Sunday, July 27, 2008

We shall overcome someday

Awarded the top spot in Japan’s prestigious Kinema Junpo critic’s poll, this film doles out equal amounts of tender romance and bottle breaking brawling in a Romeo and Juliet tale of clashing cultures in Kyoto in 1968. Currently, Japan is in the midst of a faddish love affair with Korean pop and is gobbling up their TV dramas and music idols by the handful, but as this film shows there has long been a deep enmity between the Japanese and the Koreans who were brought over to work in Japan and settled there. In one very powerful scene a Japanese student is angrily asked to leave the funeral of his Korean friend followed by an embittered tirade of the injustices that have been levied against the Korean population in Japan.

It is a stunning moment in a film that until then had left much of this unstated but had simply focused on the intense dislike between two high schools divided by a river and by ethnicity. History is an even bigger divide it turns out. Amusing at times, wrenching at others, the film is fueled by winning performances, a sense of nostalgia and an underlying human element that speaks volumes to the fact that with all of our differences we are still just people trying to do the best we can for our family, our friends and ourselves. The Kamo River cuts from north to south through the city of Kyoto and on one side lives the Korean locals who do their best to preserve their culture, avoid the Japanese and dream of going home to Korea someday. In a symbolic way this river reminds the Koreans of their old homeland which is separated as well and they sing longingly of it in the song “The Imjin River”.

The two cultures bang heads one afternoon when a couple of insolent Japanese high school students wander into the Korean part of town on a school outing and mess with a few neighborhood girls. This brings down the wrath of the nearby Korean high school and the Japanese students are taught a lesson when they are beaten and then for good measure their school bus is tipped over. Caught in this melee is the innocent Kosuke (Shun Shioya), who has just styled his hair into a bowl look to impress the girls (not a chance) and wants to learn to play guitar. As the bus begins to topple over he gets a quick glimpse of the adorable
Kyung-ja (Erika Sawajiri – “Shinobi”) and is instantly infatuated.



When Kosuke’s teacher hears of the altercation, he insists that the two groups try and bond over a game of soccer (“only war can defeat war”) and he sends Kosuke and his equally timid friend Yoshio (Keisuke Koide) to the Korean school to deliver the invitation. In a state of near paralysis the two go into the school and meet instant hostility and threats and go scooting off through the hallways – until Kosuke hears a lilting flute playing a song and he peers into the classroom only to see the same girl he saw on the previously day. In an effort to win her heart he learns the song on his guitar and some Korean to woo her. They begin to shyly date, but the fighting between the Koreans and Japanese escalates with Kyung-ja’s tough brother Ang Son (Sosuke Takaoka) leading the Korean forces. There seems little chance for the couple to seal their love among such bitterness until Kosuke plays the song he learned – The Imjin River - on the radio and in a finale that sent shivers down my spine the melancholy song wafts over the city at night as two large forces break into a fight on the river bank, a friend is put to rest, a baby is born into the world and a young woman runs to the man she loves.
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