My Way (“Mai Wei”)
This Korean film is based on a true story, and what an incredible story it is.
Jun-shik Kim (Dong-gun Jang) grows up in Seoul in a family of house servants. He has tremendous talent as a runner, and soon distinguishes himself in local races, and dreams of entering the Olympics. But world events intervene.
Korea is occupied by Japan , and the house’s new owners, who are Japanese, also have a son, Tatsuo Hasegawa (Jo Odagiri), about the same age as Jun-shik, and also a fine runner. They are rivals, but class distinctions prevent them from being “buddies” as they grow older. Tatsuo goes off to military school, and Jun-shik remains behind, driving a rickshaw, and accepting larger tips for his ability to pull his cart faster.
The War comes home to Seoul when the Koreans are conscripted by the Japanese to fight against the Mongolians. Jun-shik Kim and all his contemporaries are drafted, quite unwillingly, and find themselves forced to fight, against a foe they do not consider an enemy and for a country that is not their own. Besides, the “Korean regiment” is treated with disdain by the “pure race” Japanese soldiers. By this time, Tatsuo is a colonel in the Japanese army, and treats his old boyhood rival Jun-shik with contempt, as he does all the enlisted men. But suddenly they find themselves fighting the Russians, who are eager to expand their eastern frontier. And the Russians have tanks, while the Japanese have only rifles and samurai swords. Tatsuo, during the battle, is shouting at his men about not retreating, and even shooting the ones who are turning to run, but a nearby explosion knocks him out, and the next thing he knows, he is a prisoner of war, along with Jun-shik and a few other soldiers in his former unit. Except now the old distinctions no longer apply. The “Big Dog” in the Soviet POW camp is a former Korean conscript serving the Japanese army, and he has learned Russian, calls himself “Anton,” and completely turned himself over to his Russian captors. He takes his revenge on Tatsuo and the other Japanese POWs by letting them know they will no longer consider themselves superior, and in fact, their former ranks now mean nothing. The Soviet guards have to break up several fights between the two ethnic groups, and finally, when Germany invades, decide to send them all to the front as….Russian soldiers.
When they finally arrive, by train, in the Ukraine , they are given rifles and told to go charge the Nazis, who are, still, the well-organized fighting machine that had conquered all of Europe (this was before their defeat at Stalingrad and their long retreat westward). Tatsuo and Jun-shik, now fighting side-by-side once more, but as Russian privates, again are wounded and knocked out by explosions, and again find themselves captured. Though their paths diverge for a time (and here the movie skips three years), they are again conscripted, and both find themselves in the German army, both stationed at Normandy , in the Spring of 1944, training for the anticipated Allied invasion.
They are told that the real invasion is going to happen at Calais , but just as they receive their orders to transfer, it’s June 6th, and the actual invasion happens right in front of them. This time, Tatsuo and Jun-shik, seeing the incredible armada before them, just try to run, but Jun-shik is wounded and Tatsuo cannot leave him behind, and now they are surrounded by American paratroopers, and captured once again.
Of all the stories now coming out about World War II, as the veterans of that incredible war die by the hundreds every day, this one seems the most fantastic, and yet Director Je-Kyu Kang plays it as a straight narrative, giving us glimpses into several different cultures even as he depicts the horrors of war, not just on the battlefield, but in the prisoner-of-war camps and training regimens that precede and follow the actual combat. It’s a story of incredible perseverance, entrenched cultural conflict, reluctant friendship becoming fierce loyalty, and the indefatigability of the human spirit.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas