“My Way” is the Highway

Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

When South Korea’s war epic “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War” released in 2004, the effects were immediate, as the film shattered box-office records and left gallons of tears streaming down countless Korean cheeks. For director Kang Je-gyu, just once wasn’t enough; his follow-up is “My Way,” another war film that surpasses its predecessor in terms of scale. Expect no similarly grand achievements this time around, though — this gargantuan epic is sprawling in almost every way imaginable.

Purportedly based on true events, the film follows the competitive relationship between Korean rickshaw driver Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun) and Japanese marathon runner Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri) from 1938 to 1944. Both dream of running in the Olympics for their respective countries, but instead, they are caught up in World War II and subsequently serve in the Japanese Imperial Army. Together, they experience the horrors of war, with their journey taking them from Mongolia all the way to France.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, the film seems cumbersome for its own good and never quite has the impression that every minute is worth its weight. A good 10 minutes or so could be cut, and the film would not only be more streamlined, but would also have the same emotional impact. In particular, a subplot involving Shirai, an ace Chinese female sniper (Fan Bingbing), feels as though it is shuffled into the narrative just to accommodate the actress.

Though the story is moving overall, it does have more than its fair share of moments when it becomes almost dangerously sappy. Occasionally, the story overemphasizes the sentimentality in a certain spot, undermining the authenticity that a period film like this one needs to sustain; a tragic scene involving the death of a character is often played out like a soap opera (amplified even further by a heavy-handed score).

For all the emotions that run thick throughout this picture, the characters lack the necessary depth to complement these melodramatics. Jun-shik and Tatsuo are established as and remain caricatures for a good chunk of the film, with Tatsuo essentially being an arrogant prick for the better part of an hour and a half. However, the two leading actors do terrific work here, and often do their best to elevate the almost thin material they are given.

The film is reportedly South Korea’s most expensive production to date, and every cent almost appears to be well-spent. The costumes and locations are recreated to perfection, and the special effects make warfare much more harrowing. The camera captures many beautiful wide shots and gets close and personal when the characters are in combat, though the use of shaky cam in the latter gets disorienting at times.

With so much effort going into “My Way,” it’s a disappointment to see all that overshadowed by such a jumbled and lumbering narrative. Kang may have directed yet another film that can rival the spectacle of “Saving Private Ryan,” but it certainly won’t stand the test of patience and time very well.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5