Comrades — First Impressions

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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

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28 thoughts on “Comrades — First Impressions

  1. Outstanding, Serendipity! You nailed exactly what starting this drama feels like, and how it builds and builds as each hour passes. I said just yesterday that when it’s all said and done, Comrades may just surpass CitC as the best drama I’ve ever seen. I’m not quite ready to go there just yet, but it is damn close, I’ll tell you that. My heart pounds, my eyes fill with tears without even realizing it, the music fills my ears and my heart and makes me so thankful, for the thousandth time, that I was lucky enough to discover this world.

  2. oho! So, it looks like this will cause me to break the house rule against k-war dramas. The phrase “this is possibly the most perfect drama after 2007’s Conspiracy in the Court” did it. If I keep it on the computer and off the big screen, I may get away with it.

  3. And for the record, I don’t have a potty mouth. Not 24/7, that is.

    Last 20 minutes of Episode 18 are devastating stuff. CitC Episode 3 Kill Bill scene levels of devastating.

  4. Awesome post, Comrade Serendipity! 😀

    Comrades is all about respect. It respects us as intelligent viewers. Simple as that.
    You nailed it on the head – Comrades shows, not tells, us a beautiful human story without banging us over the head with anything. The complex, well-written characters have been perfectly cast. PERFECTLY. Really, this drama transcends a “war story” or glimpse at history. I place it (along with CitC) in the category of AWESOMESAUCE. 🙂

    For the record, I don’t have a potty mouth either 😉
    but these were my reactions to ep.18 –

    OMG!

    OMFG!

    W.O.W.

    *speechless*

    Now, for anyone who isn’t watching Comrades ~ Go watch Comrades!
    🙂

  5. “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.”

    And because the translator is a lazy poltroon so you won’t get all that far, anyway. But we’re catching up on that as well. Patience is the virtue of the greats.

    So that’s why I’m an ass, I guess.

  6. I love how my vocabulary expands thanks to our MisterX/aka Anarchist/aka GangstaKitteh. I’ve just added “lowly poltroon” to my list. I don’t know what it is exactly, but neither will whomever I use it on, so it’s all good. 😀

  7. Ha… Funny you should mention that. The English use of “poltroon” is actually wrong, considering the origins. It’s mostly used in English as “vile coward” or something to that extent, but at the root…

    Frenchie “poltron”/Dog Latin (maccheronico) “poltrone” —> both from Vulgar Latin’s “poltro,” which is lazy/bed, so it just reinforces the lazy. Coward was only picked up on the way.

    Then again, call an egghead “lazy poltroon” and when they bitch they’ve got balls to last for four, tell them the original meaning was lost in translation. So they’re only lazy bastards, but that wouldn’t sound as good. Or something.

  8. Ep18 — Nooooo!

    Oh well, what do I expect. The drama that Comrades most calls to mind seems to be Conspiracy in the Court, and I knew from the first moments of CitC’s Opening Credits of Doom that things were not going to end all nice and happy and fluffy.

    @GangstaKitteh

    What did a gangster kitten do so right in a previous life to get to sub the two most awesome dramas currently showing? This and Giant. You are supplying all my catnip. Thanks very much! May your whiskers be long and your claws sharp forever!

  9. Aye, Aye!
    War and trenches are just my thing,
    and Comrades unlike Road No. 1 is the King,
    with the Bling and the Sting, not Stink!

    I’m glad you confirmed my belief in Choi Soo Jong as an actor who’s able to choose winners. I’ve watched another historical war drama with romance in it, Eye of Dawn. I LOVE IT! How does Comrades compare? I haven’t watched Comrades, because I want to marathon it, not live week to week in frustration waiting for the next two episodes.

  10. Awesome, awesome review! If you see a headless thundie staggering around (eeks!), it’s because I nodded my head off agreeing with you!

    Comrades is so simple a story yet so searing. The realities of war are harsh beyond belief (men turning deserters not because of ideology or cowardice but because their stomachs have been empty too long and they can’t bear it anymore), yet in the midst of the terrible hardships there is such compassion and gentleness and tenacity. So little said yet so much felt. Most of the time the only response I can muster, tears welling, is WOW.

    Serendipity is so right. This is “not the last that you’ll be reading about Comrades on Thundie’s Prattle.” We’ll be back with more! 😆

  11. I love how my vocabulary expands thanks to our MisterX/aka Anarchist/aka GangstaKitteh.

    Hehe, langdon813, tell me about it! Where were we before X joined the fansubbing world? In the past any unsavory character would be a rascal or scoundrel; now it’s prick, twat, rapscallion! A person doesn’t go mad, he goes batty (LOVE this word!), and nothing gets a chatterbox to hush faster than “SHUT YOUR GOB!”

    (I would be delighted, though, if X would use “yapping” more often, rather than “prattling”!)

  12. My intense dislike of dogs might be to blame.

    When King Geunchogo starts, if dialogue permits it, will unveil fresh batch of vintage insults of yore.

    “You mewling, white-livered lout, live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, strewed in corruption, honeying and making love over a nasty sty~”

    Half of it isn’t my creation, obviously…

  13. “What did a gangster kitten do so right in a previous life to get to sub the two most awesome dramas currently showing?”

    Retribution for devoting several months of my life to the subbing of Kingdom of the Warts and Queen Sunblock.

  14. Oh, Road, Road… I was planning to watch Comrades and Road side-by-side and I guess that won’t be the case. At first your and Girlfriday’s recaps weren’t really enough to deter me from watching a new So Ji-sub and Choi Min-soo(!) project, but the more I’m reading and the more screencaps I’m seeing the more I sit agape thinking — No. Effin’. Way!
    Although I’d love to join everyone else in laughing hysterically at the show, I honestly can’t do it, solely for Choi Min-soo. After several years procrastinating I’ve finally started Sandglass (you can’t watch Giant and then not try comparing it to its genre’s predecessor – just for the sake of it and then appreciating how different they are? No? Ok-then.) and hate myself for taking so long. It’s just magnificent, particularly CMS. I’ve seen him in other projects but it was his character in Father’s House which won me over. Anyhow, I digress. Just hope he picks a decent project sometime soon.

    Now, Comrades:
    ”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.”
    Yes, yes! Give me (well-made) human drama! Give me deep and moving tales in which the extent of the human spirit is explored. The violence/gore and romance is relative, but if they’re done well then that’s a bonus. And ‘tell me, don’t show me’? By jove, if Comrades is THAT, I’ll waste no time and start watching, asap.

    ”…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…”
    Always game for some fascinating and meaty politics, too.

    And more importantly, thank you, for raising the part about why the dearth of women in certain film/drama can be a good thing. I can never quite say that part right without sounding like a self-hating female. It’s as though women are only ever two things in male-centric entertainment (serious and otherwise): sex-objects and/or a hindrance (wince).
    Now looking forward to seeing Lee Tae-ran as a soldier. Maybe she’ll leave the same impression as a strong-willed young mother character out of Count of Myeongdong, who I can’t seem to forget and probably never will. My heart just jumps into my throat everytime I think back to her.
    Thanks again, Serendipity. In this first-impressions review you’ve highlighted absolutely everything I wanted to see in this show.

    Random note: Love that screencap from Giant’s ep22. Park No-shik was sensational in that scene. (‘Jaesukaaah!’) *whimper*

  15. Queen Sunblock, muahaha! Ah, those were good times, weren’t they? The only two dramas that I had to edit/qc standing up because they were so stupor-inducing.

    BTW, I see we have ‘graduated’ from Shakespeare-approved “You scalawag!” to more earthy “You son of an anal wart!” curses. 😆

    Supah, I LOVE that scene too. So heartbreaking.

  16. OK this review just sold me… Since people are comparing this to CitC I am probably missing something awesome. Off to download this series!!

  17. @ thundie / GangstaKitteh

    The subs for Comrades are awesome! I hardly notice them, which means that they are seamless and perfect. Thanks for all the hard work! It can’t be easy to get all the technical military terms right, but I guess you catch a break during the action scenes and when people are just acting with their eyes.

    On the other hand when you do period works like CitC and Chuno I always notice the subs, and that’s entirely as it should be. Because you make a point to use archaic language which gives a strong sense of time and place, a sensibility I LOVE.

    @ rambutan

    I haven’t watched Eyes of Dawn, sadly. Maybe someone else reading this can answer your question..

    Comrades ends its run this weekend, so it might soon be time to get on the Choi Soon Jung Train!

    @ supah

    R#1 — LOL! No, don’t, seriously, do yourself a favour, don’t watch them side by side. 🙂

    Sandglass — Thanks for reminding me that I need to watch this!

    Comrades — Yes, waste no time!
    Politics — Actually, Comrades gives you only enough politics to understand the action, and no more. Its focus is more on people than politics. But I’m sure that’s ok with you!
    Lee Tae-Ran — Oh, I don’t think you would ever forget her Comrades character either.

    @Daktari

    I’m only up to ep10 but, oh yes, it’s awesome, it’s CitC-level awesome.

  18. “I’ve watched another historical war drama with romance in it, Eye of Dawn. I LOVE IT! How does Comrades compare?”

    Suddenly a Sinead O’Connor song comes to mind. If still shown today, Eyes of Dawn would produce such a shockwave, half the pathetic little cancers infesting the industry would be caught in the maelstrom and disappear in embarrassment. Hell, more so today than in 1991, since from a political and cultural standpoint we’re back to the early 80s anyway. Lightweight dictatorship, political black lists influencing culture, T&A to placate the masses, corporations ruling the people… history repeats itself. ㅋㅋ

    And oh… Good things come to those who wait. Enough said. I… think.

  19. Just started watching Comrades, and what can I say but… Devastating.
    Had to avert my eyes a couple of times or click mute so I wouldn’t hear certain sounds, but overall, solid.

    Lee Tae-ran — love at first sight. Ditto, bearded ahjusshi with her.
    Choi Soo-jong — I like him here, but I do feel a tad uncomfortable with his character, there’s the possibility of him being too black and white. But it’s too early to tell, I’ll see how things progress, hopefully I’m in for a surprise.

  20. After hearing such rave reviews on Comrades, I tried ep 1. After watching the intro hearing the narration ” ROK reached the 38th parallel ALONE and marched North”, I said never mind. UN troops, General McCarther and President Truman paid the price for the war and didn’t even get any acknowledgment. Too bad. I guess I can’t stand war dramas after all.

  21. “UN troops, General McCarther and President Truman paid the price for the war and didn’t even get any acknowledgment.”

    That’s so hilariously misguided a comment, it hardly deserves any mention. So the war happened in a vacuum. Nobody’s power play caused said war and a certain division indirectly, and after it was all said and done everyone went home and didn’t just sit and stare while several dictatorships castrated people’s lives for decades.

    If you’re looking for historical accuracy in a Korean drama, you’re barking up the wrong tree. They used a freaking UH-1 in a 1950 setting, FFS.

  22. Chill out babe. Someone can be sensitive and insensitive at the same time. lol

    War dramas ain’t for me. Doesn’t matter where they come from. I didn’t expect.

  23. I’m chilling, Sunshine. If I really got mad, you’d be running to mama leaking water like a sponge.

    I’d try to keep all those fits of Joe Sixpack-meets-John Wayne historical consciousness to myself if I were you, but it’s them interwebs. Everyone is entitled to bullshit art.

  24. i want to listen and save into my phone that Comrades movie in song. i like deeply this song. please help me for get Comrades movie Mp3 song. please give me download link.

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