‘The point of no return’
Kong Su-chang’s R-Point (2004)

Synopsis: Vietnam, 1972. Private Kim and Lieutenant Choi, a distinguished officer who was awarded the Choong Moo for service in defence of his country, are on R & R. They take up with some hookers in Nha Trang, but in the night Kim is murdered. Choi finds and executes the assassin, a girl, point blank. Back at camp, Choi is brought before Lieutenant Colonel Han who agrees to forget the incident if he leads a platoon into R-Point — a rural area, now designated hostile — to find missing soldiers, presumed K.I.A. Choi acquiesces. In R-Point, the platoon encounter their first insurgent: a peasant, not unlike the girl at Nha Trang, who seems to be fighting all alone in the forest. After a brief firefight, they leave her in a pillbox, ostensibly to rot, but not long after the girl reappears to them again in the night . . .

R-Point (which U.K. distributor Palisades Tartan has seen fit to rebrand this year with the new title Ghosts of War) finds a deliberate balance early on between light and dark, empathy and wickedness, virtue and evil. Its broad range of characters provide variations on these themes; at some point, all of the soldiers caught in R-Point confess either to living a life of deceit in which they have wronged their loved ones, or a cruel and violent life determined by their honed indifference to the “enemy”. It’s some time before we learn who is truly guilty (or, to borrow pre-war language used at the time to describe the French cause in Indochina, “impure”) and who is not, but the maxim “Those who have blood on their hands will not return”, conveyed to the soldiers in the form of an ancestral warning that seems to pervert Confucian philosophy, seems relevant to all. Ostensibly a down and dirty cautionary tale in the tropical hell of Vietnam, the film charts the repercussions of these many and various indiscretions, as one by one the hapless soldiers are targeted by a host of judgmental apparitions, and one by one they each take their chances.

Thematically, R-Point is more ambitious than this. For one, director Kong Su-chang doesn’t address the war directly. His film instead assumes audience foreknowledge of North and South Korean participation in Vietnam and perhaps too, though less expected, the cumulative benefits to the South of this participation (in the form of loans, subsidies and preferential trade arrangements with the United States). The specifics aren’t of importance in the film, but the historical arrangement itself, forged between President Park Chung-hee and the Johnson and Nixon administrations respectively, is far from irrelevant.

According to Time (1999), the largest single source of foreign exchange for Korea in this period came in the form of war-induced revenues (U.S. defence-related expenditures, U.S. government grants, exports and production for U.S. consumption); the success of Korea’s economic development program therefore hangs heavy over proceedings. To the film’s credit, the viewer is always aware of the likely consequences of this participation, and as the many allusions to separated families,
divided armies, and struggles for reunification particularly make clear, the infusion of foreign capital into the South at such a dramatic rate inevitably impacted its relations with the North.

To those already primed for an anti-Vietnam War statement then, or for any critique of Korea’s support for American military intervention (Iraq included), the film does at least play well: the soldiers wait anxiously for their orders to return home after the mission, though in what condition they expect to find their country under the authoritarian leadership of its dictator remains unclear (it is appropriate that Su-chang sets his film in the year 1972). In this respect, Korea’s very participation in the war, which the film sees negatively, seems to underlie the economic recovery of the specific period — Su-chang’s implied message being that Korea, like the soldiers in his film, must in some way acknowledge its own guilt.

The director is also inspired (as one might expect of a script which places so much emphasis on borders and territory) by the merging of old cultures. R-Point’s setting is an isolated island (which we’re led to believe was of some strategic importance to colonialists) and this evokes the passing of several distinct phases in Vietnamese history: the nation’s split from imperial China in the 10th century, its colonisation by the French in the late 19th, its struggle for autonomy and self-rule during the French-Indochinese War, and the American Vietnam war, viewed itself to be a lost cause, and hence “passing,” even in 1972. The film is most effective when tinkering with these cultural stresses and inventing massacres. Kim Byung-chul’s Cho, an educated mortician’s son, tells the group as he reads from a stone marker that the Chinese executed hundreds of Vietnamese in the area, then dumped them in a lake, terrestrialised it, and erected a Buddhist temple to bring harmony to the site; later in the film a harmless interloper relates another story, this time an act of near-genocide committed by an unknown enemy. The latter tale is relayed by an American marine, the victims he describes are French colonialists; indeed the American himself guards a nasty secret, prohibiting Choi’s men from entering the second floor of their headquarters and snooping around the rooms where a lot of his platoon’s hardware is stored. So, while there is an inevitable loss of depth in any Vietnam film that neglects the Vietnamese experience directly (the identity of the ghost that haunts Choi so persistently is up for debate — is she Viet Cong, is she even Vietnamese — frustrating assertions that Su-chang has feminised the native experience at all), it becomes plain that R-Point is happier gesturing towards these cultural dichotomies. We quickly build an impression, then, of R-Point as some kind of slavish purgatory.

Director Kong Su-chang cut his teeth co-writing the Vietnam movie White Badge (1992), If It Snows On Christmas (1998), the Korean adaptation The Ring Virus (1999) and Tell Me Something (1999), the third highest grossing domestic film of 1999

R-Point as slavish purgatory: Lieutenant Choi (Kam Woo-seong) in Kong Su-chang’s R-Point (2004)

In terms of visual spectacle, Su-chang makes splendid use of an intimidating landscape (location shooting exclusively in Kampuchea, Southern Cambodia) and on occasion he provides the unexpected: a reconnaissance mission in which all but one of the platoon vanish in the undergrowth, never to resurface (the scene elegantly held in long take from the remaining soldier’s vantage); or a plantation filling with white headstones as Choi, the man caught in the middle, grasps finally the implications of his mission. After a promising start, though, the film does catch in a familiar groove. The infamous Bokor Hill Station (now Palace Hotel) is an incredible four-storey building from rooftop to entrance, its scorched outer walls red with lichen, the entire complex in reality decimated throughout by mortar shells, by gunfire, by looters of the Khmer Rouge, yet in accordance with Su-chang’s preferences, and needless to say with the eye of his cinematographer Seok Hyeong-jing, the palace is only ever substantially used at night. The “atmospheric” reveal early in the film is extravagant waste (the site cannot be seen for mist), and from then on Bokor barely appears in full light again. In another example, Su-chang aims to convey a spiritual presence: shifting visual register whenever the ghostly apparition appears, his first-person shots are hokey adornments detracting from subtle transitions (the camera rising portentously from the reeds to a solitary light above) or an actor’s expression.

Choi and Sergeant Jin Chang-rok (Son Byung-ho) hope that rescue will come soon

On this note, the performances are generally strong. Alone in Love (Han Ji-seung, 2006) star Kam Woo-sung underplays the charismatic Choi, a fearless and competitive fighter who merely awaits the inevitable return of the girl he killed lawlessly in Nha Trang. Son Byung-ho succeeds in creating great menace as Jin Chang-rok, the largely dispassionate growling sergeant who wants to turn the place into a bristling death camp. As their temperamental young charges (split between a grudging respect for Jin and enthusiasm for Choi) the aforementioned Kim Byung-chul as the nebbish Cho Byung-hoon, Oh Tae-kyung as sixteen year-old Jang Young-soo and Park Won-sang as the older, surly, good-natured Mah (aka, Sergeant “Cook”) supply rounded and sensitive performances, enough to offer a glimpse that is into their pre-war lifestyles before the blood falls out of the sky.

The incredible Bokor Hill Station, used here as the setting for an abandoned colonial French plantation

It was probably, therefore, a mistake to introduce across the board ghost story conventions into an intense psychological drama — the film suffers for this. An unnecessary plot-point — initiated by the arrival of some American squaddies who cryptically just check in to see if the lights are still on — the idea that an evil spirit, like a curse spiral, is disseminated through people, while obviously supported by the mythologies of Asian cultures, feels like a vain gesture, a conceit which this budget production sadly cannot do justice. Had Su-chang allowed his characters’ increasingly suicidal behaviour to stem from the confusion and suffering caused by war — if Choi, Cho and Jin had inched closer to the “darker side” of humanity as it is described in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979, U.S.A.) by undergoing a natural process of initiation — his film may have had more of an impact. But as a useful primer on why Korean horror of the early 00s, and more broadly East Asian ghost stories, are often so complex and engaging, R-Point is pretty much required viewing and ranks as one of the smartest Korean thrillers of 2004.

Disc: Little improvement on Tartan’s original Asia Extreme release (in fact, the opposite is the case, as Justin Bowyer’s sleeve notes are absent). The rebranding is no problem, but some godawful package design by Tartan (the original still of Bokor is excised, replaced with something more palatable to Western eyes) will confuse any viewer on the look out now for a wooden barn (there really is no excuse for this and fans will notice). Otherwise, an acceptable not expert transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1, D.T.S. (which pays dividends in some outstanding scenes), comprehensible subtitles, the usual prerequisites are here.

The film carries a commentary with director Kong, producer Choi Kang-hyuk, and location supervisor Kim Wan-shik. The two anecdotal featurettes “1972 Vietnam” and “Special Effects” are quite self-effacing, but the key elements of principal photography and post can be found in “Mission R-Point” and “Broken Radio”, the latter an amusing overview of the Foley artist’s responsibilities at work, twinned with a glimpse of the final scene in various stages of the mix: pre-effects, pre-score, etc. The feature commentary is surprisingly candid. You suspect the director would have been satisfied if audiences responded to his film as allegory, but on the evidence here he seems content with the more literal readings that members of the crew return to him. One interesting aside early on about the lighting in a key scene gives some genuine insight into the first-time director’s working partnership with his cinematographer (a repeat of this in the Hollywood system would have been downright inexcusable and the D.P. fired). Any commentary in which the speaker drops the line “and the moths were really obnoxious,” and the director sneers at his own product placement, is sweet in my book.

This review was originally published by New Korean Cinema.
4 February, 2011


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