Synopsis – A squad of soldiers fight in the Korean War’s crucial Battle of Incheon.
My Take – Is their any genre South Korea film makers can be bad at? I think not. Every now and then I take a break from the usual English language films & decide to divulge myself into this superlative industry which keeps excelling with every feature they present. In my life time, I have seen about 30 films sparing one (an average horror film called Howling), their has not been a single film which I would categorize as terrible. Even with some form of shortcoming the film as a whole manages to succeed in some form or another. This recent film from director John H.Lee, which released in U.A.E cinemas on the weekend, is made to serve the purpose of informing the general public about heroic individuals, groups and army battles that shaped one important episode of the Korean War, not known to all. The Korean War is a war forgotten by lots of people, and that includes Hollywood producers. Of course it’s not a forgotten war in South Korea, and a lot of South Korean movies (besides the horror films) pertain to the Korean schism, with titles like Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War being about the Korean War specifically. Based on actual events leading up to the decisive Invasion of Inchon led by American five-star general and field marshal MacArthur in 1950. which turned the tide of the war after initial North Korean successes. A historical moment that till today affects the region. Quite grandly made with passable production values, despite some shortcoming in the script, this film is entertaining, exaggerated and exciting. You get all sorts of war action from espionage to tanks machine gun fights truck chase to water landing. It’s not Inglorious Basterds over the top but still they could have reduced down the body count by half. Picturesque sets if a bit cinematic looking. The title was the real life code-name of a secret operation whose purpose was to infiltrate the North Korean defenses at Inchon and clear the way for MacArthur’s surprise attack from the sea.
The story follows South Korean Navy Lt. Jang Hak-soo (Jung-jae Lee) in 1950. Jang leads an eight-man team who infiltrate into North Korean as an inspection unit headed to Incheon. Their mission is to find the map of the mine placements, secure the harbor and turn on a lighthouse to guide the landing fleet led U. S. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (Liam Neeson) so he can successfully land U.N troops and repeal the North Korean troops that are occupying northern South Korea. However, shrewd North Korean Senior Colonel Lim Gye-jin (Beom-su Lee) is suspicious of the inspectors from the beginning and is unable to convince his superiors that the U.N navy is planning something they could imagine only in their wildest dreams. Despite the high entertainment quotient, the script doesn’t flow very well as it feels like there are three different movies happening at once. The first part being a spy film, the second being an action film, and the third being war battle. They focus much of the first half of the film on espionage which leads to a pretty slow pace in the beginning. As the original plan begins to break down, you wonder about the importance of the mission, to begin with. Despite the numbers of deaths that occur, the UN’s plan doesn’t seem to hang too much on the outcome of the group. Now I’m sure that parts of this movie are widely exaggerated seeing how the risks these men take would have been too much for any operation especially one with this much on the line. Jang and his team kill a group of North Korean soldiers and take their place. Once inside, they immediately try to run inspections on the enemy’s mines which makes Commander Lim suspicious from the start. A cat and mouse game proceeds as Jang desperately tries to keep the cover of his team. However, when they are caught red-handed trying to steal Intel to bring to the UN, the group is ousted as traitors to the communist order and they find themselves at the mercy of Lim Gye-jin. When things get too hot, of course, we have the basic melodrama to fall on. Jang falls for the Han Chae-seon (Jin Se-yeon), the adopted daughter of another spy; the big final confrontation follows the action movie template, though with a twist; hair’s-breadth escapes mark the narrative, which is based on a real piece of espionage. In between the killing of the real North Korean inspectors and the botched theft of the mine map, the movie is mostly talk, something that may frustrate general viewers. For me, the talk was interesting and helped me to care who was shooting at who and why in the second half of the movie, which was much more like a war movie. So director John H. Lee had a very small budget to work with, compared to other Korean directors of war movies (Taegukgi had a budget of $12.8 million, but that was in 2004 dollars) and certainly compared to American directors like Michael Bay.
If Michael Bay had directed this movie instead of John H. Lee, it probably would have started in the middle of the Korean War with nonstop action, and no real explanation of what the hell is going on until some point in the third reel. Lee is more interested in the lead-up to the landing at Incheon. Yet there’s freshness in the storytelling, from the John Woo-style standoff where everyone in the room draws a gun at once to the poignant moment where one of the spies asks to visit the public market in Incheon for a few minutes: His wife and child sell vegetables there, and he wants only to look at them from afar. And the sequence that introduces Jang, shot with speed and tense efficiency, leaves a lot of American filmmakers in the dust. The manner of the kind of sprawling World War II movies that spend as much time chronicling the travails of nurses, children, shopkeepers and other ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events as they do on gun battles and strategic-planning sessions. Thinly sketched at times, character development is forgotten in favor of tactics, despite some assessment of the true cost of war, including those directly affected even as life seemingly continues in the North. Being a Korean production, director John H. Lee provides homegrown stars more screen time than Liam Neeson’s MacArthur. Lee Jung-jae does an understated hero without seeming bland, giving some emotional weight to Hak-soo’s personal story without making it overshadow the actual war. Park Chul-min is the most distinctive other member of the infiltrating group, playing a middle-aged soldier with family in the city frustrated by not being able to see them, while Kim Byung-ok and Jin Se-yun are worth watching as a man already spying for the South and his niece, a nurse tending to lean toward the North by default. Lee Beom-soo’s performance borders on the last level of villainy and just being evil. Every time he is on screen, you fear for everyone’s life. And then there’s Liam Neeson, who is made up well enough to pass muster as MacArthur, especially with the distinctive costuming and props, but is mostly there to be Liam Neeson and use his distinctive voice to trigger a Pavlovian response in audience members about the gravitas of the situation and film. He does this job well – when Neeson explains something, it gets absorbed – but it’s a bit like seeing any early performance of a Neeson-as-MacArthur one man show. His North American co-stars are not folks possessed of the same charisma he has, never challenging him to raise his game, and his two scenes where MacArthur interacts with the main Korean characters look to be assembled with green screens and stand-ins. On the whole, ‘Operation Chromite’ is handsomely crafted and a well executed film with skillful action sequences which despite its pacing and script flaws is a good recommendation for fans of South Korean Cinema.
Directed – John H. Lee
Rated – R
Run Time – 111 minutes