A Christmas miracle from one of Korean cinema's most vibrant directors, Kang Hyoung-chul.
The Korean War tap dancing musical drama you never knew you needed, Swing Kids is a Christmas miracle from one of Korean cinema's most vibrant directors. After works such as Scandal Makers and Sunny, Kang Hyoung-chul has outdone himself with a film that is bursting with adulation for classic big screen musicals yet also manages to be the freshest thing to hit theaters in who knows how long.
Based on the Korean musical Roh Ki-soo, Swing Kids stars the massively popular EXO band member Doh Kyung-so (aka D.O.) as Ki-soo, a North Korean soldier interned at the Goeje Prison Camp on the southern coast of the peninsula in 1951. The camp is run by an ambitious U.S. Army general who pressures Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), a former Broadway tap dancer, to start a dance troupe in order to improve the image of the camp. Ki-soo quickly falls in love with tap dancing but his ideology, as well as his comrades, prevent him from jumping in with both feet. Meanwhile, the troupe comes together with a Chinese soldier (Kim Min-ho), a Korean civilian who has been mistakenly imprisoned (Oh Jung-se), and a local girl (Park Hye-su) who helps Jackson to manage the group. Together they must prepare for a special Christmas showcase to impress the foreign press corps, but several warring factions in the camp threaten the livelihood of the troupe.
Dashing from one infectiously rhythmic scene to the next, Swing Kids sinks its hooks in quickly and never lets go. Kang employs perspicacious staging throughout, which stretches from the dance choreography all the way down to the way in which the script's dialogue and the bodies and props on screen are all in a constant rhythmic dialogue with one another. The sheer unrelenting force of the film's mise-en-scene is a dazzling and dizzying feat which maintains a perpetual high that sends shivers continuously rocketing through your nerves.
Crisp, symmetric and fluid cinematography by Kim Ji-yong, responsible for The Age of Shadows and The Fortress, goes a long way towards creating this effect, but it's really a full package that fires on all cylinders, creating the cinematic equivalent to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound music production style, with rich set design and costumes combining with expert sound design and sharp editing. Speaking of the heyday of western pop, Swing Kids may well have footed the most expensive music copyright bill of any Korean film, with a soundtrack that features David Bowie's 'Modern Love' and The Beatles' 'Free as a Bird', as well as swing classics such as Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' and plenty of local favorites as well (though I'm not so familiar with these).
I'll admit I've been lukewarm about Doh Kyung-soo's fledgling acting career until now, namely his deer-in-the-headlights protagonists in My Annoying Brother and the Along with the Gods films. He seemed a little more sure of himself in last year's black comedy Room No. 7, but now with Swing Kids he's found the perfect showcase, one that fully utilizes his abundant stage talent and presence. Real life tap dancer Jared Grimes is a terrific performer and a surprisingly adept actor who gels well with his Korean co-stars, which include veteran Oh Jung-se (How to Use Girls with Secret Tips) on comic support, a charismatic performance from rising actress Park Hye-su (Will You Be There?), and a scene-stealing turn from newcomer Kim Min-ho, who is an absolute hoot as the Chinese member of the troop.
Compared to other local works, Swing Kids incorporates an unusually large amount of English dialogue and many American cast members. Yet while English lines and foreign actors have typically been the biggest problem in otherwise solid Korean films (Ryoo Seung-wan's The Berlin File comes to mind), Kang's latest offers a refreshing change as the local and foreign elements of the film are well balanced and never pull you out of the film's momentum.
About an hour into the film, things do get serious when a dangerous communist ideologue (played by Pluto's Lee Da-wit) arrives and stirs up a violent maelstrom of discontent among the North Korean prisoners. At this point the foot-tapping and finger-snapping verve of the film makes way for the swish of knives, the crackle of gunfire and the bloodcurdling screams of the ambushed, but gone is the rhythmic flow as we are made to soak up the dark realities of the events unfolding before us.
It's a sober turn of events in what has until that point been a giddy and exuberant celebration of song and dance. This about face is an attempt to raise the stakes and anchor the preceding revelry in the pain of Korea's difficulty past, all the while foregrounding the high cost of extreme ideology, paid for not by the demagogues who preach it, but by the credulous masses they have manipulated and the innocent bystanders who stand in their way. While it lacks much of the pizzazz we've already borne witness to, the stylistic flair is still on display in this darker narrative strand, which packs its own kind of punch, particularly when it later combines with the cathartic climax.
Swing Kids might have worked better without most of this downbeat detour but the reality is that a film with a price tag and historical setting like this one that doesn't make an attempt to foreground the pain of its era is a difficult proposition in today's Korean film market. That a Korean tap dancing blockbuster straight out of the school of early 20th century Hollywood exists at all is nothing short of remarkable. Despite the story's occasional narrative shortfalls, this tap dance extravaganza will make you want to dance in the aisles or reach for your hanky time and again during one of the most rhythmic stories ever put to film.