Director: Lee Jae-Han
Cast: Lee Jung-Jae, Lee Bum-Soo, Liam Neeson, Jin Se-Yeon
Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence)
Released By: Clover Films Pte Ltd, mm2 Entertainment Pte Ltd and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 15 September 2016
Synopsis: South Korean Navy Special Forces, Captain Jang Hak-soo and his 7 members disguise themselves as a North Korean inspection unit. Their mission directives from General MacArthur are to infiltrate the North Korean army command center in Incheon and secure the mine chart; kidnap ‘Ryu Jang-choon’, the second highest ranking North Korean officer; and on D-Day, light the Palmido lighthouse as a signal to the main UN forces. Despite growing suspicion from the clever tactician Commander Lim Gye-jin of the North Korea’s People’s Army, Jang and his team successfully carry out their mission with the help of an underground information network. Then one day, their true identity is revealed...
Oh yes, you didn’t see it wrong. That is indeed Liam Neeson in a Korean movie, lending his Hollywood star wattage to the role of US General Douglas MacArthur, whose plan (dubbed ‘Operation Chromite’) to land 75,000 troops amphibiously on the port city of Incheon proved to be the turning point in the Korean War. It was a risky stratagem no doubt – besides the fact that Incheon was then already firmly in the hands of the Northern army backed by Russia and China, the harbour itself was notorious for its swift currents and tidal surges. His other military chiefs had their reservations, and so did then-US President Harry S. Truman. Yet the fact that the Incheon operation was a success is credit as much to that strategic masterstroke as it is to the groundwork laid by a covert squad of eight Korean Liaison Officers (KLO) who went behind enemy lines to gather military intelligence and ‘light’ the way for over 200 warships.
That mission, code-named ‘X-Ray’, is in fact the subject of this movie, for which its leader Captain Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae) is its hero and our main protagonist here. Posing as a Moscow-trained defector from the North, Captain Jang makes contact with the ruthless North Korean commander- in-charge General Lim Gye-jin (Lee Bum-soo) with the intent of acquiring from the latter the locations of all the mines off the coast of Incheon. Alas, the smart and dangerous General Lim suspects that Captain Jang is not who he says he is, refusing therefore to share that piece of classified information with him, leaving Captain Jang little choice but to attempt a daring daytime raid of the former’s premises. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between the two nemeses, which plays out in the form of shootouts, car chases and loud explosions over the course of the movie – and to director John H. Lee’s credit, these are often lively, thrilling and well-choreographed.
If it isn’t yet apparent at this point, ‘Operation Chromite’ is less a war movie than an espionage thriller, focusing on the dedication to nation, commitment to their mission and bravery beyond self of the eight men who knew that they were pretty much on a suicide mission. As his previous films (like ‘71: Into the Fire’ and ‘A Moment to Remember’) would have foretold, Lee’s style isn’t one of subtlety or restraint; and sure enough, every single X-Ray team member’s death is portrayed in slo-mo, accompanied by weeping and elegiac music, and celebrated as a shining example of patriotism. There is no doubt who the good guys are and who the bad ones are, and Lee doesn’t care about in-betweens; the only exception that Lee’s go-to scripter Lee Man-hee offers is that of a hospital nurse Han Chae-seon (Jin Se-yeon), whose loyalty for the Communist party swiftly unravel after watching her uncle executed in cold blood by gunshot at the town square.
That the deaths of Captain Jang’s men isn’t felt as poignantly as the music obviously wants to make us feel is somewhat inevitable given the poor attention to character development and its lack thereof. Two brief scenes enlighten the motivations of Captain Jang and one other of his men – the former putting his life on the line to protect his mother’s livelihood in Incheon, and the latter for the sake of his wife and baby daughter. Otherwise, there is no attempt to humanise the other characters or establish their dynamics as a team, which is also why the subsequent portrayals of heroic sacrifice often ring hollow. Worse still is the General himself, who is not only reduced to caricature biting his corncob pipe and berating those who question him but is also saddled with some of the most tin-eared lines we’ve heard in a while (read this: ‘Old age may have wrinkled my skin, but when you lose your ideals, it wrinkles your soul’).
Not even an accomplished actor like Neeson can save his character from drowning in cliché, so it must come as a relief that he is not on the screen very often. That’s right – this is in fact Lee Jung-jae’s movie, and the actor best known for his supporting roles in ‘The Thieves’ and ‘Assassination’ brings gravitas and poise to the role of Captain Jang. Jung-jae lays bare his character’s fears, frustrations and convictions, knowing that he is responsible for the lives of his men and the lives of thousands more waiting for his team to pave their way into Incheon. On the other hand, Lee Bum-soo seems to be having great fun chewing up the scenery as the villain, sneering and shooting his way through in order to get at Captain Jang. The two Lees (by that, we mean Jung-jae and Bum-soo) serve as good foils for each other, but their one-on-one confrontation at the end fizzles out before their dramatic tension comes to a boil.
The same can be said of the extended finale in general, which Lee spends most of his US$14 million budget (huge by Korean cinema standards) on. Though early images of the size of the naval deployment by the South are nicely juxtaposed against the size of the troop deployment from the North, Lee denies his audience the pleasure of any visual spectacle watching the North and South clash; instead, the action we do see is how Captain Jang and who is left of his men seize a lighthouse to guide MacArthur’s fleet in the dark of night as well as their subsequent attempt to take out the explosives planted on the shores where MacArthur’s men will land. Not that it isn’t engaging, but there is something underwhelming about the staging of the titular operation which the rest of the movie was building up to.
Ultimately, ‘Operation Chromite’ is a film that is proud to wear its nationalism on its sleeve, which undeniably can be inspiring for a country constantly rattled by its Northern neighbour’s nuclear progress but which also reduces its story of ordinary unsung heroes into pure jingoism. One need only look at last year’s ‘Assassination’ (which also starred Jung-jae) to know that Korean cinema has done and can do much, much better than this, so even if it isn’t a bomb in the figurative sense, it still is a disappointing exercise in mediocrity. And if you’re watching this because of Neeson, let’s just see you needn’t bother, especially not when he doesn’t do much more than walk around in the same boardroom trying to channel MacArthur’s trademark bluster and bravado through god-awful lines of dialogue at his enemies.
(Not nearly a bomb but not quite a success by any measure, this tale of espionage that wears its jingoistic heart on its sleeve is superficially engaging but emotionally hollow)
Review by Gabriel Chong