Movie Review: Swing Kids (2018) (스윙키즈)

The Korean War sets the unlikely backdrop for this curious mash up of genres and decades by popular South Korean director Kang Hyeong-cheol/강형철 (SCANDAL MAKERS, SUNNY).

Based on the Korean musical “Rho Ki-soo” (named after the story’s central character), SWING KIDS, which has nothing to do with the 1993 film of the same name, takes place in the Geoje prison camp for North Korean POWs located in the southern tip of the country. The camp’s rather unsympathetic commander sees trouble brewing inside his barbed wire walls between the communist sympathizers and their brothers and cousins who are now siding with their captors. To calm tensions but most of all to impress the Red Cross observers who routinely inspect the conditions at the camp, he orders Sgt. Jackson (Jared Grimes), a black soldier under his command and a former Broadway tap dancer, to put together a small dance troupe from among the prisoners. After the requisite disastrous auditions, Jackson manages to find three suitable candidates in Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se/오정세), who is falsely accused of being a communist sympathizer and hopes to be reunited with his wife; Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su/박혜수), a local woman who makes a living from dancing with the GIs at their dances and speaks enough English to be Jackson’s translator; and Xiao Fang (Kim Min-ho/김민호), an overweight Chinese POW who loves dancing but can’t do it for very long before passing out. North Korean soldier Ro Ki-soo (K-Pop star Do Kyung-soo/도경수 aka D.O.) sees Jackson dancing and immediately falls in love with the art form but his rebellious nature won’t allow him to adopt the occupiers’ decadent culture. But just as the dancing bug takes hold of him, change comes to the camp with the arrival of his brother Ro Ki-jin (Kim Min-Jae/김민재), a North Korean war hero, along with Ki-soo’s long-time friend Kwang-kuk (David Lee/이다윗), who has been elevated to a leadership position in the pro-communist hierarchy.

A cross between FOOTLOOSE, STEP UP and M*A*S*H, SWING KIDS features a bit of everything from a dance off with a bunch of race-baiting American GIs to an anachronistic soundtrack that includes Louis Jourdan, Benny Goodman, a Korean version of Hava Nagila (하바나길라), The Isley Brothers, the Beatles and even David Bowie. For the first half of the movie, it’s fairly enjoyable fare with a few laugh-out-loud moments but in the second half another movie horns its way in and the tone turns very dark just as it should be soaring with every leap the dancers take. Not surprisingly, everything comes to a head at the troupe’s Christmas performance (no great spoiler there), but then the story really jumps the shark with about fifteen minutes to go in the film’s 133-minute running time. I can’t imagine that the stage play follows the same storyline because the writers really paint themselves in a corner here. If there is a message to be learned from this story – the power of dance, for example, to escape from the horror and depression of war, to borrow from M*A*S*H, it unfortunately lands flat-footed.

The film will be released in 23 countries around the Pacific rim so if you live in the region, there’s a good chance you’ll have an opportunity to see it. Whether you like it or not will depend on how much you enjoy watching tap dancing and how well you can overlook the rest.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Thursday, January 3rd at 8:30 am HK time!

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