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Silmido

First out of the gate of South Korea's two winter blockbusters, "Silmido" is a gung-ho, character-driven "Dirty Dozen" with a bitter aftertaste. Based on a 1999 book that exposed a dirty 30-year-old secret by the country's then-military government, pic follows 31 death-row scum who are secretly trained for a hit in the North until Realpolitik makes the mission too hot to handle.

Cast:
Kang In-chan - Seol Gyeong-gu Gen. Choi Jae-hyeon - Ahn Sung-ki Sgt. Jo - Heo Jun-ho Han Sang-pil - Jeong Jae-yeong Geun-jae - Kang Shin-il Chan-seok - Kang Sung-jin Weon-heui - Im Weon-heui Weon-sang - Eom Tae-weon Min-ho - Kim Kang-woo

First out of the gate of South Korea’s two winter blockbusters, “Silmido” is a gung-ho, character-driven “Dirty Dozen” with a bitter aftertaste. Based on a 1999 book that exposed a dirty 30-year-old secret by the country’s then-military government, pic follows 31 death-row scum who are secretly trained for a hit in the North until Realpolitik makes the mission too hot to handle. Local B.O. since Dec. 24 release has been explosive, with legs to spare; offshore returns will be harder fought, as no proven market exists (especially in the West) for commercial Asian fare in this genre.

The $8.5 million movie has shattered most local records, so far clocking 6 million admissions (north of $30 million) in 26 days, in sight of all-time champ “Friend” (8.2 million) and even overtaking “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Pic has a few more days left before the season’s second heavyweight “Taegukgi,” Korean War drama from “Shiri” helmer Kang Je-gyu, hits screens Feb. 6.

Kang Woo-suk, head of conglom Cinema Service and perhaps the country’s savviest commercial producer, has a track record with his own helming assignments (“Two Cops,” “Public Enemy”) for well-honed scripts and involving characters. As expected, the emotionally intense “Silmido” is much more than just a gung-ho actioner. Additional cutting, including a sequence where some recruits rape a local woman, could be made to try to interest offshore markets. In general, however, viewers more used to the norms of Korean (and Asian) ardor, here often larded with humor, are most likely to stay hooked through to the powerful finale.

Pacey intro shows a North Korean commando team, in January 1968, almost managing to assassinate the South’s prez, Gen. Park, in Seoul. On live TV afterward, the sole survivor exclaims, “I came to slit the throat of Park Chung-hee!” — which prompts the KCIA to greenlight a similar mission against the North’s top banana, Kim Il-sung.

At the start, script focuses on just one character, young gangster Kang (Seol Gyeong-gu), as a team of Death Row roughnecks is rounded up by Gen. Choi (vet Ahn Sung-ki). Shipped to Shilmi Island (literal meaning of “Silmido”), off the western coast, the 31 “recruits” are put through two years of brutal training.

By the time Special Unit 684 is ready to go, pic’s mix of training montages and quieter scenes in the barracks has built up a small number of characters, aside from Kang, for whom viewers can root. Sucker punch comes 50 minutes in as, at the last moment, the mission is cancelled, following Seoul’s new tactic of greater rapprochement with the North.

Second half is the heart of the movie, as the unit is betrayed by the very government which promoted it, and Choi gets an order from the KCIA to “clean up” Shilmi Island as if the training camp and its inmates had never existed.

Script focuses tightly on the recruits and three main officers, with virtually no details of outside political developments or even datelines. The political implications of the impossible quandary in which Choi is put are explored in only one scene, a face-off between him and a KCIA guy in which Choi blurts out, “Is Central Intelligence the nation?”

Theme of personal betrayal by the peninsula’s politics has been dealt with in more depth by earlier pics like “The Spy” (1999) and “Double Agent” (2003). “Silmido” takes a more life-and-death approach, with the recruits taking their fates into their own hands as they find themselves, ironically, branded as communist insurgents. “Citizen Kane”-like ending wraps up the story effectively.

Seol, best known as the lead in “Oasis” and “Peppermint Candy,” is good in the very different role of Kang, a hard case whose father deserted to the North long ago. Both Jeong Jae-yeong and Im Weon-heui stand out as serious and lighter supports, and Heo Jun-ho cuts a memorable character as Jo, a tough-as-nails sergeant.

Aces casting, however, is Ahn as the ruthless camp commander, a role the vet actor manages to imbue with a tough, practical humanity, entirely thanks to his popular screen image.

Technically, production is top-drawer, with locations in South Korea, Malta (underwater) and New Zealand (winter training) melding smoothly. Editing by Go Im-pyo moves things along without rushing, and score by Jo Yeong-uk is heroic to a point. A few apparently minor cinematic liberties have been taken with the facts as known.

Silmido

South Korea

Production: A Cinema Service release and presentation of a Cinema Service production, in association with Hanmac Pictures. (International sales: Cinema Service, Seoul.) Producer, Lee Min-ho. Executive producers, Kang Woo-suk, Jonathan Kim. Directed by Kang Woo-suk. Screenplay, Kim Heui-jae, based on the book by Baek Dong-ho.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Kim Seong-bok; editor, Go Im-pyo; music, Jo Yeong-uk; production designer, Art Service; costume designer, Shin Seung-heui; sound (Dolby Digital), Kim Weon-yong. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Jan. 25, 2004. Running time: 134 MIN.

With: Kang In-chan - Seol Gyeong-gu Gen. Choi Jae-hyeon - Ahn Sung-ki Sgt. Jo - Heo Jun-ho Han Sang-pil - Jeong Jae-yeong Geun-jae - Kang Shin-il Chan-seok - Kang Sung-jin Weon-heui - Im Weon-heui Weon-sang - Eom Tae-weon Min-ho - Kim Kang-woo

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