At first glance the premise for My Way appears farfetched- The idea that an Asian man would somehow have wound up serving in some manner for three different countries during World War II before being taken prisoner when the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy appears to be the kind of tale that can come only from the product of someone with a rather broad imagination sitting at a keyboard and producing an arc that almost every production company would dismiss as too outlandish. Any yet the adage that reality is stranger than fiction applies as the genesis for this idea comes from records of the war, in particular a photograph taken of an Asian POW after the Allies had overrun the German battlements at Normandy. Apparently the picture fascinated a large number of people with director Kang Je-Kyu being among their numbers as he picked this script to end his seven year hiatus from filmmaking. The film itself is one that may best be described as almost a dark version on Forrest Gump and from the beginning introduction of both the film’s Korean protagonist Jun-shik Kim and his Japanese antagonist/rival/later co-protagonist Tatsuo Hasegawa are tied together initially in the sport of running as they are both gifted and dedicated athletes. A few years later, as if bound by fate, they meet on the battle field as non equals with Hasegawa being in command until they find themselves in a similar status as prisoners and sometimes fighters or workers for both the Soviet and German armies.
It is in this path from Korea to Normandy that the film finds both its strongest and weakest moments as the director has an amazing eye for creating some spectacular backgrounds for the events to take place in. The feature presents some spectacular visual elements that rival some of the locations and environments that even some of the big budget Hollywood films can create while at the same time having a careful eye to carefully address layout which gives him the freedom to contain the scope of battle to what he wants it to be. There is quite a variance at times to the action found within as there are a number of encounters that occur between various armies and the audience is presented with a number of different types of encounters from broad battle fields to much more intimate settings as some action takes place inside fortified walls. Probably the greatest consistency though in the battles is the director’s use of chaos as the audience gets immersed in a swirling blur of action, events and death that seem to be random and horrific and very much in line with more modern presentations of war rather than some of the more heroic narratives that older pictures tended to strive for. This presentation is dizzying at times which creates a profound sense that this is the last place on Earth any human wants to be and this reaction is borne out in the faces of many of the troops fighting, especially those who are there by force rather than their own choice.
The biggest problem though is that Jun-shik isn’t allowed to show the effects that these various horrors would take on a normal person. In one of the extra’s on the Well Go USA disc the actor portraying him talks how the character was intended to be the same throughout the film which robs the viewer in many ways of the experience of seeing how all of this impacts him. It also seems unrealistic as outside of someone with no capable of understanding the entirety of events or someone possessing a seriously maladaptive personality that these events would have to affect them and the lack of change makes it so much harder to connect with him as a person. To see impact in fact the audience must turn to Hasegawa who goes from being a very arrogant youth and troop leader (which also allows the film to engage in some anti-Japanese sentiment) to a far more sympathetic character who recognizes what he was which to some degree allows him to become something far more human, though even he feels like he only becomes developed as the feature rolls along and not really much more than a caricature at the beginning of the feature.
My Way feels like a film that is both an incredible and overwhelming picture of war that uses two characters for the audience to really appreciate some of its bigger moments and the chaos that war brings but also a picture that doesn’t know how to completely draw the audience in and so keeps them at arm’s length by not giving them much of an opening into its erstwhile protagonist. While the film is one that I could easily say stands with its head held high in the technical department (the audio on the Blu Ray is simply astounding in its presentation) the film’s lack of presenting a relatable entry point makes it much harder to digest the full message as the lack of seeing the protagonist struggle to react to events doesn’t bring the emotions to the front that might otherwise be present and which leaves what should be chilling and moving moments more cold and detached than it could have been.