New for me
Back in 1999, the AP broke a Pulitzer Prize winning story about a massacre of Korean refugees by the US military operating in Korea, during the onset of the Korean War, which was allegedly ordered due to suspicions of North Korean infiltrators marching in the refugee columns. This has long been an issue in Korea, where the survivors have been calling for apology and reparations and, ten years after the AP news story, nearly 60 years after the massacre, a film covering this event, A Little Pond, was released. The film itself is a rather brutal depiction of the massacre and features a large cast of Korean stars, who apparently donated their time and image for the film. Unfortunately, the film is a bit hobbled by an underdeveloped story, as well as some overly sensational moments and particularly weak performances by the actors handling the American roles.
The film is a dramatization of the events described in the AP report and the consequent book, with additional research done by interviewing survivors of the massacre. In a prologue, we briefly see Korean police investigating a potential communist sympathizer, but quickly move to spend a little idle time with the members of the farming village, who largely focus on day-to-day affairs, although the shadow of war looms on their minds as well as their conversations. And then members of the US military from Japan, young and inexperienced, run through the village and alert them that the conflict will reach their village shortly and for the villagers to evacuate south. So they head south, but, because of this suspicion of North Koreans amidst the refugees, the refugees are treated with suspicion and then the refugees are attacked via air strike and gunfire from the US forces stationed in the area, causing the survivors to flee under the bridge at Nogunri, where most of the rest of them are cut down by machine gun fire.
There really isn't much more to the story than that. The film does spend a bit of time with a number of the villagers, but because there are so many that the film spends only a little bit of time with, they end up being rather shallow characterizations, and without any particular protagonist, it doesn't really feel like there's any real drama in the film, but merely a lot of focus on the senseless killing, which is important for the purpose of the film, but if the film had better built up some kind of character struggle or story, then it might have made for more than just what seems like sensationalism in celluloid guise.
The way that the film's story is presented might have worked if the film took a more documentary-flavored approach, but writer-director Lee Sangwoo does really step down to the character level and so I wanted to see more character work, but, despite the large cast of high profile stars, there really wasn't much to most of the characters and so most of the performances amount to cameos since they only have a short piece of screen time to develop their characters before getting shot or blown up. What's more, the actors performing the roles of the American forces were woefully hard to believe, which is not surprising, given that non-Korean actors in Korean film tend to be rather unpolished, but it further takes away from the reality of the situation. And then there's the moment of artistic fancy that is thrown in via some CGI whales, which completely disrupts the attempt at realism that the film otherwise takes, although it's not completely without basis as the film's Korean title is a reference to a classic Korean anti-war folk song about fish in a pond. Still, add that to some moments of manipulation in the direction, including several cringe-worthy moments around children and babies, and it all acts to detract from the horror that the film intends to present.
That's not to say that I think A Little Pond is a complete failure. After all, it does still manage to effectively shine a light on a moment in Korean and American history that might simply otherwise go publicly forgotten and does so in a rather harrowing and brutal manner. But the film stumbles in terms of being inconsistent in the kind of reality it wants to paint for the viewer with its sometimes exaggerated, manipulative direction and fanciful CGI whales contrasted with its low-character involvement approach, yet still wanting to establish the characters. These end up being compromises that accomplish neither task that the film is trying to take and that results in a film that doesn't entirely convince as well as it otherwise could. And let's hope that in the future Chungmuro makes a more concerted effort to find better English-speaking actors or even import those actors from the appropriate country when necessary. 6/10.
DVD Note: The Panorama release from Hong Kong suffers from a poor transfer with lots of visible flaws from the compression including aliasing as well as having absolutely abysmal English language subtitles, which manage to make the film more difficult to understand. I imagine that the Korean edition would have better picture and subtitles.
- Available at YesAsia