Kang Je-gyu exclusively makes South Korea’s most expensive movies. That’s probably why you’ve never heard of him. A country’s priciest cinema, ironically, often have difficulty connecting worldwide, and Kang’s previous homegrown hits—1999’s Shiri and 2004’s Taegukgi—have fared about as well stateside as the Rohmeresque art films of fellow countryman Hong Sang-soo. If Flowers of War, China’s $95 million epic (American gross: $303,103), is any indication, few will be impressed by a pan-Asian blockbuster that was at one point called D-Day and which is now, for reasons unknown, evidently named after a Frank Sinatra staple.
On one level that’s a shame: Like Spielberg’s War Horse, this is old-school Big. It even boasts 16,000 extras. Seeing actual bodies on battlefields is such a rarity these days that My Way can almost—almost—be forgiven for offering almost nothing but battles. There’s a thin backbone of a narrative: Kim (Jang Dong-gun) and Katsuo (Joe Odagari) are long distance runners torn apart by the Japanese occupation of Korea. Both find themselves fighting for Japan, and the vagaries of fate and the cruelties of war shuffle them all over the globe: to a Soviet POW camp and, eventually, fighting for the Nazis during the Normany siege.
That they’re always on the wrong side of history is an irony only somewhat explored. My Way’s dominant mode isn’t introspective but loud and monotonous, with battle scenes that roll on forever, like waves in an ocean. The goal is to emulate Saving Private Ryan, but there’s little of that film’s unwatchability: the carnage seems designed to placate gorehounds, with a record number of squibs and burst-apart bodies fighting for space with “kick-ass” crane shots, one of which dollies down a line of bomb-strapped kamikaze trucks crashing into tanks. Kang even baldly rips that “shot” from Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor that follows a bomb from deployment to target.
Like that film, My Way can be accused of aesthesizing tragedy, although at least Kang attempts to show war’s psychic toll: Even the comic relief (Kim In-kwon) is transformed into a hellish tyrant. Superficially, the twisty narrative resembles a trashy, brain-drained version of the Japanese mega-epic The Human Condition—at a fifth the length—that’s been crossed with The Fox and the Hound. That mashup may be questionable as art, but then, you have to knife through an impenetrable thicket of battle scenes to even notice a narrative.