Having found the first Battle Royale fascinating, I’m now slightly embarrassed to find the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ (2003) offensive. To understand why, we need to review the plot. Set three years after the events of the first film, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has been a catalyst for the formation of a rebel group calling itself the “Wild Seven”. As the government increases the number of young adults forced to participate in the “battles”, the group strikes back in a 9/11 style bombing attack which brings down “twin towers” in Tokyo. This is the group declaring war on the adults. In the name of “justice” the government comes up with a new game plan. A group of school children is to be sent into battle against the Wild Seven. If children are the problem, then children should be the solution. In reality, of course, this is all rather silly. If any group of armed terrorists was sufficiently well organised to bring down two major skyscrapers, every policing and military adult at the disposal of the government would be on their track. The idea this group’s secret base would be identified and then attacked by a ragtag team of untrained students is absurd. But since the point of the film is to give our wild team members a fighting chance of survival, there can be no overflight with some rather large bunker-busting bombs, laser-guided to their destination. Instead, their location on a suitably uninhabited island is noted and the young adults recruited.
In this, I note the more explicit television coverage of the students, now fitted out with their collars, being taken into the centre for their orientation briefing. Seeing the terror on their faces would have the desired effect on the television audience. But just why has this bunch of terrorist kids come to this island? It makes absolutely no sense that such an age range of children and young adults would set up camp in an abandoned building like this when they could be enjoying the sunshine in Afghanistan or some other distant place where terrorism is the way of life and there’s safety in numbers. And before you ask, it turns out our terrorists had escaped to Afghanistan where they saw the true horrors of war and we get crass political interludes praising the children who have survived American bombing and other atrocities.
The main link between the two films is the introduction of Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda). She’s the daughter of the teacher in the first film where he’s seen talking with her over the phone on several key occasions. It was not a happy relationship so she’s inevitably conflicted about his death. When she learns of his emotional attachment (in the purest sense of the words) to one of the girl’s in the class, she realises she has somehow missed out. In moments of unrealistic jealousy, she thinks this girl had a kind of parental relationship with her father. She therefore wants revenge and asks to be involved in the attack. This is part of some rather cod psychology on the part of the government. In the terrorist outrages, the Wild Seven have been responsible for the deaths of many adults. In selecting people to pit against these terrorists, the government therefore picks young adults whose parents have died at the hands of the Wild Seven. For the most part, these do not look like conventional students. They all affect a dress code and behaviour pattern suggesting they are more likely to be in sympathy with the terrorists than the government. But this just goes to show that, whether in a fictional or the real world, adults know nothing about children. To prove the point that bullying is not always the right approach, the “teacher” in charge, Riki Takeuchi (Riki Takeuchi), lays down the ground rules. You have three days to kill the terrorists or you die. Anyone who does not want to play the game can volunteer to demonstrate the destructive capabilities of those collars.
So this sends off the now forty volunteers on a sea-born landing that’s not exactly a success, leaving the kids running around like headless chickens on the beach (only metaphorically, of course). The shaky cam work is distinctly amateurish and the plot slowly devolves into almost complete stupidity as our amateur soldiers get a kicking from the terrorists who are well dug-in and prepared. The only point of interest in this is that Shiori Kitano proves a good leader and keeps as many alive as possible. Then, when the surviving conscripts have been persuaded to change sides, real soldiers attempt a landing and they are wiped out. This just gets progressively more silly as Riki Takeuchi sits in mission HQ and does nothing.
The real problem with the film is that it has no coherent point to make. It could be deeply political and discuss the relationship between a government and its people. Or it could take completely the opposite line and discuss under what circumstances, if any, it’s justifiable for a people to take up arms against its own government. Instead it flirts with inane trivialities. None of the people involved in this have any rational policy to pursue. These terrorists seem to believe it’s morally acceptable to pursue individual liberty even if it means killing large numbers of people on to way to achieving an unrealisable peace. It’s “children of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the chains wrapped around you by your parents”. When this absurd propaganda is broadcast to the world, the Americans do what the Japanese should have done from the outset. They fire a few missiles at the island. This exceptionalism is deeply embarrassing to the Japanese Prime Minister. Its ally thinks it’s politically and morally acceptable to drop bombs on Japanese soil without asking permission first. The Japanese army is sent in. Who needs American missiles when the Japanese army can be sacrificed on a nameless island.
I suppose that, if I had to put my finger on the horror element in the first film, it’s the willingness of the “friends” to kill each other. This is not a group of strangers brought together like gladiators for an audience to cheer as they kill each other. This is a group that has grown up together in a classroom. They know each other. As a microcosm of the world, they have divided themselves into factions, grouped around stronger personalities. So when they are abandoned on the island, it’s like a family forced to turn on itself. Brother kills brother, sister kills surviving brother, and so on. The effect of the slaughter is to highlight the immorality of the state in putting these children in that position. Thematically, the sequel changes the focus and with it, loses the moral plot.
In the year this film was released, it was estimated that children were fighting as soldiers in most of the ongoing conflict situations around the world. That’s fighting both for and against governments. It’s just the luck of where they happen to be born and which side gets to recruit them first. In making heroes of children fighting in this film, I fear the film-makers have stepped over a line. It shows children fighting heroically and killing adult soldiers. This is an evil condemned by all civilised states. Using children for military purposes is considered the ultimately immoral act not only because it trains the innocent to be killers, but also because it forces adults to kill children in self-defence. When states only reluctantly send their women into battle, this is a film that glorifies children fighting against adults in an all-out war. In modern theatres of war, soldiers must now look on anything that moves as a potential threat. In the good old days of warfare, soldiers would kill the enemy men, rape their women and “save” the children. With today’s children carrying AK47s, the children are no longer waiting to be saved.
I’m open to be convinced by any point of view. Although instinctively I think child soldiers are victims to be pitied and, if possible, rehabilitated, the last thing I expected was a film turning such children into heroes. It’s all there. The martial music, the camera angles and general cinematography that dehumanises the adult enemies in battle, and so on. Worse, it shows the hard core warriors actively recruiting the naive children sent to kill them. By the end of the film, the newcomers are as heroic as their peers when it comes to killing the adult enemy. Perhaps I’m being a little naive in viewing the children as like a virus out to infect children around the world, inciting them to rise up and kill their oppressive parents and all other adults. I was waiting for the film-makers to condemn this. I hoped the ending would reset the moral compass so this alternate history version of Japan could find its way out of this internecine situation. Except what we get is implicit approval for continuing conflict and death. It’s all binary: black and white, adult and child, war and peace. Until everyone learns to compromise, how can anything be resolved? You would hope the adults would know better, that they would create a situation in which even these irrational children could be brought back into the human fold. Except adults in authority positions are not often forgiving. That leaves it to subordinates to decide on the ground, what the outcome should be. So maybe the only possibility is to wait it all out. As we live through winter, it may seem as though spring will never come. Yet, unless the winter is a post-apocalypse affair induced by nuclear fallout, spring always does come and with it, the possibility of a better place to live. Or maybe only death brings peace. Overall this means Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ is neither dull nor unexciting. Taken individually, some scenes match those from great examples of war films. But the morality of the military fiction we’re expected to find exciting makes the film offensive.
For a review of the first in the series, see Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Night & Demons by David Drake (Baen, 2012) has some of the most interesting introductions I’ve read for a long time. Too often authors throw us an occasional crumb from their tables. Putting all these pages together gives a real autobiographical insight into how the stories came to be written and what their significance is.
“The Red Leer” is a classic piece of writing, nicely setting up the situation and elegantly arriving at the not unexpected conclusion. This is not to undervalue the story in any way. Once you begin with two men breaking into a Red Indian burial site, you know the likely outcomes. This is as good as it gets with this type of story. “A Land of Romance” is one of these pleasingly humorous fantasy stories in the style of Sprague de Camp. As is required we have a bright young man who, when presented with an opportunity, particularly one involving a pretty young girl, manages to come out smelling of roses (or some other appropriate flower). “Smokie Joe” is a nice long-spoon story in which the Devil gently muscles into organised crime and pushes sins to the corruptible for the rewards they bring. It displays a slightly unsual sense of humour about the entire operation which means some may find the descriptions of sexual disease a little daunting. But that’s the point of “horror” stories, isn’t it? “Awakening” is a very short piece that speculates on how far you can take denial. “Denkirch” is the first story he published. It’s a direct invocation of the Lovecraft formula with obsessed scientist driven to use himself as the test subject in his latest experiment. Who needs books and spells when you have the advantages of modern science. It almost certainly wouldn’t sell today but, in its time, it was passable. “Dragon, the Book” is another elegant fantasy which reruns the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. “The False Prophet” takes us into the classical realm where Drake is particularly comfortable with a fine story of a charlatan who isn’t quite what his loyal followers take him to be. It’s another of these stories where “adventure” and “mystery” shade into an atmosphere piece with fantasy, supernatural and, perhaps, even science fictional possibilities. One or two moments made me smile which is unusual in stories of this type. “Black Iron continues with the same characters in a story with different tempo as the merchant member of the duo explains how he came into possession of an interesting sword. The final contribution to this mini trilogy is “The Shortest Way” which suggests a reason for civility when asking for directions. We then get back into vaguely Lovecraftian territory with a nod and a wink to the worship of large tentacled underwater creatures.
“The Land Toward Sunset” is a story of mighty heroism as a character out of Karl Wagner’s universe is given a whistle-stop tour of the remnant of Atlantis. I suppose it’s quite good as an example of the older style of high fantasy sword and sorcery writing but it goes on too long for my taste. “Children of the Forest” is one of these wise fantasies that sets out to tell the reader about the choices we make as humans. Necessity, real or imagined, often forces decisions we later regret. Sometimes, when we have only instinct to rely on, we run home — a choice that can bring disaster following close behind. “The Barrow Troll” is an old idea but very elegantly told in this story of a Northern berserker’s quest for the gold reputedly guarded by a troll. The casual brutality of the man contrasts sharply with the “soft” German priest whose involuntary role is, perhaps surprisingly, to bless the venture. “Than Curse the Darkness” is a excellent Lovecraftian Mythos story in which a very determined and knowledgeable woman steps up when the threat is maturing and speaks the words of power before the full awakening. It’s very nicely done in a period style with lots of interesting background information on how life used to be in the Congo. Moving back up North, “The Song of the Bone” is nicely unexpected as, with the right music, you wake like a bear with a sore head. “The Master of Demons” is magnificently ironic as, in the shortest of stories, a reckless magician comes to understand the magnitude of his error.
“The Dancer in the Flames” is a fascinating fusion as a conventional war story set in Vietnam becomes a supernatural communion with a woman in a tricky situation. “Codex” is another highly original variation on an old theme, this time using the information from an old book for arranging a trading opportunity with a not wholly unpredictable outcome. The fun comes in the nature of the book and in guessing what will happen. “Firefight” is a taut and exciting page ripped from Vietnam’s bloody history books and converted into a confrontation between a battle-hardened US unit and a supernatural threat. This is one of the best stories in the collection. Almost as good, “Best of Luck” has an enemy within the troop so, when the Viet Cong appears, the soldiers are between a rock and a hard place. “Arclight” continues the absorption of military experience into a supernatural context. This time the troop discovers a small temple with big trouble written all over it. Perhaps the idol represents a power that can follow them wherever they go. Perhaps there are other powers that might have a say in that. Then comes “Something Had to be Done” which is the best of the lot. It’s a thankless task to visit the homes of those who’ve been killed on active duty to report the circumstances of each son’s death. This time, the sergeant who was with the soldier on his last mission draws the short straw.
“The Waiting Bullet” gets us back into conventional supernatural territory with a pleasing ghost story. It’s beautifully set up with a nice plot to unwind as the first sight of the ghost triggers the slow release of the backstory to the cabin where the hero is staying. “The Elf House” is a rather fey fantasy that lacks an edge. It moves along very professionally but has no real sense of danger. This contrasts sharply with “The Hunting Ground” which is another of these Vets under pressure stories. This time, two men recently returned from combat find an unexpected threat in their neighbourhood. Fortunately, they are able to give as good as they get. “The Automatic Rifleman” beat me. I had it back-to-front when I was reading it so the ending caught me by surprise. It’s very clever, taking a simple story of an assassination and turning it into something altogether more strange. “Blood Debt” deals with a slightly awkward social question. What exactly do we owe a family member who dies? Must we take revenge? If so, what price must we pay? This is a very effective story of witchcraft in a modern setting but with traditional results. Finally, “Men Like Us” takes us into a post-apocalyptic future where a dedicated team ensures no-one will continue the use of nuclear power. Overall this makes for a remarkably eclectic collection with the majority of the earlier stories holding up extremely well. Those with a military background are particularly effective as David Drake mines his past for backgrounds and characters. Definitely a book to savour.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2012) is the second in The Northland Trilogy and we’ve moved on from the primitive days of the first brick built dykes. Now more than a thousand years nearer our time in this alternate history saga, we’ve got a major civil engineering project using concrete to keep the sea at bay. Yes these clever primitives have cracked the code on concrete. Cement has been around for several million years but, in our timeline, it was the Romans who developed “proper” concrete, using it for all their major structures from around 300 BC onwards. These eager beavers have completely excluded the sea from what is currently the bed of the North Sea. The “wall” now effectively creates a continuous land mass from Wales through to Europe and beyond leaving the current British Government with serious immigration problems as anyone who wants can just walk in (even from Romania if they want to walk that far). For those who have boating experience, a short sail north brings them to Iceland (then known as Kirke’s Land) where there’s a pivotal volcano that decides to make its mark on the world. You have to sympathise with these volcanos. For centuries they sit on their holes into the mantle, each one claiming they are the real-deal supervolcano and they just can’t agree. So periodically, one gets the bit between its teeth and, to prove it’s the biggest and baddest supervolcano, it erupts chucking out local lava but, more seriously, ash which triggers a small ice age featuring nut-obsessed saber-toothed squirrels if you’re lucky, a major ice age featuring species extinction and mass death in the human community if you’re less lucky. Fortunately, for now, the ice is only a gleam in the eye of the epilogue.
My apologies, I’m wandering around here (like many of the characters in this book) and not getting to the point of the review (many of the characters never end up in an ideal position either). So here we have this supermassive concrete structure that runs from here to there. It has a dual function. Obviously it keeps out the sea but, more importantly, it’s also a home to the people. Gone are the days when these primitives lived in caves. Now they’ve got their own continuous high-rise apartment block with major communities at regular intervals along its length. For this to work as a society, what you have to imagine is an amazing belief in the availability of free food. Most of our civilisations have developed with an agricultural base. Once there’s a food surplus, people can urbanise. Not in this book! Here we have an urban community in a ribbon strip development that creates a significant amount of unoccupied land. Quite why no other people invade this free land is left unexplained. The Brits, the French and the Germanic tribes know to stay out of Northland. This allows a hunter-gatherer society to prosper (with fish and sea food as a supplement). Obviously this also depends on there being little or no population growth so that natural sources of food are not exhausted.
So when the ash cloud screws up the already unstable weather systems, the fragile economies in the rest of the region collapse and conflict over access to increasingly scarce resources is inevitable. We start off in Northland with what I expected to become a murder mystery but the lead character, Milaqa, encouraged by her uncle Teel, is no investigator. In fact, for most of the book, she’s rather a diffident individual who shows little enthusiasm and not a lot of intelligence. The one immediately responsible for the death actually admits it about one-third of the way through and we get on with other matters. We also have two characters starting off in Troy. Qirum is a Trojan wheeler-dealer who “buys” Kilushepa, the deposed queen of the Hatti — the alternate history version of the Hittites living in the region we call Anatolia, now part of Turkey. Coming from even further away is Caxa who’s from a culture modelled on the Toltecs. Initially, everyone converges on the Northlands, but after a grand bargain is struck, Qirum, Kilushepa, Milaqa and Teel set off for the long journey to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites. We then have minor skirmishes, larger scale conflict, quite a lot of brutality and an outbreak of disease.
The problem with all this is that the narrative structure lacks a clear focus. We have incidents and events dotted around the landscape and along the timeline as people travel hither and thither, with set pieces at the key locations as in a kind of historical drama with military overtones. Although there’s a chance for some character development, the primary protagonists are really plot devices to say and do the things necessary to show the development of the environmental disasters as the years pass by. This is not to say the broad flow of history is uninteresting, but I confess it failed to stave off boredom. I gave up caring who anyone was and just read it to the end to see what happened. It’s a shame really because there’s much inventiveness on display and significant rigour in the development of the climatic shifts and cultural consequences. But for me Bronze Summer proved rather tedious. I say this despite the introduction of combat and war which, in other hands, often enlivens proceedings. In this case, it was brutality and cruelty by the numbers with little emotional significance. I can’t honestly say this is worth reading unless you want to bridge from Stone Spring which was much better to the hopefully equally good concluding volume.
For a review of the first in the trilogy, see Stone Spring.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007) is an epic tragedy out of Hong Kong directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. It uses the the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion in the period between 1850 and 1875 to explore the balance to be struck between individual friendship and the national interests. In a way, this is not dealing with different issues. People become friends for a wide variety of reasons. They stay loyal to each other through thick and thin. But in a way, the nature of the bond between them is always caught up in what they are doing with their lives. If they are lowly peasants living in a war-torn land, the purpose of their combined strength is to survive. If they cannot do so on their own, they rally the villagers and steal food from wherever it can be found. Morality is put aside as food is the greater need. If those who have the food will not willingly share, the need justifies killing them to take the food. It may not be pretty but that’s the way the world works when hunger and death stalk the land.
So here comes the first question. If you rally enough people to become effective in robbing others to accumulate all the supplies necessary to keep the village safe, you attract attention. More starving people come and ask to join your village so they can share in your success, but troops patrolling the neighbourhood may not be so happy with the military potential of your followers. The question is: what price peace? Let’s say troops come to your village and take all the food you have stolen, how do you react? They have guns and a willingness to kill anyone who gets in their way. Because you cannot defend the weak and helpless, you let them take the food. But you have a duty to your people. Suppose you could get weapons, you could defend the village against all who threaten it. This gives birth to the next question.
This is a country in civil war. Worse, the power of the Qing Dynasty is corrupt so there’s unlikely to be help from above. That means selling yourself and your brothers to a local lord in return for. . . Well, the local lord is not going to give an unknown, untested group anything. So you have to do a deal. You will fight to take a small city. If you win, you will take all the food and wealth you can pillage. The lord smiles. You fight and win. Your villagers are mostly happy. They now have enough food to last them a year and wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Of course a significant number of the men from the village have been killed. But that was a price worth paying, wasn’t it? Except, here comes the next question.
You have proved yourself formidable. The lord you sold your service to wants more from you. There are other cities to take and battles to fight. Can you deny him? If you do, how will he react? Will he let you live quietly in your village with all your food and wealth? You see, that’s the trouble with roles. Once you fit into a role, you are expected to stay in it. As a friend, you stay loyal. As a villager, you work for the good of all. As a soldier you fight to survive and for the greater cause. As the successful leader, you are given more troops and new targets. In all this, you tell yourself you retain a moral core. You are fighting for peace so that the poor never need fear oppression again. Except in the Qing Dynasty, you should know that’s always going to be a lie. So it all comes down to expediency. For so long as you are a winner in war, all the people within your growing power can be safe. That’s what you tell yourself. But at some point, the Empress is going to see you as a threat. Your power has increased. You are now protecting a large number of people from her. That can never be tolerated. Death is the only release from this cycle because it means you no longer have to fight.
Cao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) have organised their village into an armed band of robbers. They meet up with General Ma Xinyi (Jet Li), the lone survivor of a major battle. In early fighting for food, they save each others lives and become blood brothers. Unfortunately, General Ma covets Lian (Jinglei Xu) who has an intermittent relationship with Cao. This makes everything precarious because personal morality will draw the two villagers in a different direction to the general, and sexual jealousy will further drive a wedge between them. People grow into habits and, unless care is taken, habits become obsessions. When you see something you want, the drive to take it grows stronger. That can be for abstract “things” like power or for personal satisfaction (whether just for sex or for the more easily lost love). Andy Lau is a simple man who never really wants to be a hero, but he becomes one because all those around him see an honest man doing his best. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a weaker man who tries to keep the peace between the other two, but ends up being dazzled by the brilliance of the General. He should be the stabilising factor. Sadly he ends up souring the relationships because he loses track of what’s right and wrong. Jet Li is pragmatic. He will do deals with anyone to get the results he wants. He wants to be a winner and, if his blood brothers get in the way, they will have to be sacrificed. He has learned the ways of the Qing court and is trapped by that knowledge and experience. He cannot be honest and loyal because no-one around him before now has ever shown those virtues. He’s incapable of trust. He commands. The others are mere followers.
The result is all rather depressing. There’s a lot of bloody fighting and we see large numbers killed, some in battle and others executed simply because they were soldiers and there was no food to give them as prisoners. Only Andy Lau’s character comes out of all this looking good. Everyone else is a victim of their own selfishness and weakness. If such a tragedy of military adventurism and political opportunism is your cup of tea, The Warlords or 投名狀 will not disappoint. My own preference in storytelling is for something slightly more uplifting.
It’s always tempting to believe that when any large group of people lives with a problem for a long time, some will grow bored and ignore it — after all, what can relatively powerless individuals do to change the big picture — while the majority will be quietly obsessed with it. As an example, take the situation in Taiwan as it carefully navigates cross-Strait relations with mainland China. According to the latest survey, about three-quarters of the population support an improvement in the relationship with China. Since the problem is not going to go away, most agree that opening lines of discussion is better than beefing up military preparedness and being confrontational. Coming to the Korean peninsula, we have two sovereign states and an Armistice Agreement signed in July 1953, i.e. they are technically still at war. The DMZ is a continual reminder to both sides of the artificial nature of the current situation as the North tests nuclear weapons, fires long-range rockets, sinks the Cheonam, and shells Yeonpyeong Island. The smaller scale attacks are intended to reinforce the credibility of the North’s deterrent power, i.e. the North shows itself willing to risk a resumption of war while the South and its US allies have not retaliated. The exception was that the South did return fire in the Yeonpyeong Island incident. Perhaps they forgot to ask the American’s for permission.
How then does the entertainment industry deal with the issue? In Soar into the Sun or R2B: Return to Base or R2B: Riteontu Beyiseu (2012), the South does not fire on the plane from the North that causes moderately extensive damage in Seoul. This matches the passivity over the sinking of the Cheonam and parallels the earlier Joint Security Area (2000) where neither side bends in their antagonism but, apart from exchanging small arms fire across the DMZ, does not escalate into a military engagement. Which brings us to Dreams Come True or Ggumeun Yirueojinda or 꿈은 이루어진다 (2010). The major part of this film is set in a small encampment on the North side of the DMZ. The first squad leader (Lee Sung-Jae) has contrived to pass his obsessional interest in football to the rest of the squad who routinely kick a deflated ball around their muddy compound to fill in the idle hours of their tour of duty. When the South drops a container of goodies, it includes a football. The film is set in 2002 when South Korea jointly hosted the World Cup with Japan. The South is trying a propaganda exercise by building on the known interest in the North. The South wonders whether soldiers in the DMZ could be seduced to cross the line.
The North’s political officers use the new football as a training exercise in critique with all the soldiers standing up bravely and nicely exposing the weaknesses of the South through metaphors based on the shape, colour and design of the ball. This is a nice moment of satire in what is otherwise a slightly toothless film. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s boring but it comes close, largely because it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Director Kye Yun-Sik could have made a straight comedy without political overtones, or he could have made a satirical commentary on the way individuals organise their lives to defend against the oppressive nature of the North, or it could have been a straight action drama as political officers try to root out corruption and potential treason in the ranks. But all we get is a nice squad leader who leads his men into a fraternisation with the South, sharing in a wild boar BBQ, and playing football against southern troops in the DMZ. When the North detects an exchange of radio messages and an illegal receiver in operation in the camp, an investigation begins but, somehow, it lacks any sense of menace. Although our squad leader is beaten and the squad members threatened, there’s no intention to show anyone in positive danger. Indeed, the chief investigator, Choi Ji-Hyeon is not unsympathetic to the plight of the squad and covers up the conspiracy. I can’t quite decide what the film-maker’s motives were.
Taking a societal overview, there’s a culturally significant unwillingness to criticise others. For one state to interfere in the affairs of another is unacceptable. This trickles down in a general behaviour of deference to elders and those of higher status. So, perhaps, a sustained satire could not have been made. But equally suggesting Northern soldiers might be easily contaminated by decadent southern interests is hardly flattering. Although North Korea now plays in the World Cup tournament, the people are not really engaged internationally. This film would have us believe football is a universal language that transcends culture, politics and geography, but North Korea’s isolationism means few within the North know much about football outside their borders. Perhaps if Dreams Come True or Ggumeun Yirueojinda or 꿈은 이루어진다 had been about half-an-hour shorter, watching it would have felt less of a duty. As it is, I can’t say that I recommend it.
Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-Yeon, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000) takes us into a rather strange version of contemporary reality in which the mutual antagonism between North and South Korea mutually reinforces group standards of behaviour. The norm is a set of rules for engagement in Panmunjom. The armed forces of the two sides may literally face each other across a line drawn on the ground at the Joint Security Area, but may never interact directly. That’s left to senior officers and government officials, often working through the agency of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). At the so-called Bridge of No Return, the Military Demarcation Line has a blockhouse on each side where two members of the North and South Korean forces stand guard twenty-four hours a day. At other points along the border, troops patrol but are not allowed contact. In bad weather and through lack of care, some patrols do accidentally cross over. From North to South is not a problem. The North has mined parts of the border and this can lead to fatal consequences. In such a hothouse, national values are taken for granted and the status of a continuing war is drilled into the troops who practice shooting at each other so that, should there be a real emergency, hostilities can resume without delay. However, the greater the rigidity in any social system, the more individuals may chafe at the lack of any opportunity for self-expression or the exercise of discretion. If the wrong person is in the wrong place, this can lead to what the sociologists call anomie: a kind of mismatch between the prevailing social norms and the behaviour of one or more people. In extreme cases, the widening gulf between the prevailing systems and the individual can lead to suicide.
As a contrast, it’s interesting to note the behaviour of some of the troops along the Western Front during World War I on Christmas Day 1914. Unofficially, the troops fraternised, giving each other presents, singing carols and playing football matches. Sadly this moment of peace was quickly snuffed out by the officers and war resumed almost immediately with later attempts at truces largely unsuccessful. The book and this film detail the slow building of friendship first between three and then of the four soldiers guarding the Bridge of No Return. When the two South Koreans are caught drinking with their opposite numbers in the north blockhouse by a North Korean officer, the outcome is rather unfortunate. However, both sides are quickly to impose their interpretation on what happened. According to the South, a commando attack from the North abducted one of their soldiers and, only by great heroism did he manage to shoot himself free and return wounded to the South. According to the North, a rogue South Korean soldier crossed into the North, assassinated two soldiers and wounded a third. The NNSC is tasked with establishing the truth and the investigation is handed over to Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong-Ae) a Swiss national whose parents left the North in 1953.
The two soldiers from the South are Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk (Lee Byung-Hun) and Nam Sung-Shik (Kim Tae-Woo); from the North we have Sgt. Oh Kyeong-Pil (Song Kang-Ho) and Jung Woo-Jin (Shin Ha-Kyun). Suffice it to say, none of the survivors have any interest in telling the truth. If disclosed, their fraternisation would be so profoundly shocking, life imprisonment or simple execution would follow. Unfortunately, our intrepid investigator notices a discrepancy in the physical evidence. It seems one more bullet was fired than has been accounted for. This would suggest the “official” statements given by the survivors are untrue. We then have a careful retelling of what actually happened and watch the political and practical outcomes.
In every way, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA is a tragedy in the sense the characters suffer losses and some die. But instead of dealing with the larger picture of the state of war between North and South, we have it scaled down to the relationship between the four men who metaphorically and literally cross the line, and pay the price for being discovered. The two sergeants, Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho, are outstanding while Lee Yeong-Ae is somewhat underused. Director Park Chan-Wook is to be congratulated on constructing so elegant a film for exploring how the anomie first established itself and then grew. That the two countries nominally remain at war and continue to reinforce the hostility is one of the sadder scenarios currently playing out on the world stage. This is a thoughtful contribution to the wider debate wondering just how long the war would continue if it could be left to the people to decide. It’s well worth watching.
Ah, yes, you are calmly saying to yourself. This is another of the team-writing efforts which bring the excitement of war into your homes without the need for television or the blu-ray machine. All you need for this to work is a pair of reading eyes and an imagination. Except. . . The opening title is, “Personal Chronicle: Looking Back to 2014”. Because I have a memory like an elephant, I remember reading Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy which was, appropriately enough, considered political science fiction (later rewritten as Looking Backward from the Year 2000 by Mack Reynolds which is more economic science fiction). But, if the premise of such books is they are an historical account written in the future about events that have yet to take place, we should properly label Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice (Tor-Forge, 2013) military SF. Except, to my innocent eye, the technology on display is substantially what we have now, so it lacks the key feature which is supposed to underpin the genre. There’s no new technology. Since this is an extrapolation of what might happen if China goes through a period of drought and civil unrest because it no longer has agricultural autarchy, perhaps this should be considered an alternate history novel (albeit this is also considered a subset of science fiction). Such books are predicated on a “what if”. . . what if Spain had assumed dominance in Europe after the assassination of Queen Elizabeth (Pavane by Keith Roberts), what if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore), and so on. This produces a fork in the timeline and a chance to suggest how history might have changed.
The Red Dragon Rising series of which this is the fourth and presumed last in the series, has economic chaos not only in China, but also the US where petrol is more than $14 a gallon during a new recession following the bursting of another bubble. The Europeans have comparable economic problems as a result of collapsing world markets. The essentially pragmatic Chinese decide the rice bowl of Vietnam will potentially keep a lid on their political problems. Anticipating little resistance, the Chinese mobilise and cross the border. The primary series characters are President George Greene, Mara Duncan (CIA), Major Zeus Murphy (Army), Josh MacArthur (civilian scientist), Dirk Silas (US Navy) and Jing Yo (Chinese assassin). Essentially, the basis of the tetralogy has covert US military support for the Vietnamese Government while the basis of a cease fire is sought. Conveniently, Josh MacArthur has evidence of a Chinese atrocity which faked the casus belli so he has to be smuggled out of the war zone, while on land and at sea, Chinese progress is frustrated. Adding to US difficulty is a rebellious Congress threatening impeachment for fighting a war without approval.
The delivery vehicle is written to a very precise formula. In saying this, I’m not making an adverse criticism. Every book designed to fit into a genre must, of necessity, match reader expectations. So this is beautifully crafted individual action scenes against the big picture context. Although Zeus Murphy proves indestructible in a series of engagements, most of the military descriptions have a high-adrenaline quality showing American heroism at its most inspiring. Fortunately, although out gunned and less well trained, the Vietnamese are also allowed to do quite well while a multinational group of CIA operatives do what’s necessary to break Chinese morale north of the border. If we look beyond the natural desire of American authors to show national pride in their military personnel and hardware, there’s a nice balance struck between the human emotions of those involved and the rigours of war. People do care for each other and bond under difficult circumstances. For the most part, this feels credible. If there’s a false note, it lies in the journey taken by Jing Yo. Throughout the series, he trails after Josh MacArthur and, in this final book, finally catches up with him. I think my favourite sequences are at sea. I was born close to the mouth of a strategic river which came in for heavy bombing during World War II. Both my father and uncle served in the Royal Navy so I grew up with oral histories of their experiences. So reinforced by fairly extensive reading of naval fiction when I was young, I find the tactics of this form of fighting fascinating. Again, the US destroyer proves remarkably unsinkable but I forgive this pandering to national pride. At the end of the book, the Chinese must be vanquished. The big picture of how we get there is more important than individual losses in credibility. As a commentary on some aspects of Chinese culture, this feels plausible. So I remain something of a fan of Larry Bond and his various co-writers. Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War is top-class military fiction (with science fiction overtones).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Many moons ago, when the world was younger and more naive, there was a vogue for disaster movies. The format is routine and predictable. The first part of the film is a gentle introduction to the cast of those who will be “at risk” when the catastrophe hits. In most of the scenarios, we get a cross-section of humanity from the families with cute kids or difficult teens, to the random mixture of single adults (some of whom will bond during the catastrophe), and a littering of grizzled oldsters who must be around to offer sage advice, to offer words of encouragement, and to die and provoke floods of emotion from their usually estranged children. Then the disaster hits and we watch all the character arcs play out in their life and death consequences. Looking back to the first publication of Red Phoenix by Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin (now available as an ebook in a Kindle edition) in 1990, we see exactly the same plotting strategy. We have everyone relevant introduced in the first section of the book then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose.
We have to see this against the actual history of the political situations in both North and South Korea. The Republic south of the border has been through multiple incarnations with variations on the theme of an unruly population led by the students and unions, authoritarian rulership from a political elite, and a military trying to maintain some normality but feeling obliged to intervene when the politicians were making too big a mess. This book is probably set during the Sixth Republic which began in 1987 and it runs a scenario in which the North provokes more civil disorder in the South to destabilise the new Government, the US Government gets railroaded into a bad decision on Korean sanctions, and the Department of Defence and other interested parties try to recover the political situation. Exploiting this period of confusion, the North prepares to launch a secretly planned invasion. This is based on tunnels which will allow troops to cross under the DMZ with their armoured and support vehicles, with an air force recently reinforced with newer Russian aircraft offering air cover.
So we watch the fictional Sixth Republic Government overreact to student protests and, with votes in protectionism, the US politicians put in the fix to use the threat of sanctions to force the Republic to reform and become more democratic. Meanwhile, we catch up with a platoon of soldiers on the front line and watch US pilots in training. North of the border, key troops are slowly being moved into place as supplies of fuel and materiel are prepared. To avoid detection, these preparations are spread over weeks and months. Everything is slowly building to the obvious launch of the invasion as the US military stalls the withdrawal apparently mandated by the Act steamrollered through Congress and the House. A faction in the South’s military tries to stage a coup but key troop movements are spotted by the Americans and the rebellion fails. Again the South’s Government overreacts by purging all the officers whose loyalty is doubted. This leaves everything ready for the North’s launch of the attack over Christmas when the American forces are least likely to be able to respond quickly. To add a little chaos into the mix, commando units from the North infiltrate and kill many before being picked off. This sets American and South Korean forces back, as was intended, but a setback is not military defeat. The defenders begin to pick up the pieces as Russia and China decide how to react.
The stock characters are the rookie lieutenant getting his first combat experience and the seasoned pilot who has the cruise ship intense romantic experience under fire with an American civilian logistics officer, newly arrived in Korea. Of the land, air and sea theatres of war, I found sea the most interesting because what happens in international waters is more politically uncertain. This is not to disparage the land or air combat descriptions. They are also taut and exciting. But the naval engagements are much more finely balanced as a convoy moves reinforcements from Japan or a battle group moves north, and the Russians try to rebalance the North’s defensive capabilities. Overall, the prose is Spartan in style with short, punchy paragraphs wasting no time in pushing the action forward. It’s very efficient. As to the balance of the book, I understand why the primary focus of the book is American. Obviously, the two writers must spend their time showing how well their national forces react under pressure. The appeal to jingoistic military fiction readers must necessarily pander to their prejudices if sales to to be maximised. As an outsider, I would have preferred more insight into the debates in Russia and China. Although China is always somewhat opaque and so difficult to predict, I’m not so sure their wait-and-see posture is wholly credible. The Russian response is more interesting, but not put into a proper geopolitical context. The Japanese get no mention despite the non-aggression status imposed on them by the Americans, a burden which has been a considerable political difficulty for the US forces with bases in Japan.
So Red Phoenix is an exciting read with plenty of action to satisfy the military fiction fans. The North Koreans remain as incomprehensible as ever albeit with the predictable paranoia, while the US political scene gets a brief examination under pressure. The elliptical style travels well through time, reading as well today as it would have done twenty years ago so I can unhesitating recommend this little piece of historical military fiction as we wait to see how all sides come out of the “disaster” scenes in the various theatres of war.
For a review of another book by Larry Bond, see
Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War (with Jim DeFelice).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Well here we go with another of these mashup series. This time, we’re in a shared world where different authors are invited to conflate dark fantasy with Arthurian fiction with military fiction with alternate history with horror. In this, Abaddon Books has an interesting strategy by putting together a team of house writers who are commissioned to turn out new books in one or more of the series currently being run. This time, we’re looking at Dark North by Paul Finch (Abaddon, 2012) the third in the Malory’s Knights of Albion series. The first two are The Black Chalice by Steven Savile and The Savage Knight by Paul Lewis. This makes it slightly difficult to review since I’m not sure what happened in the earlier books. All I can do is deal with what I have.
The preface announces that this series is supposedly based on a newly discovered work by Sir Thomas Malory, representing a continuation of the history described in Le Morte D’Arthur. While this book makes no effort at reproducing Malory’s style, it does borrow extensively from the catalogue of characters, placing them in a rather different situation. To that extent, the book avoids being mere pastiche. Although it allegedly draws on an original source, it’s retelling a new story in a consistent modern style for readers today. So what’s happening in this new timeline?
As in the real world, the Roman Empire has broken into what we would call the Byzantine Empire in the east, and a rump of the old Empire in the West. However, Rome has not given up and is now rebuilding its control over Gaul and into the fringes of Germania where it has an on-going conflict with the Saxons. As a symbol of its progress to reunification, the Emperor decides Rome needs a symbolic victory. The best he can devise to send a message to all those wavering is to retake control of Britannia which is now firmly under the control of King Arthur in Camelot. In this, the Emperor is covertly being encouraged by the Pope. If the Emperor succeeds, he will likely consolidate the power of the Church. If he should lose, the Pope will assume responsibility for spreading the gospel across whatever borders come into place. Either way, the Church believes it will win. Thus encouraged, the Emperor musters legions in northern Gaul and sends a diplomatic mission to King Arthur as a final gesture to resolve matters without the need to start another war. Unfortunately, one of the Roman team has obviously read the Iliad and persuades the wife of Lord Lucan — the Black Wolf of the North — to run away with him (cf Paris taking Helen from King Menelaus). Or perhaps he’d just heard the Knights of Camelot like to go on quests and thoughtfully provided someone for Lord Lucan to look for.
Having established a faintly credible casus belli and to start the ball rolling, the Romans have one of their vassal states invade Brittany which has a mutual defence pact with Camelot. As you would expect, King Arthur arrives from the wrong direction and more quickly than the Emperor is expecting. Nevertheless, the Emperor believes in the power of numerical superiority. It does not occur to him that he can lose. We then have a rerun of the Battle of Crécy with Arthur and his lot making the daft Romans run uphill through a narrow valley to get to them. With British archers and crossbowmen the best in Europe, the Roman cohorts never stand a chance in the initial advance. When the cavalry makes what’s intended to be a flanking attack in a confined area, the line breaks, exposing the inexperienced Emperor to a swift demise.
So what we have in the first quarter is a sketchy political feint by Rome followed by a detailed description of a military campaign and major battle. Framing this is a fight with a mythological giant worm in the north of Britain and then a quest overlaid with supernatural threats to wrap things up. It’s this final third that sets the book alight. Although I can’t say I mind a good battle with lots of folks hacking at each other with swords of different lengths, you just can’t beat a really good quest. In this case, our initial team of Lord Lucan plus a party of thirty is slowly whittled down by a series of interesting nasties conjured up by a witch with predatory maternal instincts. At this point I should explain that, contrary to your natural expectations when picking up a work of Arthurian fiction, the Dark North referred to is not Gateshead or any other mouth into the British version of Hell, but a nice mountainside villa in North Italy where the tendency to drip the blood of virgins into a convenient pit produces quite dangerous incursions into our world from the “other side”.
No matter what you might think of alternate history with battles thrown in, anyone with an interest in fantasy horror should read this book. The chase away from the battlefield and into the foothills of the Alps is a magnificently sustained piece of writing with a more satisfying human drama being played out as we approach the climactic confrontation. It addresses some very intriguing questions. In an arranged marriage where the wife has allowed lust to overcome her political duty to her husband, should the cuckolded husband be chasing her to bring her home or kill her for disloyalty? In a world where King Arthur insists on honour and integrity unless the only way to win is to fight dirty, why do knights and squires stay loyal to their lord? Can a son avoid following in his parent’s footsteps? If a prisoner gives his word not to escape, should he leave when given the chance? And finally, is everyone else expendable so long as you survive? Both in the conversations the relevant parties have and the way they act when under pressure, we get answers to these and other interesting questions. It’s a tour de force! I read Dark North as a stand-alone and would unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When I was growing up in the aftermath of World War II, my peers and I were heavily into military thrillers where the more frequent exhortations from our brave boys as sten guns blazed was, “Die, you Kraut bastard!” Having missed out on the real fighting, we all wanted a sense of what it felt like to be on the winning side in the war — not that you would have known we’d won from the wreckage around us. We then moved on to US campaigns in Korea and later Vietnam where the cake recipe was, “Spread raw agent orange thinly and apply heat.” British books looked sideways as our boys shouted, “Die, you Mau Mau terrorist (or colonial upstart if that makes you feel better)!” More recently, I’ve dipped into military SF where we’ve regressed to ray guns blazing and, “Die, you alien bastard!” Today sees me picking up an American contemporary military thriller (actually set in 2013 but this is irrelevant as to genre) where we see, “Die you Islamic motherfucker so I can piss on your body and hold Koran-burning clambake sessions without having to fear retaliation.” Or, to translate this into English, the majority of books about war are jingoistic and show the virtues of an aggressive foreign policy backed up by victorious military force. Since the victorious party in this novel favours the doctrine of American exceptionalism, it seems its mission in the world is to lead it into the ways of democracy. If this does not work by example, the country is allowed to export its own brand of democratic republicanism by the threat or exercise of its military superiority. In this, it’s not bound by any national or international laws. By virtue of its exalted status, it’s allowed to intervene simply because it always upholds “good” against “evil” in the practical and not the abstract senses of these words.
This rumination is provoked by Exit Plan by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson (Tor, 2012) which is the third book featuring Jerry Mitchell after Dangerous Ground and Cold Choices. It takes us into the difficult political situation surrounding Iran’s alleged attempts to develop atomic weapons. At this point I have to slightly backtrack on the tone of the opening paragraph. Although we readers all know the Americans will emerge from the different types of combat situation with maximum casualties among the enemy and minimal wounds shared among the SEALs and naval personnel driving the submarine, this is actually a rather more interesting book than I was expecting. OK so I admit I started reading this with zero expectations, so something even vaguely readable was going to make me feel better. But there’s actually something rather more politically acute going on here.
Let’s very briefly canvass a scenario. Despite the best efforts of the British and American governments to find evidence of WMD in Iraq after their successful demolition of Saddam Hussein’s armies, they were eventually forced to admit none had been found. In other words, Saddam Hussein was shown to have been lying about his scientists’ ability to build a bomb. Now suppose instead of putting troops on the ground, the Americans had simply bombed the suspected sites. This gives Iraq a casus belli. Under international law, it could legitimately launch retaliatory attacks. Saddam Hussein could also claim Iraq had developed the bomb and there would be no evidence to show he was lying. As the victim of American aggression, Iraq also becomes a lightning rod attracting other allies who want to attack the infidels. Now let’s transfer this to the current Iranian situation. With America overextended, there’s no way it would commit ground troops in a war against the larger and better organised military forces of Iran. But if Iran was to pretend it had developed a nuclear deice, Israel might be provoked into an air assault and that might be the way to unite Arab forces into an assault on Israeli territory.
So this all comes down to the credibility of the evidence Iran can produce and whether Israel will act. The plot to fabricate that evidence actually turns out to be reasonably convincing. There are only two problems. The first is that, for years, the Western and Israeli intelligence services have been saying Iran cannot solve the centrifuge problem and so cannot make a bomb in the foreseeable future. For the experts to suddenly change their minds is going to require a big push. The second is that there’s an Iranian who does not want to see the country plunged into a war. The question is whether the relevant evidence can be transmitted to America. This triggers what should be a reasonably routine extraction by a US submarine and a team of navy SEALs except, as is always the case in these high pressure situations, the minisub malfunctions dumping the survivors on Iranian soil. Now they have to keep the very pregnant lady and her husband safe as the Iranian secret service slowly realise they may be losing control of the plot.
We now need to be completely honest. There’s not an incident described here that I have not seen in a film or read in a book. Yet there’s a wealth of information about the different equipment used and tactics employed, and this did make events more interesting. The way the odds keep building against the Americans is done well and there’s tension as the different options for escape are explored and then discarded. While the SEALs are fighting on the ground, the political situation also grows more complicated and there’s quite a surprising development which I will not spoil for you. I’m not sure it would ever come to this but, if it did, it would be a major step forward in international relations, producing a very pragmatic outcome and saying something hopeful about morality in policy-making.
This is very professionally put together package. The politics and military elements feel credible and it’s useful to see the situation develop from both US and Iranian perspectives. Even though you know they are going to lose, the Iranians actually do well — just not quite well enough. Indeed, it’s remarkable that Larry Bond, an American author (and his co-writer), should be prepared to show some of the “enemy” in a relatively sympathetic light — they are not mere cannon fodder. So I find myself actually recommending a military thriller. I have not read any other recent military thrillers so cannot say whether this is typical of the standard but, taken on its own, Exit Plan is worth reading.
For a review of another book by Larry Bond, see
Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War (with Jim DeFelice)
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.