There’s a certain novelty to R-Point inasmuch as it presents the Vietnam War from the perspective of the South Koreans. Not that this is a reconfigured Platoon, however, rather it fits in more with recent J-horror trends than it does anything Oliver Stone has put his name to. The crux of the story is that a platoon situated in the R-point military zone has been contacting headquarters over the past six months despite all but one being dead. (The sole survivor currently occupying a hospital burns unit and on the verge of insanity.) Understandably the military wish to check up on this and so send out a search party populated by a no-nonsense Lieutenant recently treated for mental illness, a naïve villager who had lied about his age in order to enlist, and a ragtag bunch of VD sufferers, all of whom were under the impression that their tour of duty was due to come to an end.
As soon as this bunch of misfits reaches the zone R-Point sets out its stead as a horror movie. Of course Vietnam has produced plenty of films on the “horrors of war” before - Apocalypse Now being the major example – yet here we’re in a territory more akin to the WWII horrors of The Keep and, more recently, Deathwatch and The Bunker. The moment the platoon arrives we get an intertitle proclaiming the first day, thereby immediately bringing to mind The Shining and its countdown towards bad things to come. Moreover, form this point onwards director and co-writer Kong Su-Chang throws in as many genre keystones as his script can handle. The zone – which, we are informed, neither the North nor South Vietnamese will enter as it’s holy ground – is shrouded in fog by day; there are blue-tinted point of view shots from whatever the evil may be; there’s a lank-haired, pale-faced Asian girl familiar from so many Eastern horrors; and there’s a huge reliance on superstition and foreboding (“If you touch a dead person’s stuff, you’re finger will rot off” being just the first of many warnings).
It’s this latter element which is of the greatest importance, R-Point being most successful in establishing its mood. There are various pieces of information to be divulged regarding past massacres and the like of course, but it’s the look of the film which works best. Oddly this is one of the few Vietnam flicks which allows us to take in its landscape – and it proves all the more effective when populated by a ghost-like graveyard, an ancient Chinese temple and a crumbling French mansion. The problem is that such an atmosphere struggles to sustain itself beyond the early stages simply because the overall mystery of the military zone is pitched too broadly. Whereas the more successful horror films about small groups being victimised have concentrated on a smaller focus - The Blair Witch Project, say, or The Thing - Kong has given himself too many considerations (and seemingly disparate ones at that) to play with. Are we dealing with a ghost or many ghosts? Or is it perhaps a vengeful spirit? Are there any other inhabitants in the zone? Are they dead or alive? Effectively we’re being asked to consider too many options and as a result the tension and suspense soon dissipates.
Disappointingly, there’s little in the characters to serve as a back-up. We get the ordinary types and the macho stoic types familiar from numerous platoon pictures, but the film never really delves into their various dynamics. You get the sense that their banter could be easily interchangeable to little discernible effect; after all, their general level of communication is to call each “assholes” and as such we’re never really forced to care. And of course, the result of this is that once they begin to get systematically picked off, it’s all to little discernible effect – merely one less person onscreen to be hurling abuse/have abuse hurled at them. More importantly, the fact that this banter rarely works make you question why it’s been included in the first place. Even at under two hours R-Point feels overlong and the excision of some of these scenes would surely have picked up the pace.
As such the initial novelty of a Korean Vietnam movie wears off fairly soon. In many ways the setting is merely an excuse for the film rather than being in any integral to it. Ultimately R-Point could easily be remade for a western audience without having to change a thing. Certainly, some of the superstitious elements might have to be adjusted a little, but otherwise we have nothing more than a fairly standard horror flick. It starts off well, continues with the occasional nice touch, but there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before.
As we’ve come to expect from Tartan R-Point is another of their NTSC-PAL conversions, though it must be said that it’s also one of the best. The clarity is generally very good, the colours don’t appear to have been affected too much, and there’s little of the usual edge enhancement and artefacting. As such we’re still faced with highly noticeable ghosting during the more hectic scenes, but otherwise the film remains far more watchable than you’d expect. Of course, it’s not perfect and NTSC-PAL conversions are always a disappointment, but you do feel that this could have come off a lot worse. As for the soundtrack here we find the usual Tartan offering of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS mixes all in the original Korean with optional English subs. As is also usually the case it’s the DD5.1 option which is the intended soundtrack and therefore the one to go for. Indeed, the DD2.0 merely takes some of its effectiveness away whilst the DTS doesn’t really add all that much. That said, all three come across as technically fine and as such it is likely to be down to the individual as to which option they choose.
Surprisingly Tartan have also included a number of noteworthy extras on the disc, most prominently a commentary by director Kong Su-Chang, producer Choi Kang Hyuk and location supervisor Kim Wan-Shik. Given the latter’s inclusion, their chat understandably gravitates towards the Cambodian locations and the like, but overall they offer a pleasing level of information into all aspects of the film’s production, from discussions of the intended opening scene (never filmed) to the fact that the tough filming conditions led to lead actor Kham Woo-Sung being hospitalised for three days. Be warned, however, that the commentary can also be fairly dry and unlikely to build any enthusiasm for the film.
Elsewhere the disc also plays host to a series of featurettes, each concentrating on a different aspect. ‘Mission R-Point’ provides a more general ‘making of’ glimpse at the production (plenty of B-roll footage, brief interviews with the cast and crew), whilst the others concentrate on the sound design and editing, the authenticity of its reproduction of 1972 and the special effects. As with the commentary these come in Korean with optional subtitles and are generally agreeable. There’s not a great deal of depth to any of them, but given their brief running times (especially in the case of the latter three) they never outstay their welcome. Rounding off the package we also find the expected theatrical trailer.