Unbelievable, True Story, and Epic are but a few terms used to describe this absolutely amazing film from Korean director Je-kyu Kang. My Way tells the story of two childhood friends w
hose lives are drastically changed when they are both forced to enlist in the Army. WWII serves as the backdrop for an almost Shakespearean story about friendship, passion, loyalty and pride. The only thing more amazing than the scenes and sequences in the film is the fact that it’s all based on true events which have only recently come to light in the last 6 years.
During the time when pre-WWII Korea was being colonized by Japan, many Korean workers were employed by wealthy Japanese. Jun Shik, the son of one of the workers, began a friendship with Tatsuo, grandson to the owners of the farm Jun Shik’s parents work at. Both shared a love of running and had dreams of participating in the Tokyo Olympics; so began their competitive rivalry. Yet, with the coming of the second World War, their dreams were put on hold, and forced to enlist in the army their lives took very different paths. Jun Shik became an infantryman and Tatsuo, because of his family, became an officer and head of Jun Shik’s unit. The power and responsibility got to Tatsuo and the result was a divide between these two friends that only grew from there. But as they experienced the horrors of war they, right or wrong, each continued to fight for what he believed in an attempt to stay true to themselves and their home countries.
Over the course of the war their unbelievable story took them from China, to Russia, to Germany and finally Normandy. It’s rather incredible these events would befall one of them. Yet, the fact they both shared all of the loss and atrocities of war together is just one of the many reasons why this story is worth telling. Director Je-kyu Kang is a titan of Korean cinema. This is only his fourth film but being tasked with a feature of this scale was not just and honor and very intimidating but it took Herculean efforts to get this decidedly epic story story on screen. Even though this is the largest and most expensive production in the country’s history the incredible tale of Tatsuo and Jun-Shik is handled with reverence. As grand as the set pieces and the undeniably epic nature of the story it all comes down to the human side of the characters and their journey.
Je-kyu Kang shows us sides of the main characters that are on par with Steven Spielberg films. For every large-scale set piece and deafening explosion, you’ll find similarly impacting examples of more character development, characters flaws and soul-searching. We not only get a deep look into the mindset of the soldiers but also Asian philosophy, as is the case when one commander tells his soldiers “Imperial soldiers must charge ahead, even as ghosts“. My Way keeps pace brilliantly, features exemplary cinematography and wonderfully framed shots, and puts original/innovative spins on intense action sequences. There are few films that show the frenzy and madness of war in a way that someone, who has never served in the armed forces, could actually visualize what it’s truly like to be on a battlefield.
There’s not a weak element in My Way and it’s amazing to see a film like this exist outside of the Hollywood system. It certainly has the makings, quality and production value of a Hollywood blockbuster. But for all the explosions, ones that would make Michael Bay jealous, the heart that exists and is put on display shows again and again just what makes this story so special. It’s emotional, endearing and even amidst the action, Je-kyu Kang never loses focus on the driving force of the film; conviction, pride and compassion in Jun Shik and Tatsuo. It shows the madness of war but the human element is so tangible it gets to your soul, especially in the final sequence. Levels of professionalism abound and My Way is easily one of the best films of the Festival and it’s a certainty that you’ll be hearing the name Je-kyu Kang very, very soon.
As 13 Assassins took audiences (including us) by surprise at last year’s DIFF, the bar has certainly been met and re-raised by this fantastic (and true) story. This film could not come with a higher recommendation.