The Point of no Return. That moment in a journey when the road back is longer than the road ahead. When youve travelled so far, its impossible to turn around and go back. It happens in a movie. It happens in life. It is as much a state of mind, as a physical reality.
Silmido is a movie about passing The Point of no Return.
The North Korean Special Unit 124 infiltrated South Korea, in January of 1968, with one clear goal: To kill President Park Chung-he. They failed. But they were close to succeeding. Real close.
In light of this unprecedented move South Korea has no choice but to come up with a counter attack. They form their own special group, designated The 684 Special Unit. The unit is loaded with convicts, 31 men with either life imprisonment or death sentences hanging over their heads, men with nothing to lose. The group is brought to the island Silmido, and given an ultimatum: Either you go back, and serve out your sentence, or you stay here, and take on a special mission. What will it be?
Naturally all 31 men decide to stay. They will undergo rigorous military training. They will become perfect soldiers. The most lethal killing machines. All with one purpose in mind: To enter North Korea and kill president Kim Il-sung!
The idea is ludicrous at best. Suicidal at the very least. How will this band of ragged would-be soldiers manage to pull of such an impossible task? That accomplishment falls under General Jae-hyun (Ahn Sung-ki), assisted by an entire unit of soldiers.
Month after month he trains the men vigorously, under horrible condition. The men are beaten, branded with hot iron, put through unspeakable tests. They suffer. Some of them die. But eventually theyre all transformed into lean, mean, fighting machines.
During this arduous training the men actually start to believe in their mission. They even begin to dream about how life will be, when all this is over. Slowly a bond develops between the men, a collective understanding, and eventually they even gain the respect of their oppressors. Then finally one day, at the absolute peak of their training, the order comes: You ship out tomorrow!
Under cover of night, amidst a heavy storm, the group set out on their mission. Ready to do the unthinkable, just on the off chance that theyll make it, and be able to live a normal life afterwards.
But then theres a call from the government. The mission is called off. Postponed indefinitely. Perhaps there will be no new future for these men after all. Perhaps it was all just a lie. Perhaps theyll never leave Silmido alive...
Silmido is a strange creature. The gravity of the story cannot be questioned, but the presentation certainly can. One minute were face to face with a brutal bunch of killers, who must make a life-altering decision, and possibly sacrifice their lives, but the next minute the Hans Zimmer inspired score swells and suddenly the film feels like a big polished American blockbuster, only to hit us with some raw NC-17 violence moments later, once again reminding us what a serious endeavour this really is.
I should say up front that I personally dont mind these shifts in tone, but theres no denying that Silmido is a film in conflict with itself. Imagine Schindlers List shot in the style and with the pacing of The Rock.
Silmido is based on a true story. Actually make that almost based on a true story. The film managed to stir op some controversy in its homeland, because it takes a few liberties with the truth. I cant get upset just because some filmmakers fondles history, and refuses to buy it drinks afterwards. Its not the first time thats happened and its not gonna be the last. Learn to love it. Besides history is tainted by personal perception any way, so even if the film stuck to cold facts, it would probably still enrage some people.
Silmido deals with real-life events, dramatised for the purpose of entertainment, and thats okay. Anybody expecting a serious historic documentary is fresh out of luck.
POINT OF NO RETURN
I said earlier that Silmido is a film about passing The Point of no Return. I want to elaborate on that. It applies most crucially to three aspects of the story: The choice, the training and the mission.
The second the men agree to take part in this illusive mission, they make a choice, and then theres only two ways they can leave the island. As a corpse or as a soldier. They are dragged into that choice kicking and screaming, and eventually the choice is made for them by the simple fact that the alternative is unbearable.
Then they begin their training. Despite the harshness of this training and the toll it takes on each person, and the group as a whole, theyre still developing a sense a purpose. The mission in exchange for a clean slate suddenly doesnt seem like such a bad deal, and they soon begin to make plans for the future. The moment they realize they even have a future, theres no going back, no giving up. They HAVE to finish the training. They HAVE to succeed.
By the time they head out on the mission they are mentally converted. They are no longer men forced to be soldiers. They are men who WANT to be soldiers, and that naturally raises the stakes. When they leave the island for the first time, they are locked, cocked and ready to rock, and nobody better tell them the whole things off. The mission becomes, if not voluntary, then at least self-motivated.
This whole set-up means that the men, the pain they endure, and the choices they make, are always clearly motivated, because they pass these points of no return at regular intervals. Each time the characters pass one of these points, they go deeper into the lions den, making it ever more impossible to go back.
Dont you know those films where you just sit and think why the hell dont they do this or that?. I never felt this during Silmido. It was always obvious to me why the men acted the way they did.
The actors do a solid capable job, but I must admit I found it hard to single anyone out, for two reasons: first of all this is very much an ensemble piece, and though a few of the characters have a little more screentime than others, we follow the group as a whole, and focus on any individual character is limited. Second: I found it hard to tell the characters apart. I should mention that Im caucasian and even though I watch a lot of Asian films, I still get momentarily confused by the Asian facial features, and it doesnt help that everybody wears the same uniform here.
Theres no questioning the technical merits of the film. Shot in glorious 2,35:1 widescreen format (something I wish more Korean films would do), every scene cries to high heaven that this is a blockbusting film, accept it, or get out of the way!
The harsh brutal training sequences look stunning, and the nighttime launch of the mission, complete with heavy backlit rain - more that a little inspired by Crimson Tide - is exhilarating.
And then theres the music. Its gorgeous, sweeping, epic, truly worthy of a big giant blockbuster, but actually I kinda wish it wasnt. As much as I love the score, Ill have to admit that a more subdued approach would have suited the film better. The sensationalistic score cheapens the film slightly. Thats a shame.
To risk your life on a mission that sounds like it was thought up in the corner of a school yard, by a bunch of bullies, is apparently a noble thing. But this crowd-pleasing blockbuster, struggles with its grim set-up, from the word go. Luckily the film is not completely without humor, which sort of smoothes the way, and makes the whole thing a little easier to swallow.
I must admit that I came to this film with the wrong expectations. I thought it was going to be an all-out action feast, but the film only turns into a full blown action movie in the last 30 minutes. Thats something to consider as well.
Despite its shortcomings Silmido is a must for fans of Korean cinema and Asian cinema in general. Even folks with only a fledging interest in Asian films should take notice. Silmido is not perfect, but its still such a huge thing that theres really no getting around it.
See it, buy it, watch it, discuss it. All the cool kids are doing it.