This is a “First Impressions” Review of Comrades. I have watched three and a half episodes and my heart is sinking, because I hear that the show only gets better and I realise that my personal life is going to be a mess while I obsess over this new-found bright shiny treasure. On the other hand, I feel elated because what has so far been an indifferent year for me in k-drama is suddenly looking to be majorly kick-ass.
Comrades gets everything right. Let’s just quickly go down the check-list of drama fundamentals and get this over and done with, shall we? Faultless acting, script, story-telling, editing, pacing, special effects and stunts, splendid soundtrack, sets and locations, props, historical faithfulness, nail-biting battle scenes, interesting and believable characters, an intelligent sensibility, maturity… check check check… all present and firing on all cylinders.
And let’s just get the Road Number One comparison out of the way, shall we? Let’s just say that there is no comparison. It’s like hearing a performance of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto and going “oh I say, that sounds a lot nicer than my neighbour’s five-year old daughter practising scales on her violin”. Comrades is more than just the antithesis of Road Number One, it is a masterpiece in its own right which transcends the genre of “war k-drama”. I’ve taken a while to get into Comrades because when I watched the first episode right after recapping Road Number One I kept going, “R#1, are you taking notes? This is how you do it.” And since I didn’t want to spend my entire Comrades watch delivering imaginary admonishments to a dumb show, I waited till R#1 was cleansed from my brain before recommencing my watch.
I wouldn’t say that I have a special interest in war drama. But I appreciate (“enjoy” feels like the wrong word) many classic war movies such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Gallipoli. I like reading history and historical fiction so inevitably military history creeps in. I don’t particularly seek out the war context, but at the same time I do find it interesting. The context of war is a bit of a gift to any art-form (film, lore, novel, etc) as inherently you have a conflict so you are halfway to a gripping story, you have the entirely realistic possibility of any character being killed or maimed for life at any time so you have tragedy and plot devices ready at hand, and you have strategy and war-craft to play around with. The theatre of war is also a great stage for exploring the formidable strength and heart-breaking frailty of the human spirit, the corruption and transience of power, and life itself.
But these things can cut both ways. My mild amateur interest in military history cuts both ways when it comes to watching war movies – I have a ready-made interest in the subject matter and appreciate details, but I can also be quite hard on a war movie if I spot any inaccuracies or over-simplifications, or if I sense that it is patronising me by hitting me with the “War is Bad” big stick, as if I didn’t know before and now need to be educated. The war context cuts both ways in that it hands a drama a whole bunch of plot and excitement goodies on a plate, but if the drama merely milks the gifts and doesn’t have its own creative vision, then it merely is the genre and never transcends it to be a work of art in its own right. Worse, if it squanders the gifts, it can fall spectacularly flat.
At the heart of every drama, war or otherwise, is human drama. Gripping plot suspense or spectacular battle scenes alone can not move the heart unless there is human interest.
Merely 3.5 episodes into Comrades, I feel I already know the main characters in the story, as if I have met them. There hasn’t been truckloads of dialogue, but characters have come naturally to life. The focus is on one South Korean squad. We know our hero, the competent and compassionate Sergeant Lee Hyun Joong (Choi Soo Jong), we feel his courage and resolution, and his pain and despair. We know General Park Woong (Lee Duk Hwa), his strength of character, perceptiveness and natural leadership. We know Sergeant Kim (Im Won Hee), who plays the court jester, the joker who dares to speak the truth. Private Jung Taek Soo (Lee Seung Hyo) who has an implacable hatred for North Koreans and is also staunchly loyal to his mates. The medic Park Joo Yong (Ryu Sang Wook) who is sensitive but does not lack for courage. Recruit Chun (Jung Tae Woo) who can’t overcome his fear of battle but in running away finds himself caught in a far more dangerous and frightening situation in which he has to dig even deeper to survive. I already care about each of these men. (And I know I’m in trouble because this is after all war so the odds are that at some point my heart is going to break.)
I also have a fairly good idea of where we are in the war and what the big-picture issues of this conflict are – that both North and South are going for broke and not just status quo, that foreign powers are intervening and tipping the scales on both sides, and that the conflict is tearing apart the heart of Korea.
In fact, there has been surprisingly little exposition all around and already I know so much. “Show me, don’t tell me.” Comrades doesn’t tell you what is going on or have characters tell you what they are thinking. It shows you, seamlessly, naturally, through events, through actions, through the looks in their eyes.
Take the love interest. Oh yes, we have that too. And for once I think it might work. One of my favourite movies of all time is Lawrence of Arabia and I think that a big part of its success is that there is no romance. There is no woman, not one. Because very often war and romance just don’t mix. Imagine a pretty blond woman prancing about the Arabian desert making eyes at Peter O’Toole? Yuck. Take another favourite war-related movie of mine, Master and Commander; again, no women, huzzah!
Can Comrades pull it off? I shall have to watch to the end to see, but so far, yeah baby! It helps that the woman is a soldier and not some wet wife waiting at home being tragically beautiful and brave. So far, they have not exchanged a single word and we have no idea how they first fell in love or why they ended up on different sides in the conflict, but I totally feel the love between Lee Hyun Jong and Lee Soo Kyung (Lee Tae Ran) just from what they do and how they look in a couple of scenes, amazingly acted, charged with emotion. I am left breathless and gasping when in episode four they meet face-to-face for the first time in the show, wordless with shock, surrounded by guns, sizzling with danger, wavering, eyes filled with unshed tears, unspoken regrets, love and entreaty.
Comrades takes every gift that the war genre presents it – strong story, exciting action, a crucible for our characters, moral dilemmas to break our hearts – takes them and cherishes them, and lovingly and skillfully fashions them into something humane and moving.
And it does so with such a light touch and such a lack of self-consciousness I don’t feel as if I am being hit over the head, which is notable for a war drama which doesn’t sugar-coat anything. I don’t feel that the show is trying to impress me or that it is trying to manipulate me into being moved. Rather, I feel as if it has confided in me the true, inside story. I have no idea where this story is going to go because there is no sense of predictability, no sense of pandering to anyone or of conforming to anything, save being true to life (which is unpredictable).
So, why am I writing all this instead of rushing off to watch the rest of episode four and gorging myself with the 20-episode series, which currently has only two more episodes to run? Because I wanted to articulate this magical moment of finding myself in drama heaven. And because I want to shout it out in joy – the art of great drama-making is not dead! Drama-loving comrades, join me!
I have only one reservation. If you find war films hard you may like to pass on this, because Comrades is real and heartfelt. I’m pretty hard-headed myself and no newbie to the war film genre, but I found this an uneasy watch at times because the show doesn’t gloss over the heart-breaking arbitrariness and tragedy of war, and because it is so good it makes you care. This is also why I’m taking a pause in my watch to write this “First Impressions” review – because there’s just so much my heart can take at one time.
I shall stop here. I’m pretty sure that this is not the last that you’ll be reading about Comrades on Thundie’s Prattle. And just so that you know that I’m not smoking dope or merely so scarred by Road Number One I’d be impressed by anything totting a gun, I shall end with quotes from some venerable viewers who are farther along the series than I:
Mr X: Comrades is FUCKING great
hjkomo: It is about R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (respecting the viewers)
thundie: That a drama so stripped of sentimentalism can be so heartbreaking I can scarcely breathe while watching, this is possibly the most perfect drama after 2007’s Conspiracy in the Court