This is a hard film to review. On a personal level, I detest films about aviation, mostly due to having suffered under a plane-obsessed family member during my youth (there are only so many airshows and films about war and flying a young me could stand – although I do have an affection for “Reach for the Sky“). More importantly though, this is a film that, in Korea at least is awfully controversial, and that controversy played a huge part in the film becoming a huge flop. Even before the film was released, Koreans were up in arms about this bio-pic about Park Kyeong-Won. In reality she is a bit of a footnote in aviation history, being one of the first famous female aviators. Sadly, her story is mixed up with the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th Century, and she is accused of being a collaborator. Sight unseen, a campaign was fought against the film, accusing the film of white-washing her reputation, and of being pro-Japanese. Now, I am not only not Korean, nor have I any first or second hand experience of living in an occupied country, so I have to look at the film dispassionately with regards to this. However, upon viewing the film, it is obvious that neither of these accusations are fair. But, the film has does have big problems, that despite having much to admire.
I came across “Blue Swallow” as I was looking for more films starring Jang Jin-young, who impressed me so much in “The Foul King”. She stars as Park Kyeong-Won, a young Korean woman who moves to Japan to follow her dream of becoming a pilot. Along the way she meets Han Ji-Hyeok (Kim Ju-hyuk), the son of a Korean politician who has been raised in Japan. Time passes and love blossoms. However, halfway through the film, an assassination by Korean nationalists lead the characters down a somewhat tragic path.
Now back in my youth there used to be a TV show called “This Is Your Life”. I think it ran for 30 minutes or so, and basically consisted of a celebrity being accosted in a public place, and bought to a TV studio, whereupon he or she would be presented with a potted history of his or her life. They would be introduced to various friends and family (and in some cases people that seemed to have only the most fragile of connections). The format had problems (especially when it started using people who had barely yet lived a life), but I always was struck by the way the show was totally determined by the people that they could get to support the appearance. There may be important people that were dead, or had fallen out with the celebrity, or frankly had better things to do. And that is the feeling I had whilst watching this film.
You see, apart from a very brief opening moment, and a little bit of awkward exposition, huge rafts of Park Kyeong-Won’s life is left untouched. She literally goes from being a little girl, to some 20 years later. We get no sense of the struggles she has gone through to get to this point. I know she worked in various jobs (such as a Nurse) in order to pay her way, yet here we have a brief moment as her as a taxi driver and then nothing else. Whilst I do not expect a play by play analysis of these years, I wanted to understand more about her struggles as both a displaced Korean AND as a woman.
There are great things about the film. It looks wonderfully epic, and the flight sequences to my mind were both exciting and (to my eyes) realistic. In fact the whole look of the film is wonderful – it evokes that sense of space and time perfectly – it is easily as good as any Hollywood film in this respect.
Kim Ju-hyuk puts in a fantastic performance – you feel his pain at the position life has placed him in. Jan Jin-young however seems (and this will seem strange as she is the star) seems a little underused, she talks surprisingly little, relying on moody glances rather than any spoken work – we never get to hear exactly how she feels. The depth of character work given to her male counterpart is quite at odds with that given to her. Strange.
It is a Korean film, and by now I am fully expecting the tonal shift some 60% through the movie. Things go from quite bad to awful in quick time. Critics who say the film is pro-Japanese must have been watching a totally different film to me – because other than two characters, the Japanese are portrayed at best as ignorant, and at worst awfully sadistic. The scenes of torture are actually quite extreme, and somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.
And then we reach the end. Park has lost everyone that was dear to her, and embarks on the fateful final flight. Even as one who knew exactly what was going to happen, I was caught up in the tension of the moment. And then the film ended.
And then it made the fatal mistake. Instead of spending a moment on considering what had happened in the past 2 hours, it put some text up on the screen, basically saying – “hey – you know what – there were other Korean female pilots – and we might have made a lot of this up!”. The first part of this seems forced on the filmmakers, and the second seems an awfully odd way to end a film.
In the end, I am glad I saw the film, but disappointed in the lost potential. I almost feel the filmmakers chickened out, and tried to make a film that appeased Park’s detractors. As I said in my opening paragraph, I have never lived under occupation. But although I would like to think I would take the moral high ground, I wonder if I too would take the easy path to fulfil my personal dreams. Park was not selling out her follow Koreans. The way this film portrays things, she was trying to live a dream, in circumstances that were operating way above her ability to control. To call her a Traitor seems to be both over-stating things, and frankly a little high-handed on the part of her critics.