It's 1910 and a little girl is looking up at the sky with yearning in her eyes, wondering what it would be like to fly like a bird. 17 years later she will have her answer.
At the age of 26 Park Kyung-won arrives at the Tachikawa Flight Academy in Japan, to enroll in a pilot training program. If she succeeds she will be the first civilian female Korean pilot.
Kyung-won, who comes from a poor background, has to work hard to pay her tuition, so she gets a job at a local Taxi company, and one day she picks up a fairly drunk customer, Mr. Isida. He's wealthy but unhappy and it turns out that he is really a Korean citizen, called Han Ji-hyuk, who has come to Japan to get away from his family. Kyung-won helps Ji-hyuk, and vice versa, and soon they're on friendly terms.
Meanwhile Kyung-won trains hard and she quickly earns her stripes. Despite a reputation as a bit of a hot-head, she also earns the respect of her fellow pilots. Her abilities speak for themselves. She's a natural in a plane, fearless to the point of being reckless, and she brings great honor to her school. Along the way Kyung-won takes another young female pilot under her wings (so to speak), Lee Jung-hee, who turns out to be Ji-hyuk's adopted sister. Kyung-won continues to get closer to Ji-hyuk, but they keep their relationship a secret.
When a high-profile flight competition is held at the academy, Kyung-won finally meets her match in another female pilot, Gibe, who's not only well-connected, but also just as competitive as Kyung-won. This competition will bring unforeseen changes. Kyung-won has reached the zenith of her career, and her life can only go downhill from here.
Kyung-won has long harbored dreams of making a long-distance flight to Korea, but in the wake of some unfortunate statements she runs into trouble, and trying to raise money for this endeavor proves next to impossible. Suddenly her love for flying must take a backseat to practical and political concerns. She also begins to drift apart from Ji-Hyk, and at the worst possible moment her Japanese benefactors turn against her...
Ironically this film, a story about flying free as a bird, never really got off the ground. It faltered amidst disastrous ticket sales - only 500.000, a tenth of what could be expected - and harsh accusations of whitewashing a dubious historical figure and manipulating facts. In other words, this is not just a story about a pilot. It's about something altogether more controversial. We'll get back to that in a moment.
For the record: Despite failing miserably at the box-office "Blue Swallow" is the most impressive Korean film of 2005. Comparisons to the American film "Aviator" (for obvious reasons) and "Taegukgi" (in terms of the sheer scope) are not out of place. This is a big story, told on a big canvas. However, this is not a historic document, per se. From the very first frame it's obvious that we're not meant to take the film a hundred percent literally. It's a romanticised take on actual events. Of course it's always dangerous to take such an artistic liberty with an actual historical figure, but here we are.
Either way you look at it the film is a feast for the eyes. The period look and the scenery is so rich and detailed, I literally felt transported to a different time and place. The busy streets, a sprawling night club, the airfield, regardless of the location, there's an air of authenticity in every frame, but the images are still saturated by that dreamy quality a good period film should always maintain.
Naturally the airborne scenes are an important part of the film. The erratic flight of those small gravity defying biplanes has been realized through outstanding digital effects. Some shots are achieved by mixing real planes - shot flying for real - with atmospheric digital effects, others by shooting models or full size planes against green screen, and a few selected shot are created entirely in the digital realm. These flying scenes are nothing short of incredible. They are the backbone of the film. Plain and simple.
While the first part of the film is light, bright and heroic, the second half is dark, gloomy and emotionally exhausting to watch. The final act chronicles the end of Kyung-won's life, and it's both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch.
Even by Korean standards "Blue Sparrow" is an impressive film and before I get to the controversy and the problems, let me say this unequivocally: "Blue Sparrow" had me from the first frame to the last. It's an outstanding, if deeply flawed, piece of work.
CONTROVERSY & HISTORY
I must admit prior to watching this film I did not know who Kyung-won was, and I hadn't really heard anything about the controversy surrounding the film. I bought it because I buy almost all Korean films released on DVD, and I watched it simply because I was in the mood for a historical drama and because air planes are cool. In other words, I was blissfully ignorant when I tuned in.
From 1910 till the end of World War II Korea was under Japanese occupation. The Japanese rule was harsh and the Korean people and Korean culture suffered greatly during this time. Looking at this film, from the point of view of a westerner, it can be a little difficult to understand the bad blood between these two countries.
I can only imagine how Koreans feel about this. Being a Danish citizen, I do know something about living in an occupied country. Denmark was occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1945, during World War II. The Danish government decided it would be best to cooperate and did not attempt to fight back the invaders. Resistance groups sprung up all over the country, and my grandfather was associated with one of these groups. Even though life for the ordinary citizen soon returned to a relative state of normality and safety, those that worked against the Germans were at constant risk of exposure. During the early years of the war, the Danish police force was still in place and co-operated with the German invaders - some more than others, mind you - until they were all rounded up and sent to the concentration camps in September of 1944.
I've often spoken with my grandmother about what happened during the war, but I could never talk to my grandfather about his experiences. This jolly lively man still went very quiet and very solemn whenever the conversation fell upon the war. He was captured by the Germans a mere month before the end of the war, so he was never sent to the camps like many others, but he spent time in prison, and I could tell the experience weighed heavily on him.
By comparison to the Korean occupation, the Danish occupation was a walk in the park, but it still left an undeniable impression on those who experienced it first hand. To have to live under a foreign nation's rule partly enforced by your own countrymen is not something you forgive or forget that easily, and even 50 years after the events I could tell my grandparents were still bitter about this fact.
Park Kyung-won was one of those who decided to make the best of the occupation. She fled to Japan to be a pilot, and when her japanese rulers demanded that she showed up to support the "cause" she did so, albeit reluctantly. Many Koreans feel she betrayed her own country and traded her allegiance for a tank of gas and an air field.
This to me is the most puzzling thing about "Blue Shallow". It seems to be very insensitive towards this part of the nation's history.
"Blue Swallow" attempts to portray the actual person Park Kyung-won, not the myth, and tries to isolate her from the controversy and focus on her love for flying, but in doing so it appears to deny a very important aspect of her life.
It's easy to mistake this omission for ignorance or - as I understand was the general consensus in its home country - whitewashing. When I saw the film I couldn't understand why Koreans were so upset with it (keep in mind, at this point I didn't know the character's back story).
The problem is that you can actually watch this film, and never know the most vital aspect about Kyung-won's life. If you're Korean you can probably fill in the blanks yourself, but if you're not, you may not realize that you never saw the whole picture. That, more than anything else, is my biggest reservation towards the film.
In all honesty, the film does deal with the Japanese oppression of Korea, and it does portray the vicious rule and the suffering, but these are things that happen to and around Kyung-won, the film refuses to portray her as an active participant. When Kyung-won expresses reluctance about joining the Japanese propaganda machine, it's apparently because "she only wants to fly" - and wishes to remain neutral - not because it's wrong.
"Blue Swallow" never apologizes for Kyung-won's actions, and maybe that's too much to ask, but I have no doubt that this is the reason the film was so harshly received back home.
On top of the controversial aspects, I have to point out a few flaws in "Blue Swallow".
For one, the film skips Kyung-won's childhood almost entirely. A few choice scenes depicting her strained relationship with her father is all we get, and when it comes to her fascination with flying the film offers only one dreamy scene that takes place in her early childhood. This scene has to justify her entire purpose in life, and that's a lot to ask for a single scene.
The film cuts from "I want to be a pilot" to "accepted at flight school" almost before the opening credits are over, and without any explanation, skipping a potentially interesting part of Kyung-won's life.
Secondly her struggle to succeed in a male dominated world is only mentioned briefly. I may be wrong on this, but it must have been hard for a woman to become a pilot, and must have been even harder for her to earn the respect of her male colleagues. The film skates over this aspect of the story, once again ignoring something important in her life.
Finally I had some problems with Jang Jin-young who plays the part of Park Kyung-won. She plays the character as a wide-eyed dreamer, who rarely reflects upon her situation or the bigger picture, all she seems to care about is her flying. I'm not completely happy with her performance. She's too happy-go-lucky and sometimes it's hard to take her seriously, though in a final half of the movie she does redeem herself.
"Blue Swallow" was never going to be as big a film as "2009" or "Taegukgi", if not for any other reason than the fact that the story about the first female pilot seems unimportant in the larger scheme of things. Where both these two films deal with big stories and the big picture, "Blue Shallow" deals with a small part of history and deliberately ignores the big picture.
If you can overlook the historical omissions "Blue Swallow" is a beautiful sweeping historic drama. It's a romantic epic. A living artwork, where every frame is a painting. The question is, of course, can we allow ourselves to overlook a part of history?
If we don't remember history we're domed to make the same mistakes again and again. Will forgetting the events that played out in Korea prior to WWII - even if it's just once, for the purpose of telling a story on film - put us on the path to forgetfulness and ignorance? Is it irresponsible of the filmmakers to attempt to tell this story, and largely ignore one of the most important elements in it?
Maybe. I honestly don't know. I do know this: The only ones who have the right to make that call, are the people who suffered during that period. They're the ones who must decide when it's time to leave the past alone, and only look ahead. Until they're ready to do so the rest of us can only stand back and just try to understand. "Blue Swallow" might make a few viewers curious about the story behind the story, but it will not facilitate that understanding.