×

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.

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

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.

Popular on Variety

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

More Film

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

  • US director Francis Ford Coppola holds

    Francis Ford Coppola Honored With Prestigious Lumiere Prize by Thierry Fremaux, Bong Joon Ho

    Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France. The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and [...]

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

  • Robert Zemeckis

    Robert Zemeckis in Talks to Direct Live-Action 'Pinocchio' for Disney (EXCLUSIVE)

    Robert Zemeckis is in early talks to direct Disney’s live-action “Pinocchio.” Andrew Miano and Chris Weitz will produce through their company Depth of Field with Weitz penning the script. “Paddington” director Paul King had originally been tapped to direct but had to leave the project for unknown reasons at the beginning of the year. David [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content