For U.S. citizens, the Korean War was the first modern conflict we entered: A struggle that was limited to one small country far from our own, didn’t affect our economy and had no obvious strategic importance (unless you bought the Domino Theory that the world’s nations would fall to Communism, one by one).
That’s why Hollywood produced ambivalent movies such as “Pork Chop Hill” and “The Steel Helmet.” Was the outcome of a divided Korea worth the cost of 2.7 million civilians and 800,000 combatants?
While Korean filmmakers have depicted the brother-against-brother scenario in complex movies such as “The Front Line,” they live with the results of that civil war every day. We seldom hear their thoughts, which makes the old-fashioned thriller “Operation Chromite” a refreshing change of pace.
Director John H. Lee and screenwriter Man-Hee Lee have already revisited that conflict for the 2010 “71: Into the Fire,” about student-soldiers trying to protect a middle school during the early days of the war. They return with “Chromite,” a throwback to the days when Asian films cast one international actor – in this case, Liam Neeson as Gen. Douglas MacArthur – along with a cast from their country unknown to most of the world.
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He’s not just an add-on for sales value. The tall, flinty-eyed Neeson, whose big ears and corncob pipe make him resemble MacArthur, embodies the crusty general. We meet MacArthur in 1950, as he prepares for a naval invasion of Incheon that could end a string of advances by the North Korean army. U.S. commanders challenge his insistence that only the heavily mined harbor of Incheon, which is affected by wild tide changes, will work. Is he staking his reputation on a miracle, hoping to become the Republican presidential candidate in 1952? (He had run in 1948 but lost the primary.)
Yet the main story concerns a small cadre of South Korean spies. They’re led by a novice officer named Jang (Jung-jae Lee), who must pose as a North Korean general investigating the situation at Incheon; he will learn of the mine placements, secure the harbor and turn on a lighthouse to guide the landing fleet. A shrewd North Korean commander (Beom-su Lee) suspects something’s amiss but can’t convince his superiors.
The filmmakers fall back on melodrama fairly often. Jang falls for the daughter of another spy; the big final confrontation follows the action movie template, though with a twist; hair’s-breadth escapes mark the narrative, which is based on a real piece of espionage.
Yet there’s freshness in the storytelling, from the John Woo-style standoff where everyone in the room draws a gun at once to the poignant moment where one of the spies asks to visit the public market in Incheon for a few minutes: His wife and child sell vegetables there, and he wants only to look at them from afar. And the sequence that introduces Jang, shot with speed and tense efficiency, leaves a lot of American filmmakers in the dust.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Liam Neeson, Jung-jae Lee, Beom-su Lee.
Director: John H. Lee.
Length: 115 minutes.
Rating: Unrated (military action).