The Coast Guard Review
The Coast Guard is Kim Ki-duk’s second foray (the first being 2001’s Address Unknown) in establishing a commentary about the state of the current Korean military system.
The Korean peninsula is the only divided country on Earth. After the Korean war, the South Korean coastline was enclosed in barbed wire to block any attack. After the war, roughly twenty spies were captured or killed. To this day, whoever crosses the coastline after sunset may be treated as a spy and executed.
Kang Han-chul (Jang Dong-gun) dreams of killing his first spy so that he may earn top honours and be rewarded with an honourable discharge. More than anyone else in his platoon, he trains hard and demands respect as a First Private, always ready for that first kill, with the smell of blood on the tip of his nostrils. One night when a young woman named Mi-yeong (Park Ji-ah) enters the zone with her boyfriend and starts having sex on the beach, Han-chul opens fire, mistaking the man for a spy and killing him. Mi-yeong survives but she soon harbours mental scarring and gradually goes mad. After coming to the realisation that he killed an innocent man Han-chul becomes despondent and begins to exhibit a post-traumatic mental state, which soon becomes problematic for the battalion. As a reward he’s given a seven day leave, but returning home only makes matters worse. Soon after he returns to work he’s forced to leave, having been diagnosed as unfit for duty. But Han-chul struggles to adapt to his new life and he continues to go back to the base, each time more riled and confused than before. It’s only a matter of time before he presents a danger to himself and those around him.
I sometimes wonder if Kim Ki-duk would be better off making short films; he has a knack of getting under the skin of things and presenting very real issues in a way that many directors would be afraid to target. As a renegade director he allows his freedom to branch out in many weird and wonderful ways, but sometimes that freedom gets the better of him. Much like the statements seen in my review for Address Unknown, The Coast Guard also exhibits a slightly off-balance story. Certainly the film represents some strong ideas and themes and in the space of its first thirty minutes it accordingly addresses them in a compelling manner. The life of a coast guard is a supremely tedious affair; these men spend three years of their service maintaining a vigilant watch over a small piece of land, just in case a spy happens to wander in. What’s worse is that these men are so poorly trained that they’ll even open fire on innocent civilians who sneak behind lines. Some would say they’re just doing their jobs, but clearly they would have time to assess how much of a threat a particular person presents before firing off rounds. Perhaps so, but the fact is that these soldiers have orders drilled so far into their heads that they don’t know how to think properly before acting, and this is where Kang Han-chul comes into play. His incessant need to kill a spy so that he can attain an honourable discharge has seemingly clouded his better judgement. The reality that Ki-duk paints is a very stark one. It’s difficult for me to know just how much realism he’s depicting in terms of presenting this specific angle, but it’s evident that it is another aspect of his country that bothers him considerably. An interesting side note has the local folk express deep hatred for the stationing of soldiers who they think have no real need to be there, other than drain their taxes; one brief social comment that the director gets away with before moving on to bigger things that ultimately places the film on a downward spiral.
Kim Ki-duk bravely looks at the harrowing effects that can take place after the event of a death. He begins to question ethics and look at the destruction of the human mind as the characters of Han-chul and the young woman Mi-yeong steadily degenerate; a case of perpetrator and victim becoming entwined by a common shared madness. However, after setting up such a tragic affair, the director heads into his usual territory with something that sits on an entirely different plain. Soon after Han-chul attempts to escape to Seoul when facing the realisation that his military career is about to draw to a close, Kim Ki-duk gets a little too silly for his own good. Dealing with multiple characters he manages to balance the time between the two players rather well, while injecting his usual dose of symbolism, but in doing so he churns out quite an unrealistic feature. It’s too hard to buy into Han-chul’s affairs. The fact that he wishes to return to work is understandable, as are the loyalties that lie between he and his old friends, but the events that are triggered are quite often ludicrous. Kim Ki-duk seems adamant to illustrate the Korean military in a such a bad light that he’ll deliberately portray them as being complete morons, and that’s something which doesn’t entirely work on a professional level. Just how the hell can an entire battalion continually allow him on to their premise after receiving orders not to and knowing that he’s certifiably unfit for duty? Yet Han-chul continually walks around demanding respect, waving his unauthorized gun in their faces and getting said respect as they bow to his meaningless orders and let him beat them up in the process. It takes them far too long before they decide to just have him arrested, whereas I imagine that he would indeed be shot on the spot if that was such a case in reality. Are they really that fearful and shit at their jobs? Kim Ki-duk can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not he’s having a dig at the soldiers or the system. As Han-chul progresses in the film there is no other option but to have things end tragically, but due to the nature of Kim Ki-duk’s characterization there’s zero sympathy for anyone. In addition he includes some ridiculous scenes that do absolutely nothing for the film: a boxing match between two soldiers on a cold beach at night, both wearing gloves and expensive night vision goggles, to name but one.
Mi-yeong is more of familiar archetype for the director. He’s shown women in all kinds of mental states throughout his film making career, but usually they’re portrayed as being on the brink of despair. Mi-yeong is simply a tragic girl and she’s continually knocked down from the start. The soldier’s treatment toward her is quite frankly disgusting, several of them taking advantage of her poor mental state by having sex with her, until her brother notices she’s pregnant, to which they then perform an abortion without anaesthetic, after he threatens them with taking action through the MP. Of course her madness stems from a sexual trauma, which somehow forces her react by frequenting several officer’s posts. While Park Ji-ah, playing Mi-yeong admirably prances around giggling and doing bizarre things she’s just another part of the director’s numbing additions to the story. His true intentions are laid down long before anyone has any kind of idea that they should be caring about what else he has to say. Come the final act when her destiny and that of Han-chul collides, the director explores something of a journey, one that again is entirely subjective.
Kim Ki-duk does wonders as usual with his interesting cinematography on display. He mirrors his characters and their actions well by slowly diffusing the picture of life and showing us a side of Korea that so few of us know about. Often we see some beautiful takes of the surrounding scenery, obscured by unsightly wire fencing and large, glass encrusted rocks. The director’s film has quite a range of colour, which is slowly filtered out when much of the film begins to place predominant focus on night time exterior shoots. For those of you who found The Isle somewhat unsettling due to its cruel nature toward animals you’ll find similar things here; another case no doubt of Ki-duk breaking out the symbolic gesture. Though it’s nowhere near as bad as showing frogs getting bashed it does have fish being mistreated for the sake of showing someone truly on the brink of madness. Furthermore we do have some trademark violence, which as with most of the director’s films are realistically unpleasant in one way or another.
Following on from Address Unknown Tartan releases The Coast Guard on a much more promising disc.
Kim Ki-duk’s earlier films released on DVD have never looked that great and Tartan certainly don’t do anything to rectify that once more. The Coast Guard is presented anamorphically at 1.85:1, but that’s about the best it has going for it. The image is soft and murky, with obvious boosted contrast levels and little shadow detail. Edge enhancement has been applied and certain colours tend to bleed: the red tracksuit trousers worn by some locals being immediately noticeable. Oh and it’s NTSC-PAL. I’m afraid that again I can’t provide screen grabs, because for some reason my DVD player hates Tartan discs recently.
Three Korean audio options are available: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, DD5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1 Surround. I chose to go with its native 2.0 Stereo. In all honesty I find these higher mixes offensive and as was the case with Address Unknown they do nothing to improve the feature. The soundtrack as it stands is entirely functional. Kim Ki-duk never goes wild in the sound department, which isn’t a surprise given their low budget nature. But these films are also personal ones, making use of intimate settings and relying on character functions to speak louder. A simple, if occasionally melodramatic, violin score permeates the feature and it’s handled well, as is dialogue, which takes up most of the central room.
Optional English subtitles are provided and pose no technical errors.
When I received the disc and artwork it stated that The Coast Guard had an audio commentary with Kim Ki-duk. This isn't the case though and I can only presume that I was sent an early, provisional sleeve. A little disappointing as I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say.
What we're left with is an introduction by Kim Ki-duk (1:14), which sees the director offer his brief, but to the point reasoning behind filming The Coast Guard. Next up we have a short piece called Breaking Down Borders (3.53), in which he talks a little about the state of South Korea’s military defines post, as depicted in the film, being fenced off on three sides and how soldiers are ever on the watch for North Korean intruders. He continually cites his concerns, and as with Address unknown he also brings in America’s problems as he uses his feature to not only discuss Korean military flaws but also that of the United States and how both do very little to advance themselves toward maintaining a greater peace. A music video, original theatrical trailer and a Tartan trailer reel finish off the disc.
Kim Ki-duk’s The Coast Guard isn’t an easy one to digest. Although its points are valid the director makes them early on and in doing so explores other avenues which, in the end, become far less interesting to view. It’s also one of his silliest features that strays further from a serious social commentary as it steers toward some dopey characterisation and unsympathetic turns of events.