From its arresting opening sequence of military exercises performed before a riveted crowd celebrating South Korean heroism during the war that tore the Korean Peninsula in two, Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s Army places its central theme of «performance» front and center. Mandatory military service is a rite of passage in South Korea, the director/narrator explains, reflecting on his time (nearly two years required) performing his duty, And how his point-of-view changed as he returns to boot camp a decade later, camera in hand, to follow a fresh-faced recruit named Woochul.
Through elegantly composed shots and a delicate score (Kabuki-like to these western ears), Park dramatizes daily basic training activities while simultaneously commenting on the distance between his own memories and the action in front of the lens. The exercises nowadays seem almost cushy, Park observes. (Are the lack of beatings of recruits due to his filming?) He recollects once seeing UFOs while returning from the DMZ all those years ago – then ponders the theory that UFOs are actually «subconscious mental projections of the masses.» («That an individual’s subconscious mind and mystical values produce a mass projection of lights in the sky,» he further explains). Adding to the mystery, he later learned that this UFO experience had happened to many soldiers, most when nearing the time of their discharge.
A trio of bubbly young ladies performs a Christian rock song during a church service for the all-male troops. From his bird’s-eye view, Park captures the exquisite image of a sea of identically dressed bodies, arms flailing as if in a sports arena. Our narrator disturbingly admits that, upon finally being put in charge of a unit, he became the type of person he hated so much. Does power corrupt so swiftly – or is it a process more slowly insidious? After all, in the military, «education happens through the body,» like «practicing with an instrument,» Park notes. Training, of course, felt like «rehearsing for a performance».,
Another overhead shot – of recruits struggling through exercises in the sand – is equally sublime. Through the beauty of his highly specific images, Park’s engrossing doc almost imperceptibly transforms into an abstract, philosophical meditation on the seemingly permanent preparation for war. «A great musician moves an audience when he forgets that he is performing and completely loses himself in the work,» he profoundly points out. This makes the viewer acutely aware that countries with lengthy military service requirements – yes, Korea, but also similarly nervous nations such as Israel – are fated to forever balance on a double-edged sword. Undoubtedly, millions of citizens giving themselves over to their homeland create a certain social cohesion but also a groupthink mindset that can destroy the individual.
In this sense, Park’s film addresses a sociological element rarely portrayed onscreen. South Korea (along with Israel, also Singapore), with its 18+ month service requirement, is in the company of nations who are not exactly known for valuing their citizen’s rights much. When it comes to conscription, South Korea has much more in common with the suffocating dictatorships of Angola, Turkmenistan, Iran, or even its sworn enemy, North Korea, than it does with any other first-world land. The country may be defined by K-pop and kimchi here in the bougie west, but on every part of the Peninsula, the Kim dynasty can’t help but loom equally large.
«an individual’s subconscious mind and mystical values produce a mass projection of lights in the sky»
It is this tension that is made cinematically apparent when Park’s young subject, the new recruit Woochul, sinks into depression, soon becoming suicidal. As Woochul’s mental state declines Park is ordered to stop filming. The determined director, aware that Woochul enjoys being on camera, surprisingly convinces the higher-up to let him continue, though. Collective memory – be it of the Korean War or the Holocaust – too often morphs into a traumatic identity, inevitably permeating the psyche of every youngster fated to take up arms for their country. Even if those arms are only ever used in service to performance.
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