When I heard the title of the 2018 South Korean musical, Swing Kids, my first thoughts were of the 1993 American film with the same name. Despite both being backstage musicals set during wartime, I assumed that similarities would end there and the re-used title was merely a coincidence rather than a reference. Though it may be true that the filmmaker did not directly intend to make a connection between the two films, the similarities are also impossible to ignore. Swing Kids (’93) is a film about German youths attempting to grow up and enjoy ordinary lives appreciating swing music during an era of the Nazi regime and war that was anything but ordinary. Similarly, Swing Time (2018) is about a group of people finding simple pleasures in dance during wartime. Even more remarkably, while Swing Kids (’93) is an American film with German protagonists, Swing Kids (2018) is a South Korean film with North Korean characters as the primary focus. Most importantly, both films (along with the French Joyeux Noel) celebrate the empathetic powers of music and artistic expression during wartime, specifically considering those on the opposite side from the country in which the film is made.
Even noticing the thematic and narrative similarities between the two films of the same name, they are easily dismissed in the vast tonal differences, at least to begin with. This new Swing Kids is straight-up comedy for the first half, nearly resembling a Stephen Chow film with the emphasis on deadpan expressions matched with hilarious physical humor. It is a world of slapstick that feels relatively safe, despite taking place in a volatile POW camp during the Korean War, to the point that one altercation promising violence instead leads to a dance-off. Unfortunately, this early comedy is almost utilized as a weapon against the audience, unable to prepare for a sudden tonal shift in the third act which changes the rules of the narrative to include extreme and dramatic violence. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to remind the audience of the reality in the setting, that violence suddenly and with finality intrudes upon life during wartime, but the un-established shift also feels somewhat ungracious.
The film is primarily focused on two opposing characters, though the movie’s enjoyment often comes from rich performances in the supporting roles. The American-run POW camp is looking for good press after notorious difficulty keeping the prisoners from infighting. Some of the North Korean prisoners quickly adjusted to the luxuries being offered to them, while others found this to be a betrayal to their nation and leader, and thus rejected anything remotely American. In an effort to receive positive press, a series of talent shows were planned with the POWs who were willing. Roh Ki-soo (Doh Kyung-soo) is a former North Korean dancer who would have had a successful career, were it not for the war. Similarly, an American soldier named Jackson (Jared Grimes) who is tasked with preparing an act for the talent show, had a career on Broadway cut short by the draft. Despite their similarities and shared interest, the fact that Ki-soo is on the other side seems enough to keep him antagonistic.
Inevitably, Ki-soo agrees to dance, if only in secret so that none of the loyalist North Koreans knows that he is learning the American art of tap. Joining Ki-soo is a diverse group of misfits, each with their own reason to want to perform. Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) is a citizen falsely accused of being a traitor, only interested in using the publicity to try and find his wife, lost in the war-ravaged country. Xiao Fang (Kim Min-ho in a miraculous deadpan performance) is a Chinese communist who simply loves to dance, and will take any opportunity to show it. And Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su) is a local looking for ways to feed her family that don’t require selling her body (for anything other than dance, that is). Even the leader Jackson is seen as an outcast in his own military, given that he is a black man. This aligns him with the prisoners that he teaches to dance, rather than with the typically white American soldiers that often terrorize anyone who is different much in the way North Korean loyalists punish those showing an affinity towards Western pleasures.
The American soldiers are not seen as ‘right’ any more than the North Korean loyalists (although they do bring real dramatic stakes and violence to the narrative), because the true villains in this film are not the soldiers on the opposite sides, but the ones on each who are unwilling to see the humanity in their enemy. This is a profound message coming from
Korea, particularly considering the choice to have make
the protagonist North Korean coming from a film made in . It
is a movie that argues the unifying power of artistic creation, before showing
that it is also often not enough to combat the brutality of ignorant thinking
that has run rampant throughout humanity’s history. Thus, Swing Kids is a remarkably bleak film, despite the joyousness (and
often comedy) of the dancing sequences. South Korea
The Blu-ray release has trailers for other films, but no other special features. The film itself, however, is often very big and colorful looking, which is spectacular in high definition. In general, the filmmaking on display in this film is excellent, and although Blu-ray is not necessary for the enjoyment, there are enough visual enhancements to the experience to want the best presentation available.
Entertainment Value: 8.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 8/10
Historical Significance: 6.5/10
Special Features: 1/10