The Coast Guard [subtitled]

The Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is a rather odd Korean film. A platoon of twenty-three South Korean soldiers are guarding a certain stretch of the border with North Korea, when the most over-zealous of them on night patrol shoots and kills a civilian he mistakes for an infiltrating spy. Both the soldier who did the killing and the girlfriend of the dead man go crazy as a result of the incident, and the rest of the movie consists of the platoon’s having to deal with the consequences of these two utter lunatics hovering around the area and causing endless trouble, up to and including getting more people killed.

The film at first looks like it’s going to be a straight drama, but it gradually becomes so far-fetched that one can only assume the absurdity is intentional and it’s not supposed to be taken as realistic. My guess is it’s trying to say something about how the military situation between the two Koreas—or just the militarism in the world as a whole—is lunacy, that it turns those who participate in it directly into monsters, and indirectly puts everyone else at risk as a result. Or something like that. Antiwar, anyway.

There may also be an interpretation problem across cultures. Perhaps the South Korean military is vastly different from how I picture any military, and perhaps they interact with civilians in a way it’s hard for me to imagine, and so there are certain aspects of the movie that aren’t as far-fetched as I think. Or perhaps the context doesn’t change the fact that those things are absurd, but it changes the point the filmmaker is trying to make with the absurdity. I don’t know.

The goofiest thing is probably the behavior of the platoon itself. It really is like something out of a situation comedy minus the laugh track, like you’re watching an entire platoon of Gomer Pyles.

People just walk up and take their guns and other equipment from them. They seemingly have no way to deal with intruders to the base and the surrounding area except to get confused, hurt looks on their faces and ask them plaintively to go away. They’re constantly being disciplined for one screw-up or another by having to run around, do push-ups, stick their heads in the mud, etc., like a bunch of high school football players who showed up late for practice and are being put through their paces by an angry coach. Every time their former colleague shows up and does something bizarre, they react with bewilderment and demand, “Private Kang, are you crazy?!” as if there could be any lingering doubt after the tenth or so incident.

Stylistically, the movie is abnormal—presumably intentionally—in that it peaks every five minutes with some kind of explosion. That certainly gives it a rare intensity, but it’s so over the top as to again cross the line into absurdity. But literally every five minutes or less, someone slaps someone in a rage, someone gets shot, a fistfight breaks out, someone has a complete meltdown and launches into a verbal tirade against someone, someone does something completely insane, and so on. (In the real world, the two lunatics, by the way, would surely both have been in an asylum or jail or somewhere like that from very early in this film. Instead they’re running around loose wreaking havoc, with the ex-soldier especially being a major threat to himself and others.)

So both in content and in structure, the movie has a very unreal feel to it. I didn’t hate the film’s absurdist nature, but I can’t say I had any particular reason to like it. Maybe its unconventionality is supposed to make it more memorable and drive home its message (whatever precisely that is) more strongly, but I would have rather watched a realistic treatment of the emotional impact on these characters of the accidental killing.

So overall I would say The Coast Guard is a below average movie, relative to my tastes.

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