With the Japanese Film Festival just starting today, yesterday I made one last trip back into the Korean Film Festival programming. Although the festival itself ended prematurely, the supporting program offered by SBS is still available to watch, including one more movie I hadn’t previously seen – Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Korean War tap dance musical Swing Kids [Seuwingkizeu] (2018).
The story takes place in 1951 in the US-run prison camp on Geoje Island, which divided prisoners into “Communist” and “anti-Communist” (although the US soldiers portrayed in the film don’t appear to see any real distinction, calling all of them “Commie” indiscriminately). New prison commander Brigadier General Roberts (Ross Kettle) – a blowhard who at first seems personable but, despite paying lip service to the idea that different Asian cultures can’t be lumped together as a homogeneous mass, harbours considerably less enlightened views just under the surface – is looking for a public relations coup to counter a propaganda film portraying North Korean POW camps as more civilised than their South Korean counterparts. He instructs Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes) – a black American soldier who used to tap dance on Broadway and has been running an unofficial night club for his fellow GIs – to assemble a dance troupe of prisoners who will perform for visiting UN dignitaries.
His initial attempt to hold an audition is disastrous, primarily due to communication difficulties. Linda (Park Jin-joo), the leader of the group of Korean women who filled the ranks of Jackson’s parties, styles herself as an interpreter but clearly has very little idea what Jackson is saying – her “translations” are nothing more than (drastically wrong) guesses, and she responds to his complaints with the sort of stereotypical English phrases that American soldiers expect to hear from Asian women. Fortunately her most recent recruit – 20-year-old Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-soo), who joined the dance troupe to help feed her family – is a skilled translator fluent in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese (a legacy of World War Two) who is able to cut through the confusion. (Issues of translation and appearances are rife throughout the film – Korean military personnel are rarely seen to be saying what the Americans expect of them and characters viewed from an external cultural context are rarely what they first appear to be.)
Only two of the auditioning prisoners stand out from the crowd. Xiaofang (Kim Min-Ho) is a broadly built Chinese soldier suffering from angina due to malnutrition, but his florid dance moves belie his build and his sheer enthusiasm carries the day (despite almost missing the audition). Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) is a South Korean civilian who was interred after being unjustly denounced as a Communist. His initially impressive audition in traditional costume (featuring skilful twirling of a ribbon fixed to his hat) goes wrong due to translation errors, but he’s the only acceptable option from the first audition and is warmly welcoming to Xiaofang. And although Yang Pan-rae claims to be more focused on her translation fee, since dancing doesn’t bring in any money, the quality of the rehearsals only picks up once she joins in to set an example for the less confident men.
The last member to join, and the character after whom Jang Woo-sung’s original musical production was named, is Ro Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) – North Korean soldier, notorious troublemaker, and brother to war hero Ro Ki-Jin (Kim Dong-gun). Ki-soo had been raiding the camp’s food supplies after his release from solitary confinement, only to become hypnotised by the sight of Jackson tap dancing. Falling asleep after eating too much food, he woke up during the dance and his attempts to make his way out of the building inadvertently caused a fire which led to the formal military “discovery” of Jackson’s dance nights. Sent back to the hall the next day to repair the damage, his passion for dance is recognised by Jackson, who challenges him to use his talents and join. Conflicted by his attraction to an ideologically impure dance style, Jackson’s constant pursuit and his own desire to dance ultimately win him over to the group – although he refuses to perform in public lest he be recognised by his fellow North Korean soldiers.
Jimmy (A.J. Simmons) and his fellow dance enthusiast grunts don’t take too kindly to Ki-soo’s “appropriation” of their dance culture. After he leaves a rehearsal, they drag him off to a nearby abandoned hall for what looks like it will be a beating, only to… challenge him to a dance off?? This delightful switch of expectations continues to develop as his fellow troupe members run in to support him and we are treated to a fully fledged dance battle – before the US soldiers turn into sore losers and revert to the expected violence, only narrowly averted by the intervention of Jackson, who might well be their superior officer but is still clearly considered to be lesser due to his race.
After Jimmy frames Jackson for receiving anti-American propaganda, the dance program is called to a halt, but an impromptu performance by three of the group during the UN visit leads to the program’s reinstatement, with the promise of a bigger production for the next visit. As rehearsals resume and the day approaches, tensions to continue to rise within the camp, leading to outbreaks of violence between the two factions of prisoners and the deaths of some prison guards. The arrival of more politically volatile prisoners among the North Korean contingent contributes significantly to the problems, which threaten to spill over into the upcoming performance.
Writer/director Kang Hyeong-cheol has taken some minor liberties with the historical details, but they have clearly been made to serve the story and don’t detract from its authenticity. The historical Geoje-do POW camp went through multiple commanding officers in rapid succession – Col. Maurice J. Fitzgerald described it as: “a graveyard of commanders.” The movie’s Brigadier General Roberts never existed – he’s a composite creation intended to provide dramatic unity by combining all the commanders of 1951 (with the exception of a single predecessor) into a single character. As for the central dance troupe calling themselves “Swing Kids”, I haven’t seen any evidence that they actually existed – but the prisoner of war camp setting provides a suitable setting to explore the power of dance to unite people across cultures and to act as escape outlet from otherwise bleak circumstances.
While most of the music is period appropriate, there are occasional dips forward into time. Although this runs the risk of disrupting the reality of the scenario, and seems to have been a sticking point for some reviewers, I felt that the out-of-era songs were strategically chosen and appropriately used. Indeed, one of the film’s highlights is a sequence choreographed to fit David Bowie’s “Modern Love” which resonates with the music video for the same album’s title song “Let’s Dance”. Outside of the camp, Pan-rae has been talking to Jackson about the difficulties of being a woman in the middle of a war and the ways in which dancing frees her. She puts on her tap shoes and begins to express her feelings through dance – just as Ki-soo is doing the same in the empty dance hall. Kang Hyeong-cheol skilfully weaves together their two solo performances, creating the impression of a single dance performed together despite their physical separation. It’s a beautiful sequence which detaches them both temporarily from their cares before coming to an abrupt end expressive of their respective emotional states.
I’m reluctant to delve too deeply into later events, since this film demands to be watched and I wouldn’t want to spoil the journey. It’s a film which finds hope in dark places and contains sweeping moments of joy, but which has no compunctions against ripping your heart from your chest and stomping it into the earth. Kang Hyeong-cheol ably straddles the line between stylisation of technique and depiction of grounded reality, centred around the emotional core of acting duo Park Kye-soo and Do Kyung-soo, who between them embody different aspects of a divided nation which can only reunite by embracing the title of their final dance number: “Fuck Ideology!”