Soar into the Sun or R2B: Return to Base or R2B: Riteontu Beyiseu (2012)
Modern wars are not events that happen in a vacuum. They are always the result of diplomatic failures. This does not mean wars cannot be deliberately provoked by an unexpected attack but, in today’s more connected world, there will have been discussions between interested parties. A breakdown in communication will have been noted. Spies will have reported troop and materiel movements. The signs and symptoms suggesting the possibility of an attack will have been noticed. That’s why I was interested to go and see the new film from South Korea called Soar into the Sun or R2B: Return to Base or R2B: Riteontu Beyiseu (2012). Any film with a military or action theme set on the Korean peninsula should say something interesting about attitudes and relationships — that’s both between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and South Korea, and between South Korea and the Americans. It is, after all, a tinderbox. Unfortunately, this film raises a scenario that was thought a possibility as the leadership transitioned between father and son, but fails in every respect to explain exactly what’s happening and deal with the consequences. Indeed, I would say the screenwriter and director Dong-won Kim are guilty of abject cowardice in the face of the enemy by refusing to show any constructive on-screen reaction to the events on the other side of the border.
Let’s start from the beginning. The South apparently knows there’s a purge of some kind going on in the North. Such behaviour usually comes before a regime change, say between Kim Jong-Il and another, or a coup against the ageing Kim Jong-Il as different factions manoeuvre for position by killing the current placeholders and installing their own people in key positions. Yet there’s no reaction of any kind from the South. Life goes on as normal. You would imagine the South would prepare against some kind of provocation from the north. Rousing an external enemy is a standard ploy for cementing nationalist support behind a “strong” leader in militarist states. But there’s no additional level of alertness given to the South’s armed forces. So imagine everyone’s surprise when an airforce plane from the north attempts to defect. It triggers a response. Two planes from the South appear to escort it to a suitable landing strip but, when a second plane from the North pursues and shoots down the defecting plane, there’s no reaction. When this plane then flies around Seoul and shoots at the South’s jets, and then fires a missile at a building, the instruction is still not to fire on it. People are being killed on the ground and in office blocks but the South considers it more important to gently encourage this plane to leave. Fighting in and around tower blocks is obviously a danger to civilians but we are not shown any outrage. There’s absolutely nothing on the response of the South Korean government to this aerial intrusion or attack upon civilian targets. You would expect action at the United Nations and backdoor discussions with the Chinese on what to do about this attack from their ally. South Korea’s president would be on television appealing for calm, reassuring the people everything can be resolved with a resumption of war.
What we do get is news from the Americans that the North is fuelling an ICBM and a stealth bomber is going to fly across the border and take out the base before it can be launched. The Americans are shown in a very bad light, failing to consider local interests and needs, and solely intent on protecting themselves from potential attack. This portrayal of arrogance is an interesting commentary on how film-makers (and other opinion-shapers) perceive the US military presence in South Korean and Japanese bases. Without giving away too much of the plot, we then have the South sending a limited strike force across the border in defiance of express American commands. No matter who’s actually in charge of the north, this is not something the DPRK can ignore. Technically, a state of war exists and this is a resumption of hostilities. It would be irrelevant that a faction from the north has made the first provocative attack. The fact of the South’s response would be enough to trigger full-scale war. In other words, no matter how you choose to view this film, it remains a naive fantasy and completely ignores political reality.
As you would expect in an action film, there’s quite a lot of flying on view. This is a Korean take on the Top Gun type of American film in which the cocky newcomer, Jung Tae-Hoon (Rain) who has been recruited from the Black Eagles display team after a bit of daredevilry endangering the public, immediately starts a rivalry with Lee Cheol-Hee (Yu Jun-Sang). To give himself an edge, Tae-Hoon gets the best maintenance engineer, Yoo Se-Young (Shin Se-Kyung) to look after his plane. The other key pilots are Park Dae-Seo (Kim Sung-Su) and Oh Yoo-Jin (Lee Ha-Na) who are in love and decide to marry during the course of the film. This plot element parallels an earlier Korean film called Red Scarf or Balgan Mahura (1964). To my inexperienced eye, the flying looked quite spectacular although a couple of times I lost track of how the dog-fighting planes managed to perform some of the manoevres. I’m prepared to accept this is how modern aircraft actually fight each other. The bombing and use of missiles is vastly exaggerated for effect and the South’s troops have magic bullets in their guns and are protected by forcefields from the North’s retaliatory fire. This indicates a necessary South Korean pride in their own military ability without having to rely on big, bad bullying Americans to get the job done.
Putting all this together, the human story in the first two-thirds of the film works well. The two couples come together well without undue sentimentality spoiling things. All credit to Kim Sung-Su and Lee Ha-Na for making their relationship feel real. Even Rain manages to restrain himself after the ghastly excesses of The Fugitive: Plan B and Shin Se-Kyung nicely underplays the slightly disabled girl who wants to fly. Indeed, were it not for the complete lack of credibility in the politics on show, I would be offering high praise. As it is, Soar into the Sun or R2B: Return to Base or R2B: Riteontu Beyiseu wastes the flying and battle scenes. What should be an edge-of-the-seat drama as the DPRK and the South move closer to all-out war, dies in a fatuous ending.