One of the leading lights of South Korean cinema in the 1960s was a guy named Lee Man-hee. Lee was an extraordinary filmmaker who could work in various genres (thriller, action, melodrama), but his particular specialty was the war film. Like Japanese counterparts Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto, Lee was a veteran, having fought in the Korean War. He also had a particular affinity for soldiers, claiming that if he hadn’t become a filmmaker, he would probably have been a professional soldier. However, Lee was no propaganda-spewing ideologue; in common with his Japanese cohorts, his experience of the brutal calamity of large-scale warfare affected him deeply, and his war films are, in fact, anti-war films.
The film that put Lee on the map, both critically and box office-wise, was 1963’s The Marines Who Never Returned. The story concerns the experience of a largely doomed (hence the title) regiment of South Korean marines and their experiences at the battle of Incheon in 1950.
The film fairly explodes off the screen in the opening battle sequence, shot purely from the POV of the marines as they attempt to infiltrate a factory held by the North Koreans. A mother and small daughter attempt to escape through the crossfire and the mother is struck down. The soldiers save the little girl, Yeong-hui, and she becomes their collective little sister and mascot. Yeong-hui is so sweet and lovable, at first you worry something terrible is going to happen to her in the service of melodrama. However, Lee is better than that; he doesn’t need to rely on such cheap tricks to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience. Depictions of the realities of battle provide all the gut-wrenching drama he requires.
The impact of the battle sequences is truly remarkable when one considers the period. Hollywood movies didn’t get this gritty and realistic until decades later, with the likes of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Lee was clearly drawing on his experiences in war to direct the way men moved when shot, or how bombs and mortars could disrupt a trench line.
The grim realities of war are balanced by the sequences with Yeong-hui and the comedy gags provided by popular comedian Koo Bong-seo, here playing the joker of the regiment. Whether he’s spotting spies while taking a dump by the side of the road or conning U.S. soldiers out of beer and supplies, he never fails to get a laugh. Others in the squad include the usual assortment of types; the timid one, the cocky one, the pretty boy, the passionate vengeance-seeker, the gruff-yet-benign squad leader. Lee takes these stock elements and, through his unique treatment, makes us care.
I got a hold of this film as part of a Lee Man-hee box set available here (and elsewhere). It’s region 3, so you’ll need a region-free DVD player (you can get one here). Otherwise, I noticed it’s on youtube here. Any way you want to play it, I heartily suggest this picture. It will change the way you think about the Korean war, Korean film, and war films in general.