Reporting on the movies I see
It's a little unsurprising that Kang Jekyu's return to the director's seat would be with a film so similar to his last, Taegukgi, another film about the bonds that are tested and cleaved by war: in this case, World War II. My Way is considered one of the most expensive Korean films ever made and you can see why, due to the scale of the war epic, the many combat scenes and the enormous number of actors of multiple nations required for the many situations that the protagonists find themselves in. And while I do appreciate that the film escapes any real flag waving nationalism in exchange for an anti-war sentiment as well as the underlying story of a relationship broken by division, I felt exhausted by the end of this lengthy film. My Way does manage to convince with its scale, but there's simply just too much going on in this film and despite the amount of attention paid to the protagonists, the story doesn't fully convince.
Inspired by a true event of a Korean being found serving the German forces in Normandy, our two protagonists are Tatsuo Hasegawa (Odagiri Jo) and Kim Joonshik (Jang Donggun). Arriving in Korea during the Japanese occupation, Tatsuo meets the child of his family's servants, Joonshik and they both immediately bond over their respective love of running. As they grow up, their friendly rivalry continues to become fanned, but have a falling out after a Korean independence group murders Tatsuo's beloved military grandfather via bomb, souring Tatsuo's opinion of Koreans with contempt. And then as World War II takes hold, tensions inflame between the Koreans and the Japanese, and Joonshik and his friends find themselves shipped off to the Mongolia, forced to fight for the Japanese Army against Russian forces, shortly finding them joined by their new commanding officer: Tatsuo, whose militant nature has only become more severe in the intervening time. And that's only the beginning of the story. As the war rages on, these characters will find themselves traipsing across the greater continent.
What worked in the story, even if there was nothing subtle about it, was the parallels drawn between every single major force we see fighting in the war: the Japanese, the Soviets and the Germans all press their captors into service and feature some highly overzealous commanding officers who are as brutal on their own troops as their enemies and further shows the terrible effects of war on the troops. However, the film has an issue in that the film fumbles on the protagonist's story, with a bit of a hand-off of the role happening after much of the film. This is made a bit harder to appreciate as Joonshik is drawn as a fairly flat and static character, but we spend the entire film with him, whereas Tatsuo is given a bit of character development, but isn't as focused on as Joonshik. The film also fumbles on that character development, not fully drawing out Tatsuo's personal conflict and the eventual reason why he really changes in the end. It also doesn't help that the film is pretty melodramatic. And finally, the film is simply too long with some story elements being unnecessary, like the entire sub-plot involving the Chinese assassin Shirai (Fan Bingbing), who feels almost thrown in to add an active female character, but she has little to no impact on the film and is only a blip in its long running time.
The film is also not helped in that the direction often feels a little derivative in many of its scenes: the battle at Normandy seems to have scenes lifted from Saving Private Ryan, there's a point where a character has to evade a plane on foot that echoes North by Northwest, and Shirai the female enemy sniper instantly recalls Full Metal Jacket. And while these might have been meta-textual homages to these influential films, I felt that My Way was simply too earnest to be operating on that level and so those moments felt rather uninspired. Not to say that the chaos of war was always unconvincing, but several times, the scenes become too bombastic (even literally) that it borders silly. But what I did appreciate was the production's willingness to follow the story into so many different battlefronts and adjust the costumes and sets accordingly: you see the money on the screen and the scale of the combat is still quite impressive, even if it feels a bit like Kang is throwing everything he can into the moments and pulling too far away from his characters. And that's a little bit of a shame since both Jang and Jo as well as many of the secondary characters manage to pull together some decent performances, given the sometimes overwrought nature of the story and its telling.
Not that too much of this is unexpected, looking at Kang's body of work, but it does almost feel like because Kang was given an enormous budget, he felt compelled to use all of it when perhaps holding back on the war scenes to focus a little more on the characters, their immediately situations and development would have been more profitable to the storytelling. Still, you don't see too many films with My Way's scope, taking the viewer from the Eastern front all the way to the Western front and all dressed up evocatively and that might be convincing enough for some. As for me, were My Way scaled back a little, trimmed of unnecessary story elements, and focused a little tighter on a single protagonist, then perhaps it might have been more compelling, but I just got exhausted by the time we reached Normandy. I still won't say I disliked the film, but it was a bit disappointing that given all that time and money, it ended up squandering a lot of its storytelling potential. 6/10.
Edit note: Updated per alualuna's comment.