R-Point (2004)
Written and Directed by Su-chang Kong
Starring Woo-seong Kam, Byung-ho Son

War is hell, especially if your unit is sent to a place too haunted for the Vietcong to traverse. Leaving the terrestrial horrors of hidden snipers, tripwires, landmines and death by fire behind a small group of South Korean soldiers find themselves faced with an unseen and unexplained enemy in this high grossing psychological-horror flick.

In 1972 a South Korean military base begins to receive transmissions from a unit long missing and presumed dead. Unable to ignore these radio messages but unwilling to commit a large scale investigation the army brass picks Lieutenant Choi Tae-in (Woo-seong Kam) from the MPs after he narrowly escapes assassination in the bed of a prostitute. With a reputation for leading men into horrific bloodbaths where almost no one survives he’s forced to cull recruits for the mission from the VD clinic or rely on easily duped volunteers. A motley crew of under-achievers assembles at the dock, waiting along with their taciturn Sergeant Jin Chang-rok (Byung-ho Son) waiting to be taken down river to R-Point.

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Despite army intelligence they do fall under fire in the middle of a bamboo grove but soon discover their adversary to be a corpse and a young girl, wounded by a mortar blast. Leaving her to die they find themselves troubled again by strange rock inscriptions as they begin to enter their objective; Chinese etchings tell a tale of the slaughter and mass burial of Vietnamese at the hands of the Chinese and that R-Point stands on a filled lake which serves as their grave. Shaking off superstitious warnings they continue.

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Upon waking the next morning a ghostly mansion rises above them, shrouded in the omnipresent fog. They find no one inside the ruined building, just the remains of transmitter equipment and assorted boxes left behind. Downtime is split between routine barracks banter and the radio operator struggling to get a signal back to base, until the building is buzzed by a chopper. As it turns out the Americans are storing something on the second floor, something not to be disturbed, and the squadron leader warns Lt. Choi that R-Point is haunted. His men are betting, he says, that when they return if four days all of the Koreans will be dead.

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The next day the troop splits up to search for any sign of their missing comrades, any evidence of them alive or dead. As they parade through the grounds they discover burning incense left at the ruins of an ancient temple and are forced to contend with the idea that they are not quite alone here. Some of the soldiers, left behind for a moment, find themselves chasing their comrades who suddenly disappear in the tall grass. The radio operator begins to receive transmissions from French soldiers who say they are nearby and would like to come visit. When one of the soldiers is outed as having belonged to the missing unit a fight breaks out, and the next morning he goes missing. But not for long– someone has strung him up from the roof of the mansion.

But the radio can’t get ahold of headquarters and the search must continue. More people see soldiers that can’t possible be there, and everyone is getting suspicious that tricks are being played on them. Lt. Choi and Sgt. Jin begin to butt heads over how to proceed and there’s a growing sense among everyone that something is being hidden from them. And then, of course, there’s the woman in white that Choi sees every night when the lighting storms begin, but this isn’t something you can exactly tell your men when they’re on the verge of losing it completely.

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Adding the military context to a traditional ghost story is a nice change of scenery but an ultimately wasted gesture. There’s no real exploitation of the effects of the army on the human psyche as exemplified in the better war movies (Full Metal Jacket is abused in many reviews for this movie) nor is there any explosions and valiant last stands or heroics. The same movie could have been filmed with sorority girls performing a dare and then at least we would have seen a nightie-clad pillow fight or something. The lighter moments for a bunch of stank-ass motherfuckers in fatigues seem constrained to everyone dancing exuberantly to a found tape of The Ventures, at least until the tape bleeds into screams of horror and agony. The bad joke of the film is a conversation between three soldiers as they crouch in the tall grass.

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Perhaps because of the size of the cast there’s also little character development. Many of the soldiers blend into each other for me and those that stand out are more signified by what they are (the big-talking Sergeant who’s really just a cook, the young kid who keeps taking the fall for others, the mortician’s son who’s superstitious) than who they are. Why Lt. Choi is such a feared leader or why Sgt. Jin has such a stick up his ass remains unexplained. Not that the story would have benefitted from getting to know anyone better, because the storyline becomes confused and fractured along the way. The fairly straight objective of the platoon is quickly mired in side-story flashbacks, hidden agendas and secrets that are never really explained or used to propel the movie in any direction. In the end I was lost for the plot and wondering what exactly I was supposed to be paying attention to. It’s like pulling up a net full of red herring.

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The movie does look nice, and one thing that the military theme provides is the viewer’s immediate response to lush jungle and bamboo groves (filmed in Cambodia); we know that Vietnam was a place of constant danger and so the scenery proves itself unsettling from the start. The mansion is in a wonderful state of decay and the fog enshrouded grounds, the collapsing temple and the rugged terrain traversed all add their own tension. Despite the ghost-story core there’s very little special effects at play and the organic feel is nice and fresh. Kong’s direction proves he’s capable of capturing tension, particularly among a group of disparate characters thrown into a common scenario.

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Overall the acting is perfunctory, relying a little more on cliche than you would like to see. The infighting and bickering between the lower soldiers is copied from a million military movies as is the stoic leadership by Kam and Son. Wong-sang Park’s performance as the brash braggart Sgt. Cook takes his cues from traditional Asian slapstick which I’m not normally a fan of but within the serious faced copy-cat performances it did provide some relief. The worst acting is saved for the visiting Americans, particularly during the conversation one has with Choi about the haunted R-Point. Absolutely embarrassing.

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There’s very little incidental music and the ambient sound of stormy nights, foggy stretches of tall grass and the constant hiss of radio is very well put together. All told the design of the movie was solid and the story could have been much more effective if half of the plot twists were thrown out and more focus was brought into the picture. Relying less on possible explanations for the haunting and building on one good idea then adding a little more to the characters would have made this a pretty good movie, but the effort seems to have collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions. Too bad– I was disappointed at the lost potential.

Tartan Asia Extreme released this in the states which means it’s widely available for your consumption. It comes widescreen with your standard 5.1 Surround option and some extra features I didn’t care about.

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