Films are often more than an escape from your lives or a distraction from politics, family, friends, or whatever ails you. Even hidden within the most harmless looking story is a thematic nugget propelling everything forward, desperately asking the audience to consider its POV. Then there are films like Kang Hyoung-Chul’s Swing Kids, an adaptation of a Korean musical from Jang Woo-Sung set during the Korean War, which explicitly asks its audience to consider the cost of blindly following an ideology. It’s a charming story of artists who just want to be artists, who want to bask in the bliss of doing the things they love which bring others incredible joy. Combining the harshness of war with the exuberance of dance seems like mixing oil and water, yet Swing Kids works through and through. It’s all at once powerfully evocative, undeniably charming, and completely heartbreaking.
During the Korean War, a POW camp was established by allies South Korea and the United States at Koje Island. As part of the Geneva Convention, occupants were given free time to explore vocational pursuits or leisure. As a means of quelling in-camp turmoil between North Korean loyalists and defectors, Brigadier General Roberts (Ross Kettle) orders Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), a former Broadway tap dancer, to put together a dance team as a means of showing the world that Koje Island is a place of peace. His rag-tag dance team includes overweight dance enthusiast Xiao Fang (Kim Min-ho), heartbroken Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-Se), team translator Yang Pallae (Park Hye-Su), and North Korean loyalist Roh Ki-Soo (Doh Kyung-Soo of K-Pop band EXO). Dancing means something different to each member of the team, but none of them could possibly know how their dancing might shake the foundations of Koje Island.
The duality of Swing Kids is its greatest strength and weakness for no other reason than audiences tend to forget context as they become wrapped up in the charming central story. Kang attempts to ground the film from the jump, opening with a war time propaganda video which explains the time period, the war, and the location. If you’re less familiar with the Korean War, this wonderfully establishes a foundation of knowledge from which the rest of the story springboards. Similarly, though the central characters each possess an internal rhythm which seems to burst from every pore, there’s a multitude of reminders that Swing Kids isn’t High School Musical. The bullies here have weapons, and if you’re not careful, you’ll be killed as a traitor or worse. So when Jackson, a Black soldier who runs secret parties to raise cash for his family in Okinawa, Japan, is called the n-word by a fellow officer or when Ki-soo is hailed as a hero for North Korea, it’s a reminder that dance might unite them, but the world is not a simple place and these reminders from Kang are absolutely necessary when the chemistry between the dance team, the choreography of scenes, and the infusion of rhythm to every corner of the frame causes the audience to forget just how real the world is. Without the willingness to go to the dark, terrible places of the era and location, Swing Kids wouldn’t possess all the emotional charge it exudes, nor would it feel so undoubtedly hard hitting.
By the way, for audiences that hear “period wartime film” and flinch, Kang’s unique approach neither requires a history background nor a love for dance. Certainly, an appreciation for these things will help slide you into the groove Swing Kids creates, but it isn’t necessary. This is largely due to the patient approach of the script. Never dull and never boring, Swing Kids flows like a big brass band number: introducing characters, establishing motivations, and putting them all into motion. The best part is how the on-going revelations of each character don’t just change the audience’s expectations, but shatter them. Much like the characters themselves, who struggle with their own cogitative dissonance between their passions and the ideologies of the era, the audience, too, comes with its own expectations. As the story unveils its truth, the audience is forced to examine their own ideology. Considering Swing Kids is packaged as a fun, goofy musical pic, the fact that it dares to dip its toes into the horrors of war – and does so without missing a beat – not only helps propel the story forward, but gives all the moments leading up to the conclusion powerful meaning.
While some may consider Swing Kids a film with two leads, there’s an argument that it’s an ensemble piece and it’s an argument that should be heard. At the center of the film are Jackson and Ki-Soo, two men whose ideological differences put them on opposing sides who come together through dance. As the world puts pressure on each man, he must make choices he can live with in order to survive. Both Grimes and Doh excel at making each man seem like the best and worst versions of themselves at any given moment. Grimes imbues Jackson with resentment and disdain for his inability to lead the life he wants in America; whereas Doh conveys Ki-Soo’s complex desire to be the passionate freedom fighter his countrymen believe him to be despite lacking the part which makes a fighter a killer. There’s enough character work in the performances from these two men that, had Swing Kids solely focused on them, the film may have been just as engaging. However, without the characters of Pallae, Xio, and Byung-sam, both Jackson and Ki-Soo would experience far less development. More to the point, Swing Kids would lack a more diverse view of the era as each character’s POV assists with changing those of Jackson and Ki-Soo, as well as that of the audience. Of the other three, Park Hye-Su’s performance of Pallae is the most pivotal. The character’s introduced as merely a member of a group of women who comes to Koje to keep the American soldiers company, yet her tenacity and ability to adapt reveal her to be something much more. Park infuses Pallae with a sweet temerity and a believability which the character requires to ascend beyond merely a love interest for Ki-Soo.
Much like the many moments within Swing Kids which appear to pulsate with rhythm and may remind audiences of their favorite Stephen Chow film (Kung Fu Hustle/Journey to the West), the fabulously choreographed tap dance routines will have audiences likewise bouncing to the beat, overtaken by the joy, by the absolute bliss, the undeniable freedom which comes from watching someone giving themselves over to their art. With incredible joy often comes terrible suffering, especially in wartime, and Kang ensures that neither is glossed over. North Korean or South, American or Soviet, Kang’s adaptation of Jang’s musical is a painful reminder that when we allow ourselves to be ruled by ideology, we lose that which makes us human, that which makes us the same.
In select theaters beginning December 21st, 2018.
Expected expansion into more theaters beginning January 4th, 2019.
For details on where to find a screening near you, head to the Swing Kids website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.