SWING KIDS (2018)
Coleslawing together several genres at will, this war-drama-musical-comedy pirouettes between light and dark as Korean War POWs form an unlikely dance group
In the vein of Korean cinema’s lust to scramble genres, Swing Kids is one of the most ambitious incarnations of this concept. Not just blending drama and comedy, or war themes with the musical genre, but taking repeated light-heartedness and curbing it with dark twists and turns.
As such, it will likely be met with mixed feeling. As if several films have been sliced and diced into a single outing. Though, its strength lies in taking none of these redirections in half measures. When the musical numbers are performed, it is with great panache and ceremony. When the war horror are on display, it is graphic and confronting.
The best way to approach Swing Kids it to let its own unique rhythm take you over, accept that everything is done by the talented Director Kang (Sunny, Tazza: The Hidden Card) at full speed.
Set in a Geoje prison camp during the Korean War in 1951, the POWs are split between the communist North supporters and the anti-communist South followers. Comparatively well treated as prisoners on account of the Geneva Convention, the US soldiers overseeing them reserve most of their chagrin for those “Commie bastards” from the North.
Ro Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) is a rebellious North Korean soldier that harbours a secret passion for dance, something seen as a ‘Yankee’ vice and not part of this fellow prisoners’ anti-US sentiment.
US officer and former Broadway star Jackson (Jared Grimes) is then tasked with pulling together a dance team from the prisoners, something Brigadier General Roberts (Ross Kettle) sees as a showcase for Koreans coming round to the American way of life.
With the auditions a disaster, Jackson does manage to form a team from Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se), who is hoping to become famous enough to find his wife, Xiao Pang (Kim Min-Ho), an out-of-shape Chinese soldier with some dance talent, and Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su), a civilian and rookie entertainer for US soldiers. Despite having his reputation at stake, Ki-soo falls in love with tap dance and tries to resist his temptation to join the group.
As we follow the musical route with the dance group in training, the film takes a dark turn when a rebellion on the North side threatens the camp’s safety and places Ki-soo at odds with his political beliefs and protecting his new dance allies.
Prisoners from the North and South, as you would expect, realise they have more in common with each other than their ideologies teach, a theme also well addressed elsewhere in Korean cinema from masterpieces such as Joint Security Area (2000) and Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005).
As is often the case with Korean films, the weak link performances are from western actors. The fish-out-water who provides a stilted additional to the more flowing local cast. Fortunately, this is restricted to supporting cast members as Jared Grimes’ Jackson lands as a marginalised black solider attempting to pull together an outcast dance team.
As you would expect from a dance group film, there is a full dazzling lights tap dance performances at its end, but the violent undercurrents from the film makes this an uneasy curtain dropper. By then, Director Kang has shuffled the film’s pack so many times, it feels impossible to guess which way Swing Kids will whirl and twirl through to its final frame.