Set along the coast of Korea, where the north meets the south, Kim Ki-duk's 2002 military melodrama follows a platoon of coast guards tasked with patrolling the area at night to ensure that no North Korean spies cross the border into their country. One of these men, First Private Kang, is pretty gung-ho about his work and seems to take things much more seriously than his fellow servicemen. Kang wears camo face paint at night and mans his post with serious determination while many of the other soldiers wonder what it is that they're actually doing there, seeing as there haven't been any spies in the last five years to shoot at.
One night, when a young man named Young-Gil and a local fish seller's pretty young sister wander into a restricted area to get it on near the surf, Kang does his sworn duty and shoots the man dead, unloading his entire magazine into him and then lobbing a grenade at him. Anyone entering this area after dark can be shot, all the locals know this, but they're still shocked and outraged at Kang's actions even though his superior officers reward him with a week's vacation for doing his job. He uses this time to go back to Seoul and visit his girlfriend but she's no longer interested in him once she finds out what he did. When he returns to his base, he's not the same. Something has snapped inside him and it's seeming more and more like he's a loose cannon until he's discharged after being found unfit for duty.
Kang cannot accept the discharge. The military is all he knows, all he cares about at this point and he desperately wants to finish his tour of duty and serve out his last year. It's too late though, he's already been let go and to make matters worse, the fish seller's sister also seems to have lost her mind and has developed a tendency to approach the soldiers at night and, perhaps mistaking them for her lost love, have sex with them while on duty near the ocean where he was killed.
Atypical for a Kim Ki-duk film, Coast Guard is a fairly talky film that moves in a different way than his other films do. The messed up romance aspect is still there as are the incredibly blunt character changes that always occur throughout his films, and there's a woman running around sleeping with people for completely unusual reasons, but this film is way more political than anything I've had the pleasure of seeing from the director to date. With mandatory military service still required in South Korea, one has to wonder if aspects of the film are autobiographical at least in a sense, as Kim Ki-duk did do his time serving as a marine for five years.
Those looking for one of his infamous tales of twisted romance might be a little alienated by the subject matter and at times the film drags a little bit in the middle becoming a bit predictable even, but the last half hour of the film makes up for that and pacing issues aside, Coast Guard is still a pretty interesting ride. The strongest points are the characters of the fish seller's sister and Kang himself as they slowly but surely lose their minds. Though we see it coming very early on with Kang and it happens quite quickly with him, the progression of madness within the female character is much more interesting and much more unusual in how she chooses to act – at times very passive and melancholy but able to switch on the raw aggression instantly as witnessed in the scene where she pulls a clever on her brother, the only one who really seems to care about her.
Another interesting aspect of the film is that there are no clear villains in the story. Kang has been conditioned to do his job and when he does it, it's he who pays the consequences for it, not those who made him the way he is. Sure he may have been high strung but given the conditions under which he served, it's at least a little understandable. He does snap and he does go way too far and he probably shouldn't have shot the drunk fornicator on the beach but it is what he was instructed to do, and he was simply carrying out his duty as a coast guard. This makes for an interesting contrast and some interesting character development as we watch him start to take it out on his comrades and later on civilians as well.
NOTE: Fish lovers might want to skip this one despite the fact that it's quite a good movie. As with The Isle, some of our little aquatic buddies are mistreated and killed on camera. We're not talking Cannibal Holocaust of Africa Addio type carnage here or anything, but being conscious of the fact that real life animal violence does upset plenty of people (perfectly understandable), I figure it should be mentioned.
Tartan presents Coast Guard in a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is decent, but far from flawless. The black levels are just a slight bit on the muddy side and some of the fine detail is lost in the nighttime scenes (of which there are many). The colors are a tad on the flat side but skin tones manage to look natural and lifelike. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression and edge enhancement, while present, is very slight and not overly problematic. Print damage isn't an issue though there is some noticeable moderate grain present in many of the scenes.
Three sound mixes are supplied on this DVD, all in the original Korean language in which the film was shot: Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, and DTS 5.1 Surround Sound. Optional subtitles have been supplied for the film in English and Spanish, though there are no closed captions provided.
All three tracks sounds very nice, with the DTS getting the edge and the Dolby Digital 5.1 track coming in right behind it. Dialogue is clean and clear on all three mixes with the surround tracks having more atmosphere and more ambient noise and considerably more punch during the action scenes. The lower end of the mixes comes through the subwoofer nicely and the rear channels are used effectively throughout the duration of the film. The subtitles are free of any typographical errors and easy to read, though the fact that they're white means that in one or two spots those with weaker eyes might find them a bit washed out when they're overtop of something of a similar color in the film.
Kim Ki-duk provides an optional video taped introduction to the film that runs for a few minutes in which he explains the difficulty Koreans have to face living in a divided nation and how mandatory military service is still required in South Korea to guard the border from potential spies from the North – the focus of the film.
The enigmatic director also supplies a pretty interesting audio commentary over the film in which he discusses some of the politics behind the movie, some of the themes and ideas he was trying to go with and what he wanted them to represent in the film, and what he liked and didn't so much like about the way it all turned out. Kim Ki-duk is an interesting guy and the commentary does a good job of getting into his head a little bit in terms of how this film fits in with the rest of his body of work and it also details some technical aspects and provides some interesting anecdotes about the making of the movie as well. If you haven't had enough of the director by this point, he's also on hand for a quick video interview that clocks in at just under four minutes in length in which he provides even more background information on the making of Coast Guard.
Rounding out the extras are trailers for a few other Tartan Asia Extreme releases, the film's original theatrical trailer, a still gallery and a music video for one of the songs used in the film.
While this is far from the director's best work, Kim Ki-duk's Coast Guard is an interesting movie that fans of the man's work would do well to seek out. Some of the politics behind it all might be lost on western audiences but it's hardly an inaccessible film and the good definitely out weighs the bad. The movie also makes use of some very good performances and interesting direction. Tartan's DVD could have looked better but it sounds quite good and the extras are nicely done. Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.