With just about all of the big budget movies coming out of Hollywood
these days being sequels, remakes, or comic book adaptations, film fans
are required to look elsewhere for interesting movies. There are
many quality independent films seeing the light of day, but they are hampered
by only being able to tell stories that don't require a large budget.
In order to discover unique and entertaining movies with that had enough
money for high production values it is often necessary to search beyond
region 1, which is why region free players are becoming more and more popular.
One such film that has a gripping story, multifaceted characters and gorgeous
cinematography is the Korean film Antarctic Journal, available as
a Limited Edition Region 3 import at a very reasonable price.
As the movie opens the expedition is going well, but it isn't a care free trip. They are racing the sun, with only a little amount of time before it sets for the winter, and they also have a finite amount of food and fuel, both of which are starting to run low. The men have all been pushing themselves and it's started to take it's toll. They are losing their edge, and mistakes are starting to occur. Even so, Captain Choi Do-hyeong (Song Gang-ho), keeps pushing them on.
As they trudge across the endless white fields they discover a marker off in the distance. When they arrive they find a journal that was left by English explorers who were also trying to reach the POI but their attempt was over 80 years ago. Many of the pages are faded and the writing is hard to make out, but the journal is illustrated with hand drawn images of the team. There were six people in the British expedition, but as the youngest member of the Korean team Kim Min-jae (Yu Ji-tae from Oldboy) examines the tome, he discovers that there are only pictures of five later on.
The party continues to walk and weaken. When they stop one evening to set up camp, they discover that the weakest member, who was always in the back, was no longer there. They go back and search for him, but the wind has covered up their ski tracks and it is hard to locate him. Eventually they do find something: a member of the 1922 British Expedition who became lost and froze to death. Could it be a coincidence?
Some of the team members think that they should call in a helicopter to rescue them and search for the missing person. The Captain will have none of that though. They haven't reached the POI yet, and they can't stop until they do.
As the journey continues and the men weaken more and more, Kim Min-jae start to pass the time by letting his mind wander. Soon he is starting to hallucinate: death white hands coming out of the snow and he sees team members when they aren't really there. Eventually he starts to doubt his own judgement.
The Captain is acting odd too. He'll go for long walks in the snow after they pitch the tent, and as their supplies are almost consumed, he refuses to signal for help. He even goes so far as to sabotage their radio so the team's desperate situation can't be relayed to the home base. As more accidents start happening and the team numbers dwindle, everyone's sanity comes into question. Especially their leaders.
This was an amazing film that drew my in from the opening moments. Director Pil-Sung Yim who also gets a co-author credit did a magnificent job of putting the viewer right in the middle of team. You can feel the hopelessness and despair as well as the paranoia and fear.
The wonderful thing about this film is the director's ability to weave several genres together seamlessly. Part horror movie, part psychological study, and part adventure film, Antarctic Journal works on many levels. On the surface it is a straight man against nature film, with Mother Nature having the edge. Beneath that however, there is a richer story about the members of the expedition, a psychological profile of men under extreme duress. It starts off with wondering why these men came to such an inhospitable place, and what they hope to accomplish with this journey. There are different answers for each person of course, and not all of the answers are simple.
I loved the way the Captain's nature emerged over the course of the film. Like Captain Ahab searching for the white whale, the Captain is obsessed with being the first person to walk to the POI. This drive causes him to see nothing aside from his goal. No matter what the cost, he'll reach his destination. This revelation makes the man more than a little eerie.
In a lot of ways this trip they are physically going on to the POI is mirrored by the psychic journey they are traveling to the least accessible parts of their own personalities. This is where the horror aspect comes in. When you look into the deepest, darkest parts of a man's soul, what you find is often not very nice.
There is also a horrific aspect to the film, though it shouldn't be
thought of as a horror movie. The way the 1922 expedition is mirrored
by the current one is strange and gives an unsettling feeling to parts
of the movie. The team's steady mental deterioration is also creates
a sense of unease. These are topped by a couple of scenes in the
movie that are unexpected and quite startling.
Another thing that accentuated the film was the wonderfully haunting score. It underscored the loneliness the men were feeling and added an eerie feeling to the film as well.
I did have a couple of complaints with the story, but they were minor. I often wondered why the old diary was buried and marked back in 1922, especially since they weren't in trouble at the time. That didn't make much sense. Another problem I had was when they find something near the end of the movie that the previous expedition left. The British wouldn't have left such an item there, but since is wasn't a huge plot point, I just ignored it.
This limited edition DVD set is very attractively packaged. The two discs come in a book that resembles the journal the explorers find on their trip. The book opens to reveal photos of the two main characters on over-leafs, under which the two DVDs are located. There is also a scenario book which has twelve pages of color photos followed by the shooting script for the movie. The text is in Korean.
The DD 5.1 soundtrack in the original Korean was superb. (There is no English dub.) The voices were clear and the soundtrack very clean. The rears were used appropriately during the scenes where everyone was trudging through the snow, but really came alive when a storm would hit. The sound really enveloped the viewer and puts them in the middle of the maelstrom. A very effective mix with no audio defects.
The English translation was generally good and easy to read, though there were a few instances of bad grammar. "It is possible to be hallucinate because of certain situation?" wins the award for most errors in a single sentence. Examples like this were the exception rather than the rule. The only other complaint about the translation is that just about every swear word is "F*ck." I assume that the cursing was a little more varied in the original language, but I could be wrong.
The widescreen anamorphic image (2.35:1), like the audio track, is superb. The CGI shots are blended seamlessly with the studio and location footage, so much so that I didn't realize how much CGI they used until I saw the making-of featurette. The movie is filled with lots of white and it is easy to see the texture on the vast plains of white. The white out scenes were similarly good, with a very realistic expanse of nothing but white managing to feel rather claustrophobic. During the snow storm (not really a blizzard but the polar equivalent to a sandstorm) there wasn't any blocking or compression artifacts which is pretty impressive. The lines were tight and the detail was very good. An excellent looking DVD.
My biggest disappointment with this set is that the copious special features are not subtitled. If you are fluent in Korean though, you are in for a treat, but there are things that those who don't can enjoy also.
The first disc which contains movie also has are two audio commentaries. I really wish were subtitled, and since they aren't I couldn't understand them.
The second disc has the rest of the extras. There is a 42 minute making of featurette that was very interesting. It showed the cast rehearsing and learning to ski, shots of the studio work and location filming. There wasn't any narration of interviews, so the language barrier wasn't much of a problem.
The same can't be said of the featurette on the CG that was used in the film. A person takes the viewer through the process of adding and removing items from a shot.
There are also three deleted scenes (no subs), two trailers, a photo gallery, and some footage of the movie's preview. A roundtable discussion (18 minutes) that has the actors and I assume the director discussing the movie, interviews with the director and two other behind the scenes people, and a scene-to-story board comparison. There are also a few other interviews with people that I couldn't identify.
A good set of extras for English speakers, but an outstanding compilation if you speak Korean.
Antarctic Journal is an excellent movie all around. The acting and direction are very good, the cinematography is excellent and I really enjoyed the story. This multi-layered film is a true gem on several levels. If you are looking for an intelligent movie that isn't opaque or dense, this DVD set is Highly Recommended.