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The Guard Post
cast: Jeon Ho-jin, Lee Young-hoon, Lee Jeong-heon, Cho Hyun-jae

writer and director: Kong Su-chang

116 minutes (18) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Showbox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
In the late 1990s, a wave of Japanese ghost stories such as Hideo Nakata's Ring spread out across the globe, reinvigorating the horror genre and inspiring dozens of ill-judged American remakes. In the wake of the rise of what would become known as J-horror, mainstream audiences suddenly started discovering South Korean films such as Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, and Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006). One of the more compelling aspects of Korean film is its unapologetic introversion.

This introversion can be obvious as with historical works such as Kang Je-gyu's melodramatic epic Brotherhood, or Bong Joon-ho's work of social history Memories Of Murder (2003) or it can be less obvious as in works such as The Host, which attempts to deal with South Korea's non-democratic past in the same way as Ishuru Honda's Godzilla (1954) dealt with Japan's status as the only nation to be attacked using nuclear weapons. Undeniably a part of this introverted trend, The Guard Post's director Kong Su-chang made his name with R-Point, a decidedly average but well-received ghost story involving South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War. The Guard Post (aka: G.P. 506) sees Kong returning to similar ground.

The film takes place in one of many concrete bunkers along the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. It is told through two intertwining time-lines focussing upon the original garrison of the outpost and then the second platoon that were sent in to investigate why the first group dropped out of contact with headquarters. Two distinct pressures drive the film's plot.

Firstly, there is the virus, loose among the men, which causes the infected to become increasingly aggressive and paranoid until they eventually turn on each other. Secondly, there is the conflict between one of the conscripts who hopes to survive no matter what the cost and the well-connected platoon commander who wants to hush everything up in order to keep his military record clean of any scandals (even when they are not his fault).

The film's narrative hops back and forth in time not only between the two time-lines, but also within the time-lines themselves with different scenes being returned to at different points in the film to illustrate or explain different events as we learn more and more about what happened to the original group of soldiers. As a piece of screenwriting this is undeniably ambitious but this inventive narrative is utterly crippled by two unfortunate facts.

The film is almost impossible to follow. The process of subtitling disembodies the actors' words. When we understand a language we see a person's lips move, we recognise their voice and we associate what they say with who said it. However, when you watch a subtitled film, you have to take your eyes off of the people talking in order to take in their words. This means that it is easy for words to lose their association with the image of a particular person moving their lips. By and large this is not a problem as directors usually have relatively few actors talking at the same time and it is quite simple to match up visual appearances with voice sounds and fill in the gaps. However, in a film such as Guard Post where most of the characters look and sound alike, this disembodiment quickly becomes problematic. Add in complex interweaving time-lines with characters that pop up in both and you have not a coherent narrative but of a series of frequently unrelated scenes from which one pieces together the point the director was trying to get across.

As a result of the difficulties linking words to characters, it is next to impossible to get a clear idea of what the different characters in Guard Post are actually like. This is not helped by the fact that even when time is devoted to filling out the characters, such attempts are patchy and slapdash at best. This is unfortunate as the film appears to be set up to resemble a psychological thriller of sorts.

Set in a concrete bunker miles from anywhere, boxed in by terrible storms and the demilitarised zone, Guard Post's setting was clearly supposed to be claustrophobic. Filled with characters being driven slowly mad with little hope of help from the outside, Guard Post also seems to have been conceived as a kind of huis clos; a psychological pressure cooker in which the characters are slowly driven insane by their inability to get away from each other. Of course, in order to have a psychological thriller, you need to have some kind of psychology. Even in a horror film. Consider, for example, Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist. This film works brilliantly because the sociological fault lines within the community are clear almost from the start and the characters that put pressure on those fault lines are incredibly well drawn. The Mist works as a film because it has something very coherent to say about the failings of human nature in general and particular individuals in particular. Guard Post, by contrast, is psychologically opaque. Not only are the characters poorly drawn, but also they melt into each other, as do the different groups involved in the story, meaning that any possible ideas about human psychology come across as hopelessly garbled.

Indeed, one of the film's key tensions is that between a career military man hoping for advancement and the conscripts that are there purely because the state demands it. The willingness of career military officers to put what are essentially enslaved civilians into dangerous situations and then keep them there purely for the sake of their own career is chilling. "I can fix this," an officer promises as he convinces a soldier to tell HQ that all is clear. He can't 'fix' the growing number of dead bodies, nor can he 'fix' the situation by protecting his men, but he can 'fix' the situation by finding a way to shift the blame onto someone else. As a result, when a soldier goes conspicuously mad, the officer sees it almost as a godsend... finally someone to pin the blame on. Guard Post's soldiers are treated as little more than stepping-stones on the road to a military career, and therein lies the film's true horror. Unfortunately, precious little is made of this theme. Instead of exploring the psychology of the careerist officer, Kong makes him two-dimensional and the split between conscripts and professional soldiers is hinted at but never made clear.

With the film's dramaturgical centres clouded and poorly constructed, it is unsurprising that Kong has to resort to shocking imagery. Rather than letting the film's themes do the work, he time and again opts to spend money and time showing us dismembered corpses and people pointing rifles at each other as though these childish feats of spectacle somehow compensate for a lack of tension, character and point. Guard Post is not scary, or creepy. In fact, it struggles to be interesting. This is very disappointing indeed as I think there was an important film to be made about this kind of subject matter and Kong is clearly a director who knows how to shoot his sets for maximum atmosphere. However, until he improves as a writer or is fed with better scripts, it seems that these important films will be forever out of Kong's reach.
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