Like many Korean films, The Coast Guard deals with a country divided against itself, and how the ones who are caught in that division suffer the most. In this film, it’s a young man who is part of South Korea’s coastal border patrol. Much of the shoreline in South Korea is shrouded in barbed wire and security fences, and anyone who strays into those zones after sundown is target practice. South Korea clams that no North Korean spy has been able to come ashore in almost six years thanks to these measures, but the film is about the human cost of such work and not a gung-ho war movie.
I doubt I could have expected a gung-ho war movie from Ki-duk Kim, one of Korea’s best and most provocative directors. He is more interested in tormented individuals than geopolitics, and his movies reflect that: The Isle, 3-Iron, Samaria, Real Fiction, Bad Guy, Address Unknown, all of which are about (at least in some degree) people trapped in their own private hells. Address Unknown was the last time he explicitly tied their sufferings to some specific social condition—in that case, it was the chaos of post-war Korea—and here it’s the demands of the border patrol and the effects its work has on the people touched by it. The problem is that it goes curiously astray and gets lost in its own conceits.
The movie deals with Private Kang (Dong-kun Jang, also of 2009 Lost Memories, Taegukgi and Nowhere to Hide), one member of a coastal patrol platoon who sees his life as his job and vice versa. He has been told all along that there is no greater honor for someone in his position than to kill a North Korean spy, and he believes it. He smears his face with camouflage paint and doesn’t even bother wearing a flak helmet, because he’s convinced he’ll be able to shoot first when a spy does not. Not if, when. The other members of the platoon tolerate his slightly feverish attitude, but the local civilian population find the coast guard to be a waste of time and taxpayer’s money. This is the last thing Kang wants to hear, and he gets into a brouhaha with one of the locals, daring them to come out onto the beach after dark.
A few nights later, one of them does exactly that, along with his girlfriend. Kang spots them, but from his vantage point doesn’t realize they’re simply a couple of drunken local having sex and not spies. He opens fire. The man is killed and the girl only slightly wounded, but from there she sinks into catatonia and madness. Kang doesn’t fare much better when he finds out the man he shot was just one of the townspeople, and there is a grim moment where he is commended for his work while the man’s friends and relatives shriek abuse at him and throw rocks from behind a security fence.
Kang’s torment is two-sided: On the one hand, he clings desperately to the idea that he was simply trying to fulfill his duty. On the other, he knows all too well that just because something is sanctioned does not make it right, or even palatable. Yes, the other man should not have been there, and probably knew full well what he was getting into, but guilt is an emotion; it’s not something you can simply wish away, and his sense of duty becomes increasingly inadequate against protecting him from knowing he killed an unarmed man who wasn’t even a spy.
Kang receives a week of special leave, but when he goes home to visit his family and they prod him about why he’s there, he remains silent. When one of his brothers speculates as to the real reason he’s there—don’t all the coast guards take potshots at civilians anyway?—he lashes out. He’s in even worse shape when he comes back, and after the dead man’s friends beat him to a pulp and he nearly goes AWOL he is certified as unfit for duty and given a discharge. The girl, now quite schizoid, wanders around near the guard post and having dalliances with the soldiers like Ophelia in Hamlet. When she gets pregnant, as you would expect, the soldiers would sooner deal with it themselves than suffer the indignity of reporting it to the MPs. If the movie were not so firmly about the way the soldiers are forced to deal with the very people they’re supposed to be protecting, this (and all of its attendant consequences) would seem absurd.
There are a couple of other things in The Coast Guard that beggar plausibility even if they are meant to be part of the whole. At one point Kang goes back to his old unit and terrorizes several of his subordinates into following “orders”, and the scene would not work unless we had seen him already beating some of them in a boxing game before. That and he would probably have ended up in prison just for coming there, but the movie has larger points to make: even if Kang has been discharged, some of his men still feel proud for him, and that they are bitterly divided against themselves as to what to do about him.
Someone not familiar with Kim’s other movies would probably label all this as melodrama, and they would be at least partly right. The problem is that a melodramatic approach that worked for him in other films—like in The Isle or 3-Iron—doesn’t work as well here because the realist trappings of the film undermine it. As well-intentioned as the movie is, and as primed as I was to understand it, the last twenty to thirty minutes work against everything that came before. We have Kang turning into a kind of ghostly bogeyman that haunts the other platoon officers, and then an ending that seems more suited to a Korean horror film than a grim human tragedy. I give Kim credit for trying to tackle this material in a different manner, but in my mind this ranks only slightly above his Real Fiction for good intentions gone ultimately astray.
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