One of the most anticipated Korean genre films in recent days, R-Point director Kong Su-Chang’s sophomore effort is blessed with a strong premise – soldiers manning an isolated guard post along the Korean DMZ infected with a strange virus that triggers random violence – but much like its predecessor it ultimately disappoints.
For those unfamiliar, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the narrow strip of land that runs between North and South Korea, a sort of buffer zone lined on both sides by military outposts manned at all times by soldiers required to be in a constant state of readiness. All guard posts are required to report in at regular intervals, the failure to do so considered a sign that they have been attacked, a situation that triggers an immediate military response.
The film begins with exactly that sort of scenario. Guard post 506 – a post commanded by a prominent general’s son – has gone silent, a fresh squad of soldiers sent to investigate. What they find is not what was expected however, there is no invader. Instead the post has been slaughtered from within, the entire squad but two are found as mutilated corpses. One man is missing. The last man discovered covered in blood and wielding an axe. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that he is the killer. But why?
The slaughter of an entire squad with close ties to military command is a public relations disaster in the making and a cover up imminent, military investigator Noh given just a single night to piece together what happened. Arriving in late evening he has until only 6 am to work out what happened before control is taken from him and all evidence carted away never to be seen again. It’s time to get to work and what he discovers is truly shocking.
The problem began with a trio of soldiers sent off to the surrounding woods to find something to spruce the place up a bit for a general’s impending visit. The three go missing for hours and return in bad shape. Though they seem to recover quickly they are never quite the same and it soon becomes obvious that they are now prone to sudden bursts of random violence, violence that they can never remember after the fact. They are isolated but it is too late, whatever is causing the issue has already spread to other members of the squad and before too long the group is split into factions fueled by fear, paranoia and inexplicable bursts of extreme violence, violence that leads eventually to the bloodbath discovered by investigators. By the time Noh and his team understand this it is already too late: they are now infected themselves and the cycle continues.
The Guard Post is a film blessed with a fascinating central premise. Though not the zombie film many have been anticipating – there are certain zombie like traits to the infected soldiers but that’s not where this film goes – writer-director Kong has some fascinating and worthwhile things to say about the effects of the DMZ on the Korean consciousness, the film effectively arguing that the very existence of the split in the country breeds and triggers violence. He’s got some good technical skills to back up his ideas, as well, the film being well shot and reasonably well performed with enough action and gore to satisfy the horror buffs out there and enough underlying philosophy to engage those with a more scholarly bent. What he lacks, however, are the storytelling skills to wrap it all up into an engaging package.
Running over two hours The Guard Post is at least half an hour two long, the film bloated by a flashback structure that may be central to the idea that violence breeds and repeats but makes for lousy viewing. The original outbreak and later spread among the investigative unit play out in parallel which would be fine if not for the fact that Kong give no visual clues to distinguish which time frame we’re looking at – a major problem when both are shot on the exact same set and both populated entirely with men in full military uniform with one dominant character present in both time lines – plus the fact that both stories play out with exactly the same plot. It’s part of the point that Kong is trying to make, sure, but when the only variance between past and present storyline is where the two teams were introduced to the violence inducing virus – one in the woods, one in the base – with all subsequent events mirroring each other tightly then there’s really nothing gained by showing both stories in the entirety. From a story perspective all that you’ve done is double your run time, it would have been far better to simply focus exclusively on either the original outbreak or subsequent investigation and use that extra time to more fully explore the characters rather than waste time duplicating events.
R Point was a film also blessed with a strong premise but crippled by muddy story telling and while Kong has improved some from that film to this, The Guard Post is still deeply flawed and very frustrating for the way it fails to deliver on its promise.