The Long Way Home (2015) /서부전선 Review


Korean War Comedy Movie starring Sol Kyung-Gu / 설경구 and Yeo Jin-Goo/ 여진구...

It would suck taking the long route to your destination is a tank!
Heard the ride is rough especially in the WWII era soviet ones.


Hello, Korean Movie lovers. Welcome! There is not that many of you out there which I’m trying to do something about since I write about the stuff you guys or gals like. Need more of you to earn some dough. Leaving pipe dreams aside, I appreciate you few more.

You lovely few!


This is Prof. AKIA with a new Korean War Comedy movie starring Sol Kyung-Gu of the Korean movie “My Dictator” (2014) and Yeo Jin-Gu of the Korean drama “Orange Marmalade” (2015). Its English title is “The Long Way Home” (2015) while the Korean title can be translated as the “Western Front.” It is another case of the English title for a Korean movie being far more in tuned with the themes of the movie than the actual Korean one.

“Western Front” barely has anything to do with the movie!
In any case, tanks anyone?
I would only have one if it come with some idiots.


Introduction
The outcome of the movie making process involves many complicated variables. Some are more obvious. Others are more opaque. There are a lot of things that could go wrong.  Even “good” directors with a “good” cast and “good” material to work with can make movies that just don’t land as intended. So, it is not easy to know how a movie will turn out before the final cut of the film gets put in the can.

As a person who sees a lot of movies, I have gotten used to this being the way it is and even learned to appreciate the “less than perfectly concocted” movies for what they have and not ponder too much on what they missed. However, there are still movies that miss the mark by only a few inches that I feel that the world missed out on getting a great movie and had to settle for just an okay one. “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) is one of those movies.

I mean…
Two idiots meet on the battlefield… with a tank between them.
It should be comedy gold!
Right?


Plot
I’ll elaborate more on the two idiots and a tank bit.

“The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015), which is a comedy, is set in the waning days of the Korean war. Yes, that Korean war where the North and South Koreans fought during the period of 1950 –1953.  The leader of the North at the time was the grandfather of villain from “The Interview” (2014).

“The Interview” (2014)

However, it is not a grand war movie. “The Long Way Home” has more in common with Series 4 of the British TV comedy “Blackadder Goes Forth” (1989) than war movies like “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). “The Long Way Home” is, at its core, a very small scope movie with basically only 2 central characters, one from each side, who are either inside a tank or around a tank for most of the movie. Thus, it has that “TV Bottle show” feel to it.

But one with a decent budget!


In terms of characters, on the south side, we have Sol Kyung-Gu’s character who is a dispatch runner in his late 30s entrusted with delivering a secret document to a front line base. And, following the basic rules of all comedies, he loses that secret document! 

Waka Waka Waka!


On the North side, you have Yeo Jin-Gu’s character in a tank. He is an assistant gunner in his late teens that ends up alone with his tank thanks to a very comically CGI-ed mustang fighter bomber that killed his crew.

*Minor Spoilers*
It will return for encore performance later on the movie as it defies the rules of physics and proper CGI animation. The movie is that kind of movie.
*End of Spoilers*

The two characters meet in the wilderness between the lines when Yeo Jin-Gu stumbles upon the secret document and rides north in his tank with Sol Kyung-Gu following the tank’s exhaust fumes intend on retrieving his lost charge. The remaining bulk of the movie is basically a platform for comedy sketches in which the control of the situation floats from one character to another and again while the tank basically traversing the same path up and down. When Sol Kyung-Gu is in control, the tank heads south. It heads north when Yeo Jin-Gu is in control.

Ready to laugh?




Themes
As a movie, “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) is light on plot. It is just two guys being stuck in a tank together trying to one up each other until they bond and get all lovey dovey.

Kumbaya my lord
Kumbaya!

However, there are, let’s say, themes following throughout the movie.

First, the movie is about common people just trying to get home. Most of the characters including the two leads are just common grunts who joined the war because of circumstances beyond their control. No one is in it for glory or even ideology.

Second, there is only home and family. There is no ideology. The Korean War is the first spark of the cold war. So, it is very difficult to avoid the discussion of ideology. However, “The Long Way Home” stops this discussion in its tracks by using the elegant but basic argument of “F**k ideology! You came here to fight first. Get out!” None of the lead characters are intelligent enough to even properly understand the propaganda delivered by their own sides.

Third, the movie really goes hard with the “the virtue of the naïve but innocent peasants” concept as those are basically all the people the two idiots meet on their journey in the tank. It creates somewhat of an idyllic portrait of the peasants who just focus on farming and their simply but also comical daily lives even amongst the carnage of the war.

Fourth, the movie shows the cowardice tendency inherent in Korean culture. For a long time, the majority of Koreans were mere peasants and more than 30% of the population were slaves. In this oppressive environment, we picked up bad habits to just survive. One of them is the shameless reaction to power. When we do not have power, we naturally grovel to those who have power. Once we get power, we shamelessly abuse power and expect other to grovel.

As the power dynamic oscillate between the two lead characters, the characters’ behaviors keep shifting from pompous to groveling and reverse. For the Koreans watching this shift, there is nothing funnier since we do that all the time.

Get it?
The truth can be so funny!

Fifth, the lead characters are more disconcerted by their own side than the enemy. For the lead characters, merely surviving the war is not their ultimate motivations. It is easier to survive if one is a coward and an opportunist to boot. The two are both. They are just common folk after all. What they are worried about is that their own sides will not let them go back home if they find out they are cowards and opportunists. Thus, the whole movie and the chase for the “secret document” McGuffin is just the two leads trying to over compensate.

Finally, the movie is about the folly over-compensating. Yes, there is the whole “we are all the same people” theme. There is the “we need to find common ground” theme. There is the “we need to communicate” theme. But the movie does not end when the two bond together. The movie rolls towards its end because someone got a little greedy and over-compensated more than required to just get home.


The 2 Levels of Comedy
Contrary to common opinion, Comedies are difficult to pull off. Hitting the right tone and nailing the jokes are essential requirements which makes comedies even more unforgiving then dramas. The easiest form of comedy is the “gag a minute” ones in which you throw a bunch of gags at a wall a see what sticks. However, even those fail more than not. It is so difficult to make a great comedy feature film.

The ultimate problem with “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) is that it is merely amusing than being outright funny. There is no worse place to be for a comedy. Well, there is totally sucking but let’s push outcome to the side. So, why is this movie not funny?

Well, it is a little complicated…


Comedy Level 1
This movie is setup for the comedy to work on two different level. On the lower level, the movie goes for the “Buster Keaton” style physical slapstick comedy. The movie sets up comedy bits and set pieces in which you have the characters reacting to situation in ways which keep increasing in scope and ludicracy but with the elegance of silent movies.



And I would have to say that these comedy bits are well conceived on paper. They are rather creative. Considering that Chun Sung-Il, the first time director and writer of this movie, is a veteran comedy feature writer, this should not be a surprise. His works include “My Girlfriend is an Agent” (2009) and “The Pirates” (2014). You can see that he is an avid pupil of elaborate Hollywood action comedy set piece movies which have gone out of style a decade or so ago in the states.


In execution, there are some issues. Before anything, the cast is good. While he has been doing more serious roles recently, Sol Kyung-Gu has proven he has good comedic delivery. His last comedy movie was “The Spy: Undercover Operation” (2013) which was a shameless “True Lies” (1994) rip off. So, I was not surprised by his performance in “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015). He is good. The person who surprised me was Yeo Jin-Gu!


Yeo Jin-Gu, who is 18 years old, has mostly done Korean dramas.

I feel old.

And I was not impressed. Going into the movie, I didn’t have much faith in his comedic abilities as the trailers make him look bad. So, it was a rather welcome surprise when you see that the kid has some comedic chops. I wouldn’t say he is great but he works well off Sol Kyung-Gu and can hit the comedic beats most of the time.

Okay, I’ve just complimented the cast.
So, let’s talk about what they had no hands in

The actual execution of the rather creative comedic set pieces don’t hit their marks perfectly. It is as if the delivery is a half second too late. The direction is not able to keep up and inject enough energy into the set pieces. It is part the editing and part the cinematography. Both are nowhere near terrible but just an inch lacking.


Comedy Level 2
I said that this movie is setup for the comedy to work on two different level. I just went over the lower level. On the higher level, it goes for the Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) style of nesting physical comedy within a more human drama environment. With this style, the contrast creates more emotional depth to the comedy.

“Life Is Beautiful” (1997)

The movie wants to be a movie about humans that will make you feel the “feels” also.

It is so Korean!


It will make you cry while you are laughing!

This is a rather ambitious approach as managing the contrast in tones is very difficult. Ultimately “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) fails at managing this contrast. In order for the slapstick comedy to work, you have to dumb down the characters to almost “Dumb & Dumber” (1994) levels to make the absurdity of the situations make sense. In addition, the world of the movie has to be a very comedic world also. Hence, the law of physic defying actions and stuff.

Laugh, idiots!
Laugh

However, this movie not only wants you to pee your pants from laughing too much but also cry your heart out. In order for this to work, the characters need to be human and not just test dummies that can take a crash. This comes into conflict with the lower level comedy as it is very difficult for outrageous comedy to deliver honest sincerity.

As a result of trying to balance two different objectives,  “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) gets lost between the two levels of comedy. To be more human, the characters are given more smarts to resemble an actual human being but not enough which, in turn, makes their comedic set pieces overly ridiculous and less believable.

This conflict is also reflected in the world of the movie which surrounds the bubble the characters are in. Sometimes we are shown “drama” world and other times we get “comedy” world. While it is subtle, the effect of the contrasting tones is significant.




At the End
“The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) has a good cast, and creative script, and ambition. The problem is the director. First, he simply is not experienced enough to handle realizing what he wrote on the page. Second, he does not totally understand what makes the Hollywood action adventure movies he so wants to recreate work. It is being simple. It is ambition tempered by the simplicity of the format. If you are unable to be simple, the balance of the genre is ruined.

What can I say more about this movie?

It is interesting. It is amusing. It also makes you feel the “feels” sometimes especially if you are the general Korean movie going audience. What it is not is outright funny! For a comedy movie, this is a great sin. Thus, “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) ends up being just an okay movie which is a shame.

The climb to greatness is steep for Comedy movies.

I will give “The Long Way Home /서부전선” (2015) a B- grade.

Review Grade
B- or 6/10

What a shame!

Also, it bombed hard in Korea!




This was Prof. AKIA with a review of “The Long Way Home” (2015).



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