'Swing Kids': Film Review

A light crowd-pleaser that turns much too serious for its own good.
12/21/2018

Korean hitmaker Hyeong-Cheol Kang's latest is a hybrid anti-war movie and tap-crazed dance film featuring K-pop star Kyung-soo Do, better known by his stage name, D.O.

A horrors-of-war saga disguised as a goofy feel-good dance pic, Hyeong-Cheol Kang's Swing Kids (based on a musical by Jang Woo-sung, not the maligned 1993 Nazis-vs-jazz film) imagines a racially diverse quintet of friends who bond over tap dance in a Korean War POW camp. Sounds unlikely? You bet. But those characters fit together better than the plot's light and dark elements, which start clashing halfway through this overlong feature and never resolve. As a result, a story that might have played well to any English-language viewers who both read subtitles and like Step Up films has very slim theatrical prospects in the States.

Sitting on an island at the southernmost part of Korea, the Koje POW camp saw plenty of real-life strife despite the fact that some prisoners enjoyed such high quality-of-life they didn't want to go home. Imagining the scene in the summer of 1950, Kang introduces a U.S. Army officer, Ross Kettle's General Roberts, with a strange morale-boosting plan: He asks a black sergeant named Jackson (Jared Grimes), a performer back in his civilian life, to teach some of the prisoners to tap dance, hoping they can put on a show that will get the camp favorable media attention.

Faced with a room full of Koreans who speak no English and dance to very different drummers, Jackson despairs. But a tiny ensemble emerges all on its own. There's a portly Chinese guy (Kim Min-Ho), whose audition to an R&B tune contains the first hints of choreographic anachronisms to come; an anti-Communist (Oh Jung-se) who just wants to join a touring troupe so he can hunt for his missing wife; and a young woman named Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su), not a prisoner, who has been hustling money off G.I.s and is the only person Jackson meets who can translate between English and Korean.

Last is the Communist true believer Ki-Soo, played by Korean pop star/actor Kyung-soo Do, better known by his stage name D.O. Ki-Soo is the kid brother of a war hero, and sneers at anything that smacks of Yankee capitalism, but he's just... gotta... dance. After his first encounter with the group, danceable rhythms haunt him, from the smack-smack-smack of workers doing laundry to the tooth-grinding and log-sawing snores of his bunkmates when they sleep.

Ki-Soo's struggle is on track to supply some light dramatic content in what looks like a very conventional plot, and a string of mildly diverting dance sequences is all feel-good silliness. When, in the darkest scene to this point, a few American soldiers corner Ki-Soo and threaten racist violence, they break out in boy band-ish dance moves before anybody gets hurt.

But then, around the 70-minute mark, another film intrudes: A secret rebellion emerges among the camp's Communists, more murderous than anything the picture has prepared us for; the movie starts interrupting peaceful or low-key scenes with shocking violence. Ki-Soo is called on and appears likely to take part in the rebellion. Then a Vince Guaraldi-like piano signals the arrival of Christmas, and we seem to have returned to our previously scheduled fairy tale. But darker (and not at all believable) reversals lie ahead.

All the killing is at the service of the movie's simplistically stated anti-war theme. Now and then, someone will point out that this Commie-vs.-Yankee stuff is all somebody else's battle, and that Koreans ought to remember they are a single people. When Jackson introduces the dance number that's supposed to save his career, he stands up in front of the brass and implausibly declares, "The title of this performance is 'Fuck Ideology.'" Even some reasonably hot footwork (often framed too close, with too many edits) can't generate enough goodwill to get this odd story past the minefield of its final scenes.

Distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Kyung-soo Do, Hye-soo Park, Jared Grimes, Oh Jung-Se, Kim Min-ho, Ross Kettle, A.J. Simmons
Director-screenwriter: Hyeong-Cheol Kang
Producer: Lee An-Na

In Korean, English
133 minutes