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'R-Point' movie and DVD [review]

2006/02/27 Source

A ragtag team of Korean soldiers in the Vietnamese jungle find more than they bargained for
Kim Kyu Hyun (internews)

"R-Point" (2004) marks the directorial debut for Kong Soo-chang, a screenwriter behind such hits as "Tell Me Something" and "Ring Virus". One of Kong's personal preoccupations seems to be Korean participation in the Viet Nam War, which he previously tackled as a co-screenwriter for "White Badge", adapted from An Jung Hyo's groundbreaking English-language novel.

Production Notes

A CN Film Production. Distributed by Cinema Service.

Written and directed by Kong Soo-chang. Executive Producer Chang Youn Hyun. Produced by Choi Kang-hyeok. Cinematography by Seok Hyeon-jeong. Lighting by Lee Joo-saeng. Edited by Nam Na-yeong. Production design by Ha Seon-min. Starring Kam Woo-sung, Son Byung-ho, Oh Tae-kyung, Park Won-sang.

Internationally distributed by Cinema Service. 107 minutes.
"R-Point" returns to the topic in the guise of a horror film. The year is 1972. A ragtag team of Korean soldiers is assembled to investigate a missing squadron, lost somewhere in the Vietnamese jungle. Volunteers are chosen from those about to be shipped back to Korea for various reasons, including being diagnosed with STDs, and morale is low. The team is led by Lieutenant Choi (Kam Woo-sung), a seasoned veteran and an excellent soldier who nonetheless has become cynical and desensitized to the gruesome massacres taking place around him, backed up by Sergeant Jin (Son Byung-ho), a typical military hard-butt. What they do not know is that their destination, so-called Romeo Point, is a haunted precinct, which has been swallowing up foreign invaders since the French colonial period.

It is clear that director Kong Soo-chang wanted to make his film relevant to current affairs, especially Korea's participation in the American war against Iraq, but "R-Point" works first and foremost as an atmospheric thriller. In that regard, the film does pretty well, enormously aided by the location shots in Kampuchea, with the huge, abandoned, and moss-covered colonial-period mansion as its main setting. The jungle looks damp and uncomfortable, but DP Seok Hyeon-jeong and the production team manage to create forbiddingly yet alluringly beautiful vistas out of ropy, green vegetation half-hiding majestic temple walls, flashes of bone-white crosses lined up in a mass grave, and a terrifying stone statue with a crumbling face, seemingly looking down wrathfully on hapless Korean interlopers.

Director Kong handles both military drama and things-go-bump-in-the-night scare tactics with competence and grit. The film, however, never really reaches the height of the jaw-dropping, mind-altering delirium or pitiless exactitude of the Korean horror masterpieces like Kim Jee-woon's "A Tale of Two Sisters" or Park Chan-wook's "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance". "R-Point" looks and feels like a reasonably well-made Hollywood film from the '70s, somewhat reminiscent of the tone and themes, if not contents, of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder".

However, unlike these two films, "R-Point" is very straightforward about its approach to the supernatural underpinnings of the story. Once the basic plot points are brought out, there is not much suspense about how this will all end, despite genuinely frightening set pieces such as the faceless soldiers who soundlessly appear and disappear in a dense field of grass.

The film's major asset, as is the case with many Korean movies with an ensemble cast, is its performance. Even though the characters are fairly stereotypical (Oh Tae-kyung as a cocky, teenage ruffian, Park Won-sang as a timid former mess officer with a wife and a child back home, Kim Byung-chul as a mortician's son who knows "all about" the ghost and gravestones, etc.), the actors try their best to bring their roles to life, and by and large succeed.

None of the characters is the snickering, one-liner-spewing moron whom the viewers cannot wait to see gobbled up by the monster/ghost and who populates too many American films of this type. Kam Woo-sung gives another of his smooth-sailing-on-the-surface-but-rotting-from-inside characterizations, as in "Spider Forest". It is too bad that his internal turmoil (and presumably his skepticism about the Korean involvement in the Viet Nam war) is rather underdeveloped as written.

I also wish director Kong had simply dropped the supernatural angle for the second half and let the characters naturally respond to the overwhelming paranoia and panic - I would have bought it if the soldiers began to kill each other without any "help" from the ghost.

There was really no reason to include rather crude POV shots from the ghost's point of view, for instance. But then again, I sense that Kong Soo-chang's identification figures were these unfortunate grunts, not the Vietnamese victims of war, so perhaps this is a limitation inherent in a movie made by filmmakers from the "invading" country. The "native" presence in "R-Point" is feminized and viewed from an exclusively masculine perspective, and remains a mere specter, after all things are said and done. In this sense, too, the movie is ultimately unable to move beyond the '70s Hollywood liberal take on the Viet Nam War.

DVD Presentation:

Tartan USA DVD. NTSC. Dual Layer. Region 1. Audio: Korean (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS, Filmmaker's Commentary Track). Subtitles: English, Spanish. Retail Price $24.99. Street Date: Feb. 28, 2006.

Tartan USA's release of "R-Point" is a welcome improvement over some of its previous Korean titles. The 1.85:1 wide screen transfer is pleasantly clean and colorful. I have compared it to the Cinema Service Region 3 Special Edition transfer, and found the former to be more natural looking in color and tone. Few artifacts show up. Only a bit of aliasing in the windowsills and such is noticeable. Edge enhancement and video noise that plagued some scenes in the Cinema Service edition have apparently been corrected. Dark areas remain legible throughout the picture, and blood appears suitably deep crimson with little video "seepage". Some might find the Tartan USA version a little too soft, but I think it operates at just the right level, unlike the Cinema Service version with its rather distractingly bad picture quality. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, which I have checked, is also up to snuff, with nice battleground sound effects and ambient noises.

Moreover, Tartan did the right thing this time around and redid the English subs. Punctuation, font visibility, and timing have all been greatly improved over the average-quality Cinema Service subs, along with faithful renditions of '70s-specific references (e.g., "Bunny Girls") and colloquial expressions ("Shame on you" [Tartan] instead of "That's disgusting" [Cinema Service] for a dialogue that literally goes something like "What's an okay-looking guy like you doing with...?"). One character's self-designated nickname is correctly identified as "Sax (as in "saxophone")" Park (Tartan), instead of "Sex" Park (Cinema Service), and a reference to restless spirits is fully deciphered as "There's a type who seeks out a place like this" (Tartan) rather than "Well, there must be some (Cinema Service)". Overall, a commendable job.

The special features include a subtitled commentary track joined by writer-director Kong Soo-chang, producer Choi Kang-hyeok, and location supervisor Kim Wan-sik. As you might well expect from a movie like "R-Point", a large chunk of their conversations are devoted to the difficulties involving location shooting in Kampuchea, especially the weather-related problems. From my experience, there is very little that's more boring than someone you don't know moping and complaining about bad weather, so some viewers might be scrambling to turn off the track. (Considering the circumstances in which the film was made, I actually don't blame them) But the commentary track does include some fascinating information, such as that one cast member (Moon Yeong-dong as Private Byun, the "wireless guy") ended up marrying a Kampuchean woman, that the eerie French colonial mansion used in the film (apparently now designated as a "historical treasure" by UNESCO and actually a hotel in its original function) was so bizarrely constructed that if you wander into wrong corners, you could not get out, and that an extensive interaction between American and Korean soldiers in the film, which explains where Korean soldiers got the six-packs of beer, was excised for pacing reasons (alas, there is no section for deleted scenes). They also point out what they consider to be inadequate aspects of the production, including the invisibility of a helicopter during the film's coda, which is pretty noticeable (apparently only Russian helicopters were available in Kampuchea).

Other special features include a 30-minute long making-of documentary, heavy on location shooting but with some interesting discussions of how Kam Woo-sung and other actors prepared for their characters (including a short stay at a boot camp for Marines). There are also shorter (10-minute) docus on the special effects makeup and location shooting. Reasonably effective original trailers and those for other Tartan USA releases round out this section.

Tartan USA's Region 1 DVD does a good job of accentuating the strengths of this rather conventional but well-acted Korean chiller, with a clean transfer and enhanced English subtitles. A booklet or a DVD-ROM feature explaining the background history of Korean involvement in the Viet Nam War would have been welcome as a Region 1-exclusive extra - I recommend that Tartan try their hand at this next time they get hold of a Korean film set in the historical past.

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