In thinking about this review it occurred to me that Silmido is not a film I’m supposed to enjoy. This came as a surprise, since although it is limited in terms of satisfying story progression (or even closure) it did sustain my interest. The cause of this paradox lies, I think, in the film’s generic oscillations. Cinema Service founder and part owner Kang Woo-suk (Public Enemy) knows how to produce and market suspenseful action blockbusters, but he makes Silmido wear that disguise thinly and uncomfortably. Really a tragedy about collateral damage during the deep freeze of North-South diplomatic relations, Kang has furnished Silmido with some of the brutish and explosive mannerisms that we’ve come to recognise in recent examples of the brassier side of Korean cinema (or is sadism everywhere these days?). Thugs smash each other’s heads in. Soldiers brand trainees with searing hot pokers. Officers and politicians fire live ammo upon whomever they wish. Everyone barring Ahn Sung-kee’s (Nowhere to Hide) camp commander gets to enjoy a few kicks to the head and guts; for him the pleasure is figurative. The tough get tougher, the weak get their bones pulped. Oh, and one of the few women to appear in the film is raped. Welcome to Contemporary Korean Action Movies 1A.
This ‘big film’ veneer helped make Silmido the all-time number one grosser at the Korean box office, albeit only for a few months (since it was surpassed by Taegukgi). A sort of conversion of The Dirty Dozen, Silmido’s dramatic intensity similarly relies upon dominating sound effects and music tracks, character stereotyping (the silent hard man, the agitator, the tough officer with a golden heart), quick advances in the storytelling, and the abuse of an invented masculine code of conduct — tied here to notions of loyalty. Featuring callous male politicians, obscene absent fathers, bad guys pretending to be good guys, a horde of sex-starved rogues, murderers and killing machines, this film is full of bastards. I found myself drawn more to Ahn and Heo Jun-ho’s (Volcano High) military lifers than any of the largely disagreeable and underdeveloped hooligans serving under them. In particular, the nameless squad leader played by Sol Kyung-gu (Oasis, Jail Breakers) is left rather democratically underexposed when you consider his importance to the structure of the plot and the handling of the ad campaign.
People have attached cultural and social significance to Silmido as if it were an obvious necessity. But I can’t help feeling that the story of this horrendous political misjudgement is better suited for accurate documentary rather than a momentary instance of popular culture. As the tourists flock to Silmi Island and the reigning politicos go through the motions of talking more openly about the past, Cinema Service must be wondering how next to promote in tune with and capitalise upon the remarkably pervasive domestic sentiments of cultural nationalism.