If you only see one Korean War tap-dance musical this year, well, you’re probably watching “Swing Kids.” A brash, busy and often bizarre genre mashup from South Korean blockbuster merchant Kang Hyeong-Cheol, this far-fetched tale of an African-American G.I. finding terpsichorean kinship with a group of Asian misfits in a POW camp brings a bit of “Footloose”-style pep to an otherwise bloodily solemn anti-war tragedy. Yet while Kang’s film skips along in engaging fashion for its first hour — cheerful anachronisms and all — a pile-up of clashing tones and foggy subplotting combine to put lead weights on its tap shoes. With charismatic K-pop star Do Kyung-soo (better known as D.O.) among the leads, “Swing Kids” should give the director another domestic hit, but international audiences may find it a tad overlong and overworked.
“Swing Kids” is an unfortunate choice of title, recalling as it does the disastrous 1993 film of the same name, in which a pair of Hitler Youth recruits swirled around the underground swing circuit by night. Kang’s film likewise mixes brassy pleasure with brutal wartime politics, and to less offensively ahistorical effect. Which isn’t to rule out the inoffensively ahistorical, as the soundtrack for this 1950-set story encompasses 1960s Motown, 1980s David Bowie and decidedly millennial K-pop. Whatever gets your feet moving, seems to be the philosophy — so it’s especially disorienting when “Swing Kids” sheds this fast-and-loose good-time spirit for more sobering, explicit interludes on the horrors of war. By the end, fancifully snappy dance numbers vie with grisly bullet ballet for top setpiece honors: Kang stages both with aplomb, leaving audiences caught between crying and cheering.
The setup, meanwhile, is pure “let’s put on a show” formula, albeit with a cruel twist. In Geoje, a POW camp ruled with a sadistic streak by racist American soldiers, thuggish general Roberts (Ross Kettle) orders black sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes) — a professional tap dancer in his civilian life — to recruit and train a dance troupe from the gaggle of beaten-down prisoners and defiant radicals in their notional care. The objective is to put on a Christmas show to impress the international media and boost the U.S. Army’s public image; Jackson, himself treated as a second-class citizen by his white counterparts, accepts his assignment with understandably limited enthusiasm.
Gradually, however, a motley crew comes together under his choreographic command: Xiao Fang (Kim Min-ho), an ungainly Chinese outsider whose shy demeanor masks some slinky moves; Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se), a prisoner who hopes the exposure might reunite him with his missing wife; and Pan-rae (Hye-soo Park), a scrappy young woman who acts as the ensemble’s translator. Adapted from Jang Woo-sung’s stage musical, Kang’s broad-brush script feigns only passing interest in these characters; the livewire here is Ki-soo (Do), a volatile Communist revolutionary and brilliant hoofer, who’s ideologically torn between his devotion to the cause and his secret love for western swing dancing. What’s a good comrade with happy feet to do?
As he butts heads with Jackson and remains privy to his Communist superiors’ plans for revolt, Ki-soo’s ambiguous loyalties are the only real source of tension in a narrative that collects rather too much slack as it goes. If the film never quite blossoms into a full song-and-dance affair — only one song is performed on screen — it feels most electric in its dance sequences: One blissfully cross-cut scene, in which both Ki-soo and Pan-rae separately run, jump and boogie out their frustrations to Bowie’s irresistible “Modern Love,” brings the film tantalizingly to the brink of a more stylized, surreal register, before normal period-piece service resumes. (At least it resumes handsomely, though: Kim Ji-yong’s candy-bright widescreen lensing is an asset throughout.)
The tonal disparity between such exuberant flights of fancy and cold, hard scenes of wartime violence could be wielded to effectively disorienting effect, but it’s a tricky pivot that “Swing Kids” doesn’t pull off with the nimble grace of its dancers. Too often, it simply feels like two films wrestling in one roomy framework, sometimes overlapping to awkward effect: One potentially horrifying scene of bigoted U.S. soldiers assaulting Jackson’s crew is somewhat trivialized by its devolution into ’90s-style dance-off choreography. The messaging is similarly unsubtle, but at least it’s on point: Lest we somehow miss the memo, Jackson eventually gets a speech spelling out his identification across battle lines with his fellow oppressed people of color, capped with the rallying cry, “F—k ideology!” It’s a slogan that emphatically takes this “Swing Kids” out of its namesake’s family-friendly territory, and offers an excuse for the film’s own likeably jumbled approach: Whatever else Kang’s film is doing, it’s not following orders.