Rustic life is brutally shattered by oppressors and liberators alike in the simple and confrontational Korean war drama “A Little Pond.” Lee Saang-woo’s feature bow is direct, uncomplicated and incredibly moving in its depiction of the events leading up to the real-life Nogunri massacre; in particular, the pic will touch the raw nerves of South Korean auds still impacted by the not completely resolved civil war of the 1950s. Outside the Korean peninsula, this by turns splendid and harrowing film reps a perfect festival item, matching pacifist themes with fine ensemble perfs and picturesque lensing.
The yarn is set in July 1950, just one month into the Korean War, in the small village of Bawulgol, whose inhabitants have little knowledge of the international politics escalating the battle on the Korean peninsula. Townsfolk talk vaguely of their plans if the war spills into their lives. Some are embittered that South Korean President Rhee Syng-man has already hightailed it down to the port city of Busan, leaving the rest of the population endangered by advancing North Korean forces. But mainly, Bawulgol’s citizens just live their lives: farming, bickering and bitching about the summer heat while the local schoolchildren prepare for a singing competish in Seoul.
The idyll ends when advancing American troops order everyone to evacuate what will soon be a war zone. The villagers obey, but lack of a coordinated plan and U.S. military indifference mean the townsfolk are thrust from the frying pan into the fire.
Much of the pic’s second half is concerned with the villagers’ trauma as other U.S. Army units mistake the rural Koreans for enemy combatants. The film enters a phase that is as grueling as the opening section of “Saving Private Ryan”; the dramatic impact is even more devastating as the easygoing first half has established an intimate audience connection with the besieged townfolk.
The script is based on books about and interviews with survivors of the Nogunri incident — a wartime massacre of more than 200 Koreans that, per press materials, was denied by the American and South Korean governments until 2005. Exact details of the massacre are still in dispute. Pic presents the incident in realistic fashion, but twice (once at the halfway mark and again at the finale), helmer Lee makes audacious use of CGI, briefly transporting the film from faithful re-creation into the realm of the fantastic. The bold embellishments will awe some (and are sure to rankle others) but are consistent with the poetic tone established in the pic’s first half.
The large ensemble cast prevents any one character becoming a chief protagonist. Collectively, the thesps ease auds into the rhythms of village life, heightening sensitivity to the shocking reality of wartime slaughter. Pic is dedicated to thesp Park Gwang-jung (“Driving With My Wife’s Lover”), who died during post-production.
Known for his theatrical work, Lee makes an accomplished and vivid transition to the cinema, approaching his potentially loaded story with compassionate detachment and refusing to coast on easy emotion or sentimental manipulation.
Title refers to a well-known 1972 antiwar song by Korean pop composer Kim Min-ki; in a deliberate anachronism, a children’s choir sings his songs. The titular tune refers to a battle to the death between two fish in a little pond — a metaphor readily understood by Korean auds that also goes some way toward explaining the pic’s CGI gambit.