by Jeremy Clarke.
A new South Korean film tackles the story behind a major event in twentieth-century military history. Europeans and Americans are familiar with 1944’s D-Day landings, in which the Allied forces landed on the French coast to turn the tide of the war in their favour. The much less well-known battle of Incheon occupies a similar place in the Korean psyche as the turning point in the Korean War (1950-53).
Towards the end of World War Two, Japan’s former colony of Korea was partitioned along the 38th parallel and handed over to the USSR in the North and the US in the South. Against the background of the early years of the Cold War, North and South developed into Communist and Anti-Communist dictatorships with neither regime recognising the other. The situation was volatile. In 1950 the North invaded the South. China and the USSR leant their support to the North, the newly-formed UN and the US leant theirs to the South.
Two months on and the South had been forced back to Pusan. The South’s position looked bad. General Douglas MacArthur took the bold decision to attack the West coast at Incheon (as it is now spelled) and repel the Northern forces from there. The operation was codenamed ‘Chromite’. It would have proved decisive had not China then chosen to send in troops to support the retreating North and push the UN forces back to the 38th parallel. The conflict continued around this line until 1953 when hostilities ceased and a Demilitarised Zone was instituted as a no man’s land between the two territories.
The Incheon story has been filmed before. 1981’s Inchon was funded in part by the Unification Church’s Sun Myung-Moon, directed by Terence Young, who made three of the early Bond movies and starred an unrecognisable Laurence Olivier under a ton of make-up as MacArthur. Widely reckoned a dud, it received terrible reviews on release and lost a massive amount of money. It has been known to occasionally surface on television.
Three decades later Operation Chromite again attempts to tell the story with a major Western star playing MacArthur. Because he’s an actor who brings a certain gravitas and authority with him to the screen, Liam Neeson is a perfect fit. He has an instantly recognisable presence and voice. This latter can be a drawback: watch the dubbed version of Miyazaki’s Ponyo where as the voice of the eponymous heroine’s undersea father Neeson upstages every other member of the voice cast, partly because he’s so much more distinctive than everyone else on the soundtrack, and partly because as soon as he speaks any Western audience is thinking: “This character is Liam Neeson.” But that’s not a problem in Operation Chromite where Neeson completely inhabits the role and his familiar authority strikes exactly the right tone to render his MacArthur convincing.
That said, apart from Neeson’s scenes in English, this is a South Korean movie, in Korean, with subtitles. Most of the action focuses around a South Korean covert ops unit named X-RAY, led by Captain Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae). X-RAY assassinates and steals the identities of a North Korean inspection unit on a train so as to infiltrate the enemy forces stationed at Incheon, discover where in the waters off the Incheon coast the enemy minefields have been planted and capture a lighthouse in order to signal that it’s safe for MacArthur’s forces to land. This unit faces considerable opposition in the form of the suspicious North Korean Commander Lim Gye-jin (Lee Bum-soo) who will stop at nothing to prove that Jang and his men are imposters. Shoot-outs in restaurants sees an attractive waitress fatally reduced to human shields. Elsewhere X-RAY members hide out from an enemy patrol in a house with hidden rooms in the basement. The whole thing is a highly effective mixture of cloak and dagger dramatics and thrilling action sequences.
Thanks to a large budget and well thought-out, extensive computer-generated (CG) effects work, this is a film with not only a cast of thousands but also all the military vehicles (ships, landing craft, planes) it needs. At no point does the experience feel like a handful of actors on a set beyond the edge of which the budget has run out. Korean director John H. Lee has all the necessary resources at his disposal and knows how to deliver a cracking story even if he does occasionally tip over into milking the emotions. When characters die, their heroism and personal sacrifice is stressed rather more than it might be in a contemporary Western war film. While that might seem a little overly sentimental to Western tastes, it in no way hurts the film, which is both engrossing and engaging throughout.
Where the 1982 film proved by all accounts something of a near-unwatchable plod, the new film plays out as effective a war film and action movie as anything delivered by the West or for that matter the East in recent years. It really does have everything a contemporary war film audience could possibly want, not least the portrayal of a highly significant battle that isn’t as well known in the West as it ought to be.
Operation Chromite is released in cinemas and on digital platforms from December 26th.