The Flower has friends downtown and, the way traffic is in the city, it takes an hour to make the trip. They often only hang out for a few hours at a time (none of the kids like sleepovers, curiously) so it seldom makes sense to come home in the interim. I hadn’t really looked around Koreatown since living there (pre-kids) and I thought it would be cool to see what had been done in the ensuing era. (Renovation had been talked about back then but it was basically a ghetto, if we can stretch the term. It still is, actually, with just a slightly bigger stretch.)
And the thing about Koreatown is that you can go see Korean movies there. You can also go see American movies with Korean subtitles, like Wonder Woman and, actually, I might have gone to see that if it had been dubbed in Korean (with or without English subtitles). But I was actually excited to see that this movie, The Proxy Soldiers, was playing because the last Korean military movie I saw (My Way) was really good and, to me, culturally interesting.
The South Koreans, like everyone else who has adopted Western culture, has also absorbed all the black PR about the West. My Way was so astounding because it was just a straight-up patriotic film, and you don’t see a lot of that these days. So, for whatever reason, while the South Koreans seem to hate the USA (or perhaps that’s just the impression the media here gives us), they don’t seem to fully hate themselves (yet), and they can make movies like that, and like this.
The story goes that, in 1592, Japan invaded Korea, and the king escaped to China to beg for help. In order to keep the pretense that he hadn’t done so, he made one of his sons stay behind to rally the militia. In reality, nobody wants him to succeed. Similarly, nobody wants to be on the detail with him, so he ends with the other heroes of our film, the proxy soldiers. (Which is a way better title than Warriors of the Dawn but I suppose not as flashy.)
In Korea at the time, apparently, some term of military service was mandatory and the wealthy would get out of it by paying people to fight for them, hence, proxy soldiers. If the soldier died before fulfilling the contract he was proxying, the next eligible member of his family would take it over. If the movie is to be believed—and this seems so plausible as to be virtually inevitable—the trick the Korean elites pulled was to move a bunch of people to the inhospitable northern border and deprive them of any opportunity to make any other kind of living.
As you do.
This, of course, is the ultimate path of every government: Make everyone come to you for survival and you can pretty much get what you want. At least, right up until the Japanese invade.
And they will, ’cause, Japanese.
The proxy soldiers are at the end of their tours, and they’d rather get back to protect their families rather than waste their lives on a mission even they can see is a cynical ploy. But the leader is a guy who sees an opportunity which he initially sells (perhaps to himself as well as them) as a financial opportunity: Serving the Crown Prince—now the official King, even—means a way out of the lives they have been trapped into. (And their wishes really are, shall we say, modest: A lot of them just want the opportunity to take a test that will allow them to get into the real army.) But as he sees the bookish young man struggle with what is, essentially, a military command, he sees something greater: The possibility to give Korea a wise leader.
It’s packed full of action, but it gives enough space for the characters to grow and breathe. There’s a lot of band-of-brothers type camaraderie but all the characters are given a chance to fill out, as it were, including the prince-king’s personal ball-washer. (The prince-king does nothing for himself, you see?) There’s a lot of intrigue here, too, but for me it quickly veered into a kind of Warriors thing where all you know is the good guys are being besieged on all sides.
I liked it, and as I was watching it, I kept saying to myself, “My God, The Boy would love this!” But, alas, he was not with me, so he had to hear how awesome it was secondhand (which is only fair since he ran off to see My Life as a Zucchini and Long Way North without us).
Fun fact: The last Korean movie we had seen was The Handmaiden, which was about how the Koreans fared under Japanese invaders in the early 20th century, and while I was waiting for this movie (about Japan invading Korea in the 1590s) to come on, there was another trailer for a movie called The Battleship Island, which was about Koreans trying to escape Japanese occupation during WWII.
It seems to be a theme.
That said, there appeared to be no actual rancor toward things Japanese amongst the Koreans I was with on this day (who I realized suddenly were the children of the people who were there the last time I was in Koreatown). They seemed to like Japanese stuff just fine.