Guest reviewer: Caballero Oscura
Prolific Korean writer/director Kim Ki-Duk has been on a roll lately with having his movies released in the US, such as 3-Iron, Samaritan Girl, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring. Now Tartan Video has dug into his back catalog and unearthed this gem from a few years ago for DVD release. While his latest releases have been somewhat plodding affairs almost completely devoid of dialogue, The Coast Guard has a bit more mainstream presentation and even includes some limited action scenes. However, the underlying plot is just as disturbing as the rest of his work.
Private Kang is dutifully serving out his mandatory two-year military assignment by protecting South Korea’s coastline from nonexistent North Korean spies. He is extremely passionate about his assignment and at times seems a bit high-strung about his duties although there’s never any backstory provided for his obsessive tendencies. The local townspeople are wary of their military neighbors and frankly view them as an unnecessary drain on taxpayer resources. The rest of Kang’s unit are mostly just punching the clock until their two years are up; they have no interest in becoming career soldiers and little interest in competently protecting the coast.
One fateful night, a couple from town decides to risk a romantic tryst on the guarded beach. That turns out to be an extremely poor idea with Kang on duty, and the resulting tragedy shatters the lives of Kang and a girl from town, with repercussions rippling throughout the community and base. The townspeople end their uneasy alliance with the base, the military ends its association with Kang, and the girl loses her tenuous grip on reality…but nobody leaves town. So, the heart of the film is its study of the effects of tragedy on individuals as well as their surrounding community. If you’re a military base commander, what do you do about a discharged soldier who keeps hanging around outside your base pleading to return to duty? If you’re a busy fisherman, what do you do about your completely insane sister who also keeps hanging around the base? And if you’re either of the primary damaged subjects, how do you escape your tailspin into oblivion and return to some semblance of normality?
The movie surprised me in many ways. Primarily, I was impressed with Kim’s ability to deliver such difficult subject matter in a somewhat glossy, commercial format. I was completely enthralled with the script, letting it lead me to its surprising conclusion without thought or preconceived notions about what might be in store, a sure sign that the movie was effective. I’ve come to expect slow, languorous explorations into obsession from Kim’s past work that tend to make me want to fast forward frequently, so it was refreshing to find that this film moved along at a relatively brisk, crisp pace and held my interest throughout.
While the film lost a bit of steam at the end with some ambiguity about perceptions of reality and unresolved character arcs, it held together to a satisfying conclusion…or at least as satisfying as could be expected from its completely unsettling premise. Kim Ki-Duk continues to be a name to watch, and The Coast Guard is an excellent starting point for anyone unfamiliar with his past work.