13 Oct

War really is the quintessential human activity, bringing out the best and worst.  pits human excellence against bureaucratic hacks. Much was made in the South Korean press about . Although those scenes are impressive, it’s misleading to compare Assembly with KangJeGyu Films’ (Taegukgi in Korean), if only because Assembly is not pacifist screed. Assembly is a bit cartoonish, but it has a big heart.

In 1948, Gu Zidi, Assembly‘s main character, is a salt-of-the-earth, gruff soldier whose popularity, skill, and luck (he has survived since 1939) is the captain of the 9th Company of a Communist regiment fighting the Nationalist armies. He’s handed the regrettable task of holding a position while the regiment retreats. His only order is to hold out until the last man until he hears the bugle call “assembly”. But Gu is nearly deaf. Gu takes his orders literally, and accomplishes them, but at the cost of all his soldiers and his own freedom and identity. Fighting a decades-long battle with Communist functionaries who do not have his papers, declining health, and his own guilt, Gu moves from civil war to Korea, sinking from captain to cook.

Actually, one scene from the Korean War, portrays succinctly the symptoms of the intelligence failures the CIA created when it failed to predict the Chinese winter offensive in 1950. Gu volunteers for a detail whose task is to cross into the DPRK and reconnoiter the position of units along a key bridge, to direct artillery fire. In the process, Gu’s officer steps on a landmine and is stuck when an American tank lumbers up the road. Disguised as ROK troops, the Chinese officer stands put and Gu responds to the Americans’ offer of help with comically indecipherable Korean-like sounds. “We don’t know Korean. The Americans know even less.” When the American soldier realizes he cannot help the hapless officer, he runs back to the tank. “He’s got bigger worries than we do!” Cunning defeats naivete every time.

Gu then heroically devises a plan, and, although shrapnel lodges in his head and blinds one eye, the officer survives intact. The two remain blood brothers, and the younger officer helps Gu with his project to revisit the issue of his heroic company. In the ensuing years, Gu’s unit has disappeared from the official histories, and his men’s bodies, originally deployed near a coal mine, are also buried under a mountain of coal. Gu lives long enough to see his company honored and each soldier rewarded with medals. He has also fostered the marriage between one of his soldier’s widow and his blood brother.

Still, this is a very one-sided story. The Nationalist and American troops are caricatures, well-endowed troops who always lack the skill and heart to win. Bureaucrats are just short-tempered and lack patience. Gu Zidi is the man, and everyone else is just a little less impressive than him. But, at least in his heart, and at the heart of the film, there is a respect for honor.

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