R-Point (2004)

MAY 26, 2012


Someday I'll see a war-set horror film that never once tries to make the viewer wonder whether or not the strange things that the protagonists are seeing are real or simply due to the psychological toll that the war has taken on them. Until then, movies like R-Point (Korean: Arpointeu) will continue to engage me in some areas, annoy me in others, and gel together in my head so that I have trouble telling them apart down the road when someone asks me a specific question about them.

At least R-Point has a couple of things that will help me remember. One, it's set during the Vietnam war instead of the usual WWII, so there's nothing about the Nazi fascination with the occult, and it carries with it the generally lethargic attitude toward the conflict. Whereas the heroes in WWII set horror films tend to be gung-ho because they know exactly what they're fighting for, Vietnam was a mess that no one really wanted to be involved in, giving it a different dynamic. The heroes here are very laid-back for the film's first half, and not particularly interested in their mission or the war as a whole it seems.

The other difference is that it's a Korean film. US soldiers make a brief appearance (and thus the movie switches to English for a while; it's kind of disorienting at first), but otherwise we're seeing it through the eyes of a South Korean platoon that is ordered to find out what happened to a team that disappeared months ago, after a new transmission is heard from one of the presumed dead. It's always interesting to see a war film from another country's side, particularly in this case as Korean involvement was itself divided (North Korea being on the side of the Communists, South Korea being, like the US, on the anti-Commie team). The backdrop of the war isn't really important to its tale of a vengeful ghost and inner-group distrust, but it's enough to give it a bit of its own identity.

Which is good, because the actual horror part of the movie isn't particularly original, though it does have some novel touches. For example, the US team that visits is later revealed to have been a group of ghosts, as their equipment and bodies are discovered with evidence that they had been dead for months or even years, despite being seen just two days before. But ultimately it's just another war-horror film that takes a page from The Thing, with our protagonists unable to trust each other (there's even a "Who's not who they say they are?" sequence) as the ghost turns them against one another until there's only one guy left to tell the tale (and, presumably, be used to have another team of fresh victims sent out to investigate).

The location is quite nice though - a French plantation in the middle of the jungle. They don't explore as much of the location as I would have liked, but again it helps give the film a bit of unique flavor, as its not the usual bunker or fortress. And I liked that a lot of it was set in the daytime, playing up the dangers of the situation (friendly fire, Vietcong enemies) and allowing them to more closely investigate things that spooked them during the previous night. Kind of like Blair Witch in that way, where when night falls you can instantly feel a sense of dread creeping in, given that even the day stuff wasn't exactly pleasant.

However it was a bit hard to keep track of who was who. We're introduced to them all at the same time, and characterization is pretty thin; one guy wants to take his kid to the zoo and that's pretty much all we learn about him. And they're almost always together in groups of 3 or more, so sometimes it wasn't even clear who was talking if his back was to the camera (or if I was reading the subtitles and thus missing whose mouth was moving), making lines like "Corporal Byung-hoon, where is Corporal Byun?" a bit tricky to flesh out in my head. Granted this might not be a problem for everyone, but I couldn't help but think that I would have been able to have a better handle on things if it was dubbed so I could spend more time looking at the full image and being able to attach faces to names earlier on in the narrative, instead of closer to the end. That or it could have taken a page from Deathwatch and given each character a title over a wordless closeup early on to start the "who's who?" process.

So if you enjoy this sort of thing, there's enough novelty to forgive its rather basic ghost story and thinly drawn characters. I don't think it'll change your mind if you find these movies too maddeningly vague (or if you're likewise burnt out on Asian ghost tales), but if you're a fan of either sub-genre it mostly hits the spot. And it's got one of modern cinema's better poop jokes, so there's something.

What say you?


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