Leave your preconceptions at the door: R-Point is no ordinary ghost film. Nor is it an ordinary war film. Instead of assaulting viewers with creaky long-haired girl ghosts or green-clad grunts firing at anything that moves, Kong Su-chang gives us a thoughtful, eerie, and moving indictment of Korean involvement in other people’s wars.
This is a film that recreates the atmosphere of ghost stories told around a campfire: that sense of being out of place, and hearing things that might well be true, sets up a dissonance in the mind between our usual place in the world and the margins we’ve strayed into. It’s worth making the distinction quite explicit: this is a ghost film, but not a horror film. There’s no spine-chilling terror, no gore-drenched slaughter, simply the increasingly profound sense that something is very wrong.
The film-maker is adept at creating this sense of unease, using many techniques. This should not surprise, as he is responsible for the script of the serial killer thriller Tell Me Something. Unlike other film-makers I could mention (Eastern Condors anyone?), he doesn’t resort to the demonisation of the Vietnamese to do it. Here, the Vietnamese are almost invisible, an unseen presence in their own land. The Korean platoon, sent on a mission of search and rescue, are acutely aware of being out of place, quintessential strangers in a strange land. The country itself seems to reject them, from the mosquitoes that bedevil them to the tropical heat, unfamiliar and uncomfortable to men from a cold climate. The ground leads them astray constantly, offering mementoes of tragedies long past but not forgotten.
The unease grows, but never changes into the sort of dread that characterises most ghost films. We become more uneasy with the soldiers, and sink with them into their despondency, but we are denied the easy shocks employed by many horror directors to spice up a flat film. When dead colleagues appear momentarily, neither we nor the soldiers are sure whether they are ghosts or simply the product of overwrought, overtired minds desperate to explain the sense of unease.
The intent here was apparently not so much a ghost film as a film about war. Other people’s wars, to be specific. The director has doubts about the wisdom of Korea’s involvement in American wars abroad, and uses the medium of the ghost film to bring some of those doubts to light. Very effectively, too: there can be few jobs more conducive to worrying about death and after death than soldiers, who meet death in a very personal way on a daily basis. Their desire to see dead colleagues once again, part of the nostalgia of the profession, changes to queasy terror when the dead colleagues manifest themselves. We want things back as they were, not to have our faces rubbed in things as they are: we want our dead friends returned alive, not drifting in from the other world.
Subtle and understated, this film is exceptionally well-crafted. From the “Making Of” on the extras disc, it’s clear that more extensive effects and scenes were planned, but pruned from the final film, which is all to the good. More extensive use of overtly ghostly manifestations, or ghastly deaths, would have reduced the impact of this strong psychological thriller. This one deserves the accolades that have been heaped upon it.