it. There are four separate militaries that fight in the film, and all but the Americans are given at least a little bit of time behind the scenes to show their inner workings. My Way takes full advantage of this and uses it to show some very powerful i. Watching Japanese soldiers crawl under tanks and blow themselves up is terrifying, but doesn't even come close to seeing Russians place frost-bitten POWs onto stone beds and load them into fires. The imagery is powerful stuff, and it gives the film a lot of visual weight. I never felt like it was exploiting the horrors of war, though. It felt completely justified and, perhaps, even necessary.
Unfortunately, My Way falls apart in its final act. When the Americans arrive, bombers and battleships fill the screen, and the CGI does not work. The explosions and on-ground battles look as good as ever, but the constant shots of ship cannons firing and planes dropping bombs or being shot at make it impossible for the scene to feel credible.
This is made worse by the fact that the character-to-character moments lose all impact. Honestly, the final end of the final battle brought to mind the opening of Tropic Thunder. The characters cry and talk about the things they wanted to do when they got home (it's even limb-related, funnily enough). I tried to convince myself that it was meaningful, but it just made me want to laugh. I did appreciate the way the end of the film came full circle, but it was not enough to wash the bad taste from my mouth.
Up until the entrance of the Germans, though, My Way's ragtag group has a lot to offer. Their interactions felt very real, and there was some really nice character development. Some of the characters had to make some pretty awful decisions (e.g. hanging a former friend for thievery), and seeing their generally human reactions to those things made them feel much more real and much more emotional. I was never on the verge of tears the way I was with The Front Line, but I definitely found myself invested into the events that were unfolding.
And that's the part of the film I want to think about. I want to forget that the Germans ever played more than the part of the enemy. I want to believe that Kim Joon-Sik and co. all died at the hands of the Nazis. It wouldn't have been a good ending, and I probably would have railed against it, but I wouldn't have had to watch such an incredible film spiral out of control. When I hit the halfway point, I knew that My Way was the best war film I had ever seen. When it ended, I didn't know what to think. It seems as though someone gave up (which would explain the bizarre inconsistencies with color and light between shots) and decided to take a turn towards the generic. The final part barely even feels like it's from the same film. But it is, and I have to acknowledge that. It's not even that the ending is bad, because it's not. Honestly, it's pretty good, but it closes up something truly amazing, and it can't hold its own.
Nonetheless, so much of the film is so good that I completely recommend it. That being said, if you leave when a body riddled with bullets begins to fall in slow motion during the Soviet-Nazi battle, I don't think anybody will judge you.