Or, as Serendipity (who wrote the Comrades first-impressions review) prefers to call it,
An Epic Review of an Epic Drama.
“Epic review” because six fans of the drama (daheefanel, GangstaKitteh, langdon813, nycgrl, Serendipity and thundie) come together to rave about why this is the best drama of the year. And “epic drama” because… Well, I’ll let the panel of reviewers tell you why. Five questions, thirty answers.
[Other Comrades-related posts can be found here.]
What else besides “Wow!” can you say about Comrades?
How about “Best Drama of the Year”? Or “Absolute Masterpiece”? Or “Black Hole of Tragedy Drinking My Tears For Breakfast”?
I kid. But seriously, it’s impossible to describe Comrades the way it should be described. I do not have the kind of vocabulary that can adequately pay homage to such a beautiful work. But if I must try…
I don’t normally like war-themed movies or TV shows. I think a lot of them tend to tread dangerously in sappy machismo territory, representing the horrors of war in an often exploitative way, not showing any kind of real respect for the history. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve found them to be rather rare.
That’s one of the reasons Comrades is so special. It really seems to GET IT. (Yes, I felt the need to use all caps for that.) It doesn’t manipulate this terrible history and background to fulfill some sort of political or monetary agenda. Rather, it treats it in an incredibly sympathetic way, with the utmost respect and understanding. This show gets that it could mess up this representation at any moment, and thus deals with it with delicacy and love. Because war isn’t about making out with your girlfriend in a shack (*cough*RoadNo1*cough*) or fighting for the glory of one’s nation. War is about the people beside you in the trenches, your comrades in arms, the people you know and love and would do anything to save.
I suspect a lot of people out there who haven’t seen a second of this drama have a lot of misconceptions about Comrades. They probably assume that it’s just another depressing war drama with lots of death and fighting, concerned only with male soldiers, etc. It does have all that (except for the “only male soldiers” part – there are a good handful of women in here, who are all kickass), but it’s so much more – this is a show about human beings, and the bonds we form with one another.
Every character feels real, tangible. The more episodes you watch, the more invested you become in their lives and struggles. I was constantly longing to be able to reach into the screen and give each character a big hug. I often watched this show with my hands over my heart, overwhelmed by the warmth and the love that I felt for these soldiers, these young men who wanted nothing more than to live. I cried at the tiniest of interactions between them, and my heart broke with every instance of pain. I laughed and cried and breathed with these characters, every single one of them. They are now as real to me as the people I know in my everyday life. And thanks to that, I was able to understand, if only just a little bit, some of the horror of war.
Comrades doesn’t holler for you to shed tears for its tragedies, and it doesn’t shove any sanctimonious morals down your throat. Instead, it quietly seduces you, pulls you gently into its world, into the very hearts of its characters, and invites you to feel the emotional impact of every tiny moment of battle. I promise you, you will never be the same after watching this drama. It changes your life by making you live another life, another period, within the walls of its world.
I can say that all the opportunist leeches in town can do whatever they want to damage the industry for the sake of making a buck, that irresponsible head honchos can continue castrating this medium’s future with their lack of foresight, and clueless producers can keep throwing huge figures around when they still haven’t learned how to spend a penny properly, but when talent is around, you’re bound to get quality.
Comrades is like a strange oasis in the wild, ridiculous and unnerving K-drama desert of these days. It was (allegedly) shortened from the start because of behind the scene rumblings that an anti-war drama which portrayed them commie bastards sympathetically couldn’t go on for that long (we’re still under a light dictatorship which is controlling 90% of Korean media, after all), which sort of explains the somewhat rushed storytelling (the story fits a 36 episode format better than 20, let’s just say that), but that’s where the shenanigans ended.
There was no table tennis playing with extensions and reductions, no silly games to gain ratings, no press propaganda to bolster the show’s profile. It went by quietly, scoring a dignified upper 10%s average rating and garnering accolades from critics (the three or four left in the wretched panorama called Korean journalism) and viewers alike. It might have fallen into the “live shoot” curse like every other Korean drama, but you’d never feel it, as it maintained high production values throughout its entire run. It was never about spectacle or even battles, so the few sparks of film-like bonanza (the supply base explosion, a few battles here and there) were merely the icing on the cake.
Even its script was rather barebones, only giving a few necessary details and abandoning itself in the real core of the show, what defines its very title: brothers in arms, comrades. The vicissitudes that name entails to, the sacrifices, the emotional glass ceiling which often binds those people, a sort of double-edged sword always ready to hit them when they cross that line. It really boils down to a few, very visceral and straightforward emotions, conveyed in downright spectacular fashion.
Comrades never pretended to be accurate (and, considering the limited budget and quick production, even a few silly mistakes could be excused), or to ever compete with American – or, hell, even Mainland Chinese – war dramas on TV, it simplified a very complicated war into a concept which still resonates more than any other political explanation or gratuitous spectacle: war is about people. People you shared time with, even if they weren’t necessarily from your same side. People you survived and died with. That’s all that counts, really. So when you see a long line of soldiers walking towards the horizon, don’t just think it was a number in the pages of history. They were brothers. That’s what this show, once again, reminded us of. The biggest cliche, done with the utmost sincerity. Because, in the words of Emerson, to be simple is to be great. Sometimes, that is…
I was born and raised in Mississippi. Ask me about the American Civil War. Ask me about civil rights, or race relations in the Deep South. But any prior knowledge I had about the Korean War probably came from the 1970’s TV show M*A*S*H. Sad, but true. So to say I find this a daunting task is quite an understatement.
What comes to mind when I try to talk about Comrades are words, not phrases, so please forgive me if that’s the best I can do. My heart is broken, you see. It’s been a week since I finished and I’m still having trouble with complete sentences.
So… how to begin? I wrote this down as soon as I saw it onscreen: “War is not just a game where you slaughter your enemies. It’s a struggle to remain human despite carrying a gun in your hand.” The struggle to remain human in a time of war…but what kind of human? A soldier, a patriot, a coward, a bully, a sadist? Or a father, mother, brother. A leader, a friend. A traitor. An enemy. A savior.
What makes one group of people comrades, and another just a bunch of people in the same boat? In this story, it’s because of one man, Lee Hyun Joong. This man is the very definition of one who leads by example. He knows what needs to be done, and he simply does it. He commands, he protects, he encourages, he teaches, and most importantly, he loves. His men are his family, his children, his responsibility. He values their lives far more than he does his own.
If Lee Hyun Joong has a flaw, it’s his tendency to care too much. In his flock, there is no one sheep more valuable than another. As a result, the men under his command forge a bond stronger than steel. They grumble, they fight, whine, nag, and complain, but when faced with a choice to save themselves by leaving someone behind, or to stay together no matter the cost, then there really isn’t a choice. “All for one and one for all” might as well be tattooed on their foreheads. Lee Hyun Joong is Comrade’s mighty heart.
What happens when you’re a leader who has lost all of his men, leaving you so crippled by survivor’s guilt and fear that you become bitter and cruel? How do you respect without self-respect, trust when you have no faith, or protect when you have no courage? Park Il Kwon is Comrade’s bruised soul.
On paper at least, war means there’s a right side, and a wrong side. It’s black and white; if you’re on the right side, you’re a patriot. If you’re on the wrong side, you’re the enemy. In the midst of battle, faced with kindness from your enemy, and punishment from your ally, perhaps it’s too difficult to know which is which. But war is hell, and ultimately you must pick a side. Choosing to disguise yourself as one or the other, depending on whichever persona will save your life at the time, is choosing dishonor. Chun Seong Il is Comrade’s human fallibility.
Jung Taek Soo lost both of his parents and is fighting the war to seek revenge. More than anyone else perhaps, he has reason to hate North Koreans. Yet time and time again, his life is inexplicably saved by them, forcing him to acknowledge that there is honor and kindness to be found even in the middle of enemy territory. He is crippled figuratively by his blind hatred of the enemy, yet when he’s literally crippled after being injured in battle, it’s a North Korean who gives him the impetus to appreciate the life he has yet to live. Jung Taek Soo is Comrade’s irony.
Ahh…I could go on and on. Every single character in Comrades is worth a paragraph (or two). The two main North Korean characters, Lee Soo Kyung and Chun Yong Taek, are superbly portrayed. Lee Soo Kyung is a woman from Lee Hyun Joong’s past; how they met is touched upon lightly, but the only thing we really need to know is that they are enemies. They love each other, but it doesn’t matter. When they face each other in battle, they will do what needs to be done. Chun Yong Taek is loyal and honorable, and just as protective of his men as Lee Hyun Joong is.
Comrades is perfectly cast, perfectly written, perfectly executed. There’s nothing frivolous. No fluff, no filler. Comrades doesn’t waste much time on backstory. We’re told just what we need to know about these characters and that’s it. It doesn’t pander to its audience, nor does it meander about. There is a story to be told here, and it’s told succinctly and told well. It is without a doubt the best drama I’ve ever seen, and it’s going to be a long time before I can move on. A long time before I’ll want to.
“Wish we could just go back to our 1st Squad days.”
“Uh?! What was so great about those days? We risked freezing to death, not to mention what happened in the caves. Ohh…the concentration camp. Was it really that good?”
“Except all that drama, of course. Anyway, back then… there were nine of us.”
I’m usually the biggest chicken-poop around when it comes to war-related movies or dramas, especially if they deal with actual historical events. For me, watching a war movie is as much fun as taking part in the Nuremberg Trials and I usually have to work myself up for a few years to watch something like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan or The Pianist because I know I’ll be traumatized by the violence and the horror of what humans are capable and incapable of doing during times of war. But I do eventually get around to watching them because I feel like I need to—kind of like eating my vegetables, voting and recycling.
So I was surprised by my interest to take on Comrades and in relatively short time at that (relative to me of course) since it only took me a couple of months to decide I was going to watch this. If I had to search my motives I’d say my interest stems from Comrades dealing with a subject that is very personal to me. Comrades is a 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War, and though I am an American, I was born in Korea and as a young man, my father had fought in the Korean War.
Another reason to watch Comrades is that it is told from the Korean point of view. Most accounts of the Korean War in the US are from the American perspective (the history text books I read in college, trade books found on Amazon), so I have always been interested in seeing the war from the Korean POV even if the vehicle is a miniseries that was likely to take ample artistic license in the historical facts for dramatic purposes.
A third reason for wanting to watch this is due to the high praise it has received for the quality of production. If this was a well-conceived grand opus to the Korean War I didn’t want to miss it.
Upon watching Comrades I have to say it is one of those rare shows that will not insult your intelligence or have crappy overwrought cheesy Velveeta congealing scenes like the dramatic three way hand grab or a girl throwing herself on a dirt country road shrieking like a banshee (talking about you, Road No.1). Even the best kdramas tend to wallow in the muck of sentimentality—it kind of comes with the territory since it’s called “kdrama” for good reason—but when a drama comes along and is so frank and unadulterated, I smile with the novelty and chutzpah of it all.
So what does Comrades ask in exchange for this incredible unsentimental adrenaline pounding ride? Only your poor broken heart. And by that I mean, it’ll rip your beating heart right out, throw it on the floor, stomp on it, stomp on it some more and just when you think the ordeal is over and your heart is lying all dirty and bruised in a forest of combat boots you hear strains of “cingu-ya, cingu-ya” in the background that may haunt you till at least the credits roll or to the next day as you’re taking a bath or even a week later standing in line at the checkout at your local Trader Joe’s. So if you’re not a crier like me, it’s time to dust those tear ducts off because you’re gonna cry and if you’re masochistic like I am you’ll probably even like it. If you are already a crier, well tough noogies, I suggest you buy some visine because you’re gonna need it.
Just, stunning. Comrades grabbed my heart, mind and soul and owned me. When I got to the jaw-dropping end, I lay awake on my bed for hours past my bedtime, just stunned.
Everything that was promised at the time I wrote my First Impressions Review, Comrades delivered and more. After only a few episodes my expectations were already quite high, and as the series ran on at no time did I feel that the show was letting me down or that it was over-hyped. I had heard that the last episodes were mind-blowing but by episode 17 I thought I had gotten the hang of how the show worked and had a few ideas of my own about how it might wrap things up, pulling no punches. However nothing, nothing prepared me for the shattering denouement.
Now that I re-read my First Impressions Review, I stand by every word, and it seems all so uncannily prescient. I said that the show demonstrated how the conflict “tore apart the heart of Korea”, and it’s a given that a quality show such as this would not be so crass as to paint one side of the conflict as unblemished heroes and the other side as faceless evil-doers. But I was impressed by the depths to which the show was willing to explore the brutality and senselessness of a war in which Koreans fought Koreans, and the sensitive even-handedness and lack of preachiness with which it went about it.
I wondered whether it could pull off the love interest between Sergeant Lee Hyun Joong and Lee Soo Kyung. Well, that depends on what you expect from a love story. If you are looking for romantic or sentimental moments, look elsewhere. You will also be disappointed if you think that love should conquer all, or if you want protagonists to renounce all for love, including what they believe and who they are. But if you are looking for evidence of a real and deep love and are interested in how it fares sailing through a tempest, here it is. The love story also operates at another level, the thwarted lovers becoming a powerful symbol for what was happening to the country, that what should have been united and complementary was torn apart, brutalized and set ablaze.
I alluded to the war genre being a “crucible for our characters”. And “moral dilemmas” of war “to break our hearts”. And opined that the show is “humane and moving”. And warned that it might be hard to watch because it doesn’t gloss over tragedy and because it makes you care. And predicted that because I had begun to care about each of the men my heart was going to break. And can I just say, I was so right, and in fact had no idea just how right I was.
Comrades is shocking. But not manipulative. For it is merely true to its subject matter of war. Life is unpredictable, and war particularly, brutally so. You could pull off a near-suicide mission and next day be randomly picked off by a sniper while on a routine patrol. That’s war. There is no convenient story-arc to carry you to safety, no logic, no fairness, no assurance of a dignified end, let alone a happy one. Nonetheless, the story of Comrades is not arbitrary, but is lovingly and painstakingly put together, its passions and people carefully fleshed out. And just by unfolding its story, Comrades sends home its anti-war message more effectively than any homily.
At the same time, Comrades is not just about the anti. Yes, it is about the futility of war. But it is also about the triumph of the human spirit. It celebrates the small but profound moments such as of love between parent and child, and kindness in the midst of cruelty. And it even puts a sympathetic human face on failure. It’s about a man and a woman who love each other honestly, transcending circumstances and logic. It is about the bond, deeper than friendship and stronger than death, between men who side-by-side with each other strive to keep body and soul together in hell.
When I think about Comrades I don’t think too much about its technique, the fantastic directing or amazing acting, or how beautifully the whole thing is put together. I have long ago taken for granted that this is technically the best drama I have watched in a long time. (Well, I have one running complaint, and that is that the make-up artist needed to lay off Choi Soo Jong’s eye-liner! But if that is my biggest complaint…) And I think there is no better testament to an art than that I don’t even notice the excellence of the art-form, but am transported and immersed in the world it has created.
Comrades is not a fictional work to me. I re-live the story as if it is real (and to some extent I think it is, because somewhere some time in some war or another, these things happen to real people). I think about the people in the story as if they are real, as if I know them personally (and, again, I believe that in one sense they are real, because they represent us in all their plausibility and their diversity). And I think about war. And the meaning of life. Because I take the message of Comrades seriously, speaking as it does with authenticity.
I know of a country which practices capital punishment, in which every judge who has the power to deliver the death sentence is required to personally witness at least one execution. This is to ensure that judges fully understand the consequences and gravity of their decisions. I think that every politician and statesman who has the power to start a war should watch Comrades. To ensure that they understand exactly what they are committing the men and women of their country to, as they make decisions from the comfortable distance of their offices.
What else can I say about Comrades that has not already been expressed so eloquently by my fellow reviewers? Well, maybe this:
War is shitty, war sucks.
That point was hammered home repeatedly as I watched Comrades. Sometimes it got so unbearable (the hopelessness, the wretchedness, the senselessness of it all) I had to stop the video and simply walk away. Sometimes it felt as if an asthma attack was imminent; I couldn’t breathe.
I’ve not watched a kdrama as unsentimental as this one, so harrowing and hard-hitting in its portrayal of what is essentially a kind of hell. Whatever the reasons that led to the conflict, both sides are now intent on wiping the other out; you are either comrade or enemy, no two ways about it. Respites are few and short-lived; you barely crawl your way out of one shithole before you are thrown back into another. The end comes so swiftly for some, you gasp: “How can he die just like that, just standing there one moment and a bullet ending it all the next, without fanfare or farewell? You’re a drama, you can prepare me, you can make it hurt less, goddammit.”
I cursed a lot watching Comrades. Shit, shit, shit.
Because it is so searing, this pain. A son deserts his squad to find his mother, only to discover her body newly dead. A wife waits for her illiterate husband, not realizing he will never return. So what your age, status, cherished hopes? A grenade does not differentiate. It kills, it maims…
Comrades made the horrors all too real. It made me care too much.
This is the first time I’ve loved so many characters in one drama, and not just loved them, but feared so intensely for their well-being. I watched every episode with one hand over my mouth and the other over my chest. “Survive, survive, please survive.” Sometimes it felt as though my heart would burst with anxiety. Often I didn’t know which side I was rooting for, because I didn’t want either side to lose. I wanted everyone to live.
Because, you know, they are a family torn asunder, dammit. They are one people, they speak the same language, some went to the same schools together, some fell in love. And now a senseless war is being fought, and you have lads as young as seventeen fighting for an ideology they may not fully comprehend, boys who miss their mothers and who just want to go home.
With other kdramas I could just go, “It’s only a drama, they are only acting, everything is make-believe.” With Comrades I was constantly reminded that it was all real, that the actual Korean War was much, much worse than what twenty mere TV episodes could convey. The full extent of the suffering, of the human cost of the war (and other wars), can never be tabulated. You must have experienced it, and have survived to tell your story, in order to fully understand the insanity of it all.
So yes, Comrades hit home and hit it hard. But although I was fully invested in the characters and in the story, I never once felt that I was being manipulated, that events were orchestrated precisely to milk my tears and sympathies. There was a matter-of-factness about the narrative that elevated the pathos above the maudlin; it was only at the end of the drama that my tears flowed unceasingly as I let it all sink in.
In the end, after the tears have dried and my heart has returned to a calmer place, what I will remember the most is Squad One. That brotherhood, that bond. That indescribable affection and commitment. Because Comrades isn’t just about a war, it’s about people–people whom I’ve come to care too much about and who still make me cry, weeks after the drama’s ending. The relentless grittiness can’t mask its inherent gentleness, the cruelty its compassion. Comrades, A Love Story.
How does the drama stack up against the 2010 offerings you have seen?
Looking back, 2010 has definitely been an improvement from the previous two years, but it’s still been full of disappointments. In comparison to all those disappointments (Road No. 1, I’m looking at you), Comrades was a drama that snuck up on me and was a terrific surprise.
I confess I wasn’t all that interested in this show before it aired, despite its rather amazing trailer, because…well…I’m not a big fan of Choi Su Jong and his endless parade of heroic characters. Yes, it all came down to something that shallow. And yet once I did watch it, I was completely floored by the way it snatched my breath away and invaded my mind and heart.
There have been some decent dramas this year, but Comrades is a force of its own. It operates on a whole new plane of existence, and very few dramas can compare to it, whether in this year or the ones before. And, I suspect, the years to come.
I think that a lot of my reactions concerning K-drama’s 2010 are affected by the bigger picture, in the sense that since the industry is going to hell at an alarmingly rapid pace, what with Kim Gwang-Soo becoming the second coming of Johnny Kitagawa and shoving his starlets down our throats through not-too-subtle shenanigans (sign starlets to slave contracts -> fill dramas with them to lower costs -> appeal to the clueless sharks in tuxedo who’d rather spend a little less than worry about the future), even the good shows feel more like the last few sparks of a fire that is quickly dying down, since K-drama is becoming J-drama redux in 18 to 24 months, and with a different audience and different cultural acceptance of the medium, there’s going to be fireworks (or maybe it’ll just be makjang dramas and Made in Gwang-Soo trendy pap, with a few clueless sageuk thrown in to break even) aplenty. Still… was 2010 all that bad, in retrospect?
Comrades is the best drama of the year, yes, but all considered things didn’t go all that bad. We got Slave Hunters, which has redrawn the visual and narrative grammar of sageuk (and it also had a wildly schizophrenic script, but with that acting and those production values, any complaint is frankly missing the point. Have you seen anything this good on Korean TV as of late? REALLY?) and has shown what an asset Kwak Jung-Hwan can be to this industry, not to mention giving us the kind of performance that Jang Hyuk will never get the chance to display again – it’s a once in a lifetime tour de force, I’m afraid.
We got Harvest Villa, which does suffer a bit towards the end, but showed why pre-broadcast shoots are the way, even when you get hilarious turds like Road No. 1 as a result. Good acting, good production, a pretty good script holding steady until the end, without worrying about ratings or makjang shenanigans. We got Jejungwon, a bit on the naive side and of dubious historical relevance (and accuracy), but a lovely little show filled with sincere emotions, good acting and solid production values (told you that Hong Chang-Wook and Lee Myung-Woo are SBS’s future, didn’t I?).
We got Drama Special, with already three shows worthy of consideration for Drama of the Year (and a lot of mediocrity in between, but that’s inevitable with this format) and My Sister’s March, an exquisite little period drama about the warts of Korea’s yesteryear. And we have Giant, ridiculously entertaining and so tightly woven, even the insane onslaught of cliches and coincidences it throws at the viewer can be excused as an endearing part of the proceedings. Jo Pilyeon is your master and commander, resistance is futile.
Of course we also got a lot of insulting pap (I’m not in the mood to mention them, but you probably know what I’m referring to), behind-the-scenes shenanigans which ruined what could have been potentially good dramas (Cinderella’s Sister and Kim Soo-Ro spring to mind), and generally the idea that this is only the quiet before the storm, but what the hell. I was there in 1999 when the shit hit the fan and the miracle suddenly disappeared, but no one knows whether this is just another 1999, or maybe a 1990, the final few wretched years before everything changes for the better and the industry reaches new heights. One can always dream….
Best drama of this or any year. Even better than Conspiracy in the Court, which I never thought I’d say.
I’m not a big drama watcher by any means compared to some of my kdrama watching friends. In any given year I may watch little as four dramas with the maximum number running up to ten. However since I have this little drama addiction to satiate, I make it a point to select the dramas that I think might give me the biggest bang for the buck so I can spend the rest of my time pursuing my other weekend hobbies which may or may not involve cat-o-nines.
However this year, if I were participating in a kdrama version of an office football pool I would have the biggest losing streak since the dramas I chose all sucked pig-rabbit foot (Personal Taste, Prosecutor Princess and Cinderella Sister). As I watched all three shows simultaneously (not being defensive here, ok maybe a wee bit, but I was on a break from work! I was on a break! you hear that!), I pondered to myself, Where is the story? Where is the directing? Where is the acting? Where at least is the funny? I seriously felt so depressed about the whole state of kdramas that I literally thought of throwing in the towel and moving on to pursue some of my other hobbies–I did mention the cat-o-nines, right?
Just when I was becoming crankier than a Klingon in the morning, I started hearing mentions of a great war drama here and there. As the steady stream of tweets grew and grew to shape “c-o-m-r-a-d-e-s” in matrixy hexadecimals, Comrades was being breathed as being the hope that might just save 2010 for many kdrama watchers.
Comrades is by far the best drama I’ve seen this year. Why does it deserve such praise? I’ll give you five reasons and then you be the judge.
1) Compelling Story: a solid, good story will pull me into the drama every time.
2) Very good to great acting: great acting will keep me believing in the story long after I say “this is a lousy story.” Luckily for you, Comrades has a solid story and near great acting.
3) Great ensemble cast: From the scared as shit private who is paralyzed with fear to the last Nikkita standing from a guerilla fighting clan, the supporting cast is like the buttresses that support a lofty cathedral. They could make the whole thing work or let it fall down miserably leaving a pile of pretty stain glass windows, the nave and high alter in ruins. Fear not from being flattened. This ensemble cast delivers.
4) Great directing/production value: I can talk about the special camera they used to film this or the oodles of money they spent per episode but I’d be essentially talking out of my ass since I really don’t know anything about that. All I know is when I watched Episode 1, I knew these people didn’t skimp on the dough to produce this. Watching Episode 1, I literally sat up and said, “How the F*ck did they manage to do this on TV.” Story, Cast and great acting are all ingredients to a good piece of work but great production value makes the entire thing shine even brighter.
5) Unsentimental straight shooter: Sentimental drivel is one thing that even some of my favorite dramas are guilty of and it’s what one of my kdrama friends calls “milking the maudlin” and it just so happens to be what I consider to be the dirtiest trick in the director’s trick bag. I find any kind of milking, whether it’s done with a loud bombastic blast of emo music or over the top acting or ridiculous stretched-out scenes, to be incredibly disrespectful to anything living that isn’t a single cell paramecium. Thankfully this drama does not insult your intelligence. I repeat. This drama does not insult your intelligence.
If the story about war is the skeleton of this drama, then the backbone or theme of Comrades has to be the camaraderie of the men. As has been noted plenty of times. War is awful & brutal, but the whole “war is awful” theme in itself wouldn’t make Comrades successful without establishing personal connections. Just like a million deaths is just a statistic but one death is a tragedy, the focus of this drama is on the band of men who fight and stick together through the cold, hunger and near death experiences while developing special friendships and camaraderie. By the end of this story you’re gonna wish you had comrades like these.
It’s in a league of its own. Not just for 2010, but in all the k-drama landscape.
The closest 2010 drama in terms of quality and scope is Giant. But I could watch Giant very pleasurably and not think about it much until the next episode. Giant is an excellent specimen of a specific genre (epic family revenge) and runs along fairly well-worn grooves. I don’t find it as absorbing or earth-shattering as Comrades. To be fair, it’s in the middle of its run and has yet to unleash its (no doubt epic) ending on us. But still, it feels like a different creature and even if I compare it with mid-series Comrades, it doesn’t afflict me with the same terrifying tension as Comrades did.
This has been a very good year for me. In fact, 2010 may turn out to be as good as 2007 and may even surpass it.
Why do I say that? Well, I’ve been fortunate to have picked mostly gems so far. A few months ago, I was so sure I had found my drama of the year in Jejoongwon. Now Jejoongwon has slipped to third and may not even retain its place in the top three when the year-end reviews roll around. Such is the quality of what I’ve been watching. I’m even in a dilemma over who to pick for best actor because the acting has just been stupendous. The last time I counted, four actors (Park Yong-woo, Jang Hyuk, Jung Bo-seok and Lee Beom-soo) were neck to neck.
Comrades is a masterpiece, no question about that, and is my best drama of the year right now. But Giant, which aired Episode 37 last night and has twenty-three episodes to go, is sublime and may edge Comrades out eventually. If two dramas are equally brilliant (albeit in different ways), the longer drama gets my vote because it is just so much harder to maintain a consistent quality over sixty episodes than over twenty. Yes, Giant is that good and if you’ve not watched it yet, you should!
Then there’s Joseon X-Files, so tightly scripted and just barrels of fun. Chuno with its dazzling production values. What about a certain drama airing next month? I’ve yet to watch a Jung Ha-yeon drama I didn’t fall madly in love with, and thus expect to be burned alive by Flames of Ambition.
With Comrades leading this year’s quality offerings (and I’m in love with Sungkyunkwan Scandal as well), I’m happy as a clam.
Has the drama touched or affected you in a personal way?
Can anyone watch this drama and not be touched or affected in a personal way? Is it possible to watch these men and women, these human beings, interact with each other and love and hate and misunderstand each other, without being able to connect it to some aspect of one’s life, however small? That’s the great thing about Comrades – it forces you to see these characters, this history, as real, as immediate, and as impossible to ignore.
And, y’know, I’m Korean, and have heard about the Korean War and other uniquely Korean tragedies all my life. And yet, at the same time, I haven’t. Once in a while someone will let slip a tidbit of information, a glimpse into those difficult times…but never more than that. There is a deep silence surrounding this issue amongst the people I know. And as more and more time passes, and people age and slowly fade away from life, I am terribly struck by how easily things can be forgotten, or lost.
I am so grateful to Comrades for allowing me to see a little beyond that silence, to give me a peek behind the curtain. What I saw was heartbreaking, but I needed to see it.
If this is the “grown ass man cried like a baby” trick question of the day… I will oblige by digressing like a deranged loon and possibly give you some kind of answer before the next question kicks in.
As an anarchist and hardcore pacifist, a lot of the G.I. Joeing that goes on in most war dramas leaves me rather indifferent, be it the Oliver Stone school of pinko imperialist patronizing or the John Wayne-meets-Fox News bleeding heart flag-waving of many a Hollywood “epic.” Even fantastic series like The Pacific and Band of Brothers aren’t exactly progressive about that. You just go to a foreign land, slaughter thousands of faceless baddies, feel shitty about it and maybe even despise the war itself, but the core fundamentals never really change.
I guess when you transfer all that pathos to a Korean setting, different vibes kick in, and I’m not even talking about the divide – that was a pretty obvious leit motif from the start. So the only way to do a war drama that will connect with me is going at it the anarchist way, forgetting about flags. Humanism reigns supreme here, and while this drama is certainly drenched in divide tropes, it often goes beyond that by simply talking about people.
You might be shedding blood together for the sake of some sanctimonious flag or so that Uncle Sam can get his share of Starbucks in (I guess they still call that “bringing democracy to all people! Even if they don’t want it…”), but at the end of the day war is about human sacrifice, about sharing smelly barracks, eating expired canned food together and dealing with a shitload of mosquitoes. Oh, and core emotions.
By sticking to those visceral feelings all the way and not losing itself in military fanboy role playing, Comrades sticks to what’s important, so at the end of the day you end up caring about those people, even if you’re a snarky, misanthropic asswipe like someone I know. I joked about it on Twitter, calling it “더럽게 슬프다 (Sad and dirty about it),” but that’s really how war dramas should be done. Stick to the basics, worry about what’s important. Everything else, even if you use Vietnam War helicopters in the Korean War or the weapon effects/logistics will drive a military aficionado insane, doesn’t mean squat.
Other than shattering my heart, you mean? Absolutely. It embarrassed me that I don’t know more about the Korean War, a situation I intend to rectify. And it makes me unwilling to waste time in the future on any drama that I don’t love wholeheartedly.
I remember reading Anne Frank as a young teen at the dinner table and explaining the book I was reading–not very well since my dad and I have a language barrier that consisted of some English (on my side), some Korean (on his side) and sign language (mostly me)–and after I had told him about the plight of Anne’s family in time of the Nazi regime he told me quietly and matter-of-factly how much he hated war and how killing other people was the worst atrocity a human can do to another. I didn’t know it then, but I realized later when I found out he had served in the Korean War, that he was speaking from his own personal experiences.
So it was with some trepidation that I recently watched the first three episodes of Comrades with my dad while we were on our family vacation. I worried if the drama would upset him and trigger the long buried memories from 60 years ago or whether perhaps the memories would be tempered with the distance of time and age. Most fortunate for me, I was to find out that the time we spent together watching and discussing parts of the drama would be one of the most enriching and personally gratifying moments I have ever spent with my dad.
When we watched the scene where Sangil wrote “mom” on the floor with matchsticks, my dad commented how young and scared the recruits were in his own platoon. They were all 19 and unmarried. The young boys would pine for their mothers and all their prayers and hopes of making it through the war, sane, physically intact and alive was placed squarely on the image of their mother as their connection to the life they left behind and the life they hoped to return to after the war.
My own father had lost his dad when he was only 13 in which time he became the de facto man of the house. He therefore had an unusually tight bond with his mother that felt to me more like a partnership than the typical mother and son relationship. My father additionally played both roles of brother and father to his four younger siblings so the war took a huge toll on him. During the 2.5 years he was away at war, he constantly thought about his mother and younger siblings and the image of his mom and her suffering were burnt into his head and he never forgot how essential it was for him to survive not because he wanted to live, so much as because he needed to live, since his family depended on his survival. If he died in war he knew his entire family could die of poverty, starvation or disease.
In a later episode, when he watched the scene where food was being distributed to the soldiers, he mentioned how they got one rice ball three times a day and sometime they got boiled potato instead if they ran out of rations and that the potato would sometimes freeze due to the cold (something that actually wound up happening in a later episode). He mentioned it was hardly enough food for a grown man to survive on and that there were two constant physical worries during his time at war: starving to death or freezing to death. He told me how the men often slept in open shelters or lean-tos and consequently lost a toe or their life due to frostbite.
At the end of the third night, he told me how awful the war was and that it was the single worst period of his entire long life and that it was even worse than losing his father at the age of 13, worse than the stress of inheriting the role of breadwinner to a six-person household, and even worse than seeing his two-year-old brother die in his arms due to not receiving proper medical care. He got teary after finishing episode 3 and he said, “My friends who served in the army are all dead and I’m really the last to survive.” He said with each passing year there are fewer and fewer men left who remember and fought in the war.
I doubt my father ever saw himself as a hero despite the bullet wound in his head, the monthly pension from the Korean government and personal citation from the former Korean president since he felt he did nothing but survive while many had died fighting in battle. I think he mostly thinks he persevered mostly to just sheer dumb luck.
When I was twelve I watched the movie Midnight Express (an American goes to Turkish prison and descends into deeper and deeper hell) and my impressionable and defenceless young mind was so powerfully affected I felt depressed for days. (What my parents were thinking letting me watch that at that age, I have no idea.) Many years later, when I watched Apocalypse Now I felt similarly shell-shocked. Comrades is right up there with the pantheon of those cinematic greats in terms of sheer mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, soul-invading impact.
I cry fairly easily when I watch dramas, but I can usually cry quietly and quickly enough that people around me don’t notice. So of course I cried during Comrades. A lot. In fact, it was the rare episode in which I did not cry. And when I got to the vale of tears, i.e., episode 18 and onward, I cried like I don’t think I have ever cried watching TV. I bawled. I sobbed loudly and messily into my tissue paper. I cried out as my heart broke and I felt grief and despair.
Comrades has a fabulous soundtrack. I find particularly moving its use of the choral standard “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” – God have mercy, Christ have mercy. For, when watching the show, gasping from shock, slain by tragedy and bitter ironies, moved by the power of hope, I find myself mouthing “Oh my God”. A simple, heart-felt invocation. Because words just don’t suffice.
I’ve been interested in the Korean War since watching Eyes of Dawn and The Count of Myeongdong (the latter a docu-drama written by Jung Ha-yeon, who also wrote Shin Don).
After Eyes of Dawn, I read as much as I could on Korean history; I was just so eager to learn more about its people and their past. Of course I’ve also always been interested in Korean period dramas (sageuk); you can call it a curiosity if you like. But what Comrades has done is to bring home the history lessons in a very personal and even intimate way, so that it’s no longer just about the history (the events themselves, the political jostling, the invasions, the aftermath) but more about the people affected by the historical events. Maybe it’s because I cried so much watching this, even more than I cried for Eyes of Dawn (even though EOD is really the more horrifying and disturbing drama).
I appreciate that the drama does not attempt to sway me politically, by depicting one side as irrepressibly evil. The only mother in the drama (who’s alive) is a North Korean and her quiet compassion for the Squad One boys moved me immensely. People everywhere are the same; they just want to live peacefully, care for their families, and make a living. This mother risked her life repeatedly to protect the boys, because to her they weren’t enemies, they were just fellow human beings needing food and shelter.
So, in a way that’s both personal and also somewhat detached (because I am an outsider after all), I continue to care a lot about what’s going on between the two Koreas. I hope fervently that the day will come when neither side needs to fear the other’s political might, and that long-separated family members can be reunited. Surely that is not an impossible dream?
Whose acting knocked your socks off?
The whole cast delivered, with nary a bad egg to be seen anywhere. I hesitate to pick just one or two actors, since Comrades is one of those dramas that hinges on the group dynamic. The sense of camaraderie and loyalty and love is so strong that to pick out one or two standouts feels almost like a betrayal.
I will say, though, that for the first time Choi Su Jong did not annoy me, and that, indeed, I ended up falling completely in love with his Sergeant Lee Hyun-joong. Sure, he slipped once or twice into his characteristic “perfect macho hero” pose, but he managed to make Sergeant Lee charismatic and completely sympathetic. And then there are people like Kim Myung Soo, who is reliably great, and Lee Tae Ran, in her meatiest role in a long while. Or Jung Tae Woo, as full of fire as ever. This man was born to act in period roles. Or Kim Roi Ha, playing a man with a prickly exterior and secret heart of gold (yes, I swooned over him).
But the point is, this isn’t a one-man show, not even acting-wise. Without the other characters, the other actors, Comrades would not be half the drama that it turned out to be.
You know, I’ll let everyone else rave about the obvious, like Kim Myung-Soo, Lee Tae-Ran, Jung Tae-Woo, Kim Roi-Ha and the like. This show was expertly cast down to the most insignificant of roles (think Oh Yong as the mole, who was probably cast for “that look” at the end of his arc) and you clearly see the hand of a capable casting director (nothing here screams “star casting,” with the obvious exception of the leading pair), so it’s easy to pick good acting, even from limited performers like Choi Su-Jong (he basically only has one mode: when the character fits that, he can be good like in this case).
But I’m going to single out Park Sang-Wook (Sergeant Baek). He didn’t really “knock my socks off” or anything, but here’s a young actor who wasted the early parts of his career doing jopok comedies or similar garbage, but is now starting to get a feel for what this acting game really is about. He wasn’t all that special as Gweyu in Kingdom of the Wind, but he really upped his game here. He was solid all around, and you could see he was “feeling” the character from minute one. But really, ensemble casts this good don’t come too often.
Choi Soo Jong (he is amazing, must watch other works now) and Kim Roe Ha, because at first I hated Park Il Kwon, then I loved him. Kim Gab Soo…oh wait, he’s not in this. Kidding! 🙂
While the entire cast is very good, there are two actors whose acting really stood out for me and they are Kim Roi Ha as Sergeant Park and Kim Myung Soo who plays Comrade Young Taek.
I’ve been a long time admirer of both actors and as usual both their performances didn’t disappoint in Comrades. Despite the differences in their characters’ personality and leadership styles, I was struck by the parallel nature of their characters. Both characters are alike in that they are the definition of the tough, hard-nosed career soldier, who is courageous, dependable and fiercely protective of the men who serve them and both actors do an excellent job of conveying this without much dialog or exposition. In another time and place these two characters might have been friends, but due to war, they find themselves wearing different uniforms and fighting on opposite sides of the war. When their paths finally collide, you know you’re in for an emotional game of Sophie’s choice since both these men have inched and wormed their way into your heart and choosing one over the other will be heartbreakingly impossible.
All of them! Seriously, this is an amazingly well-cast drama full of assured pros. I can’t quibble about a single member of the case. Save perhaps for the puzzling casting of an anime princess (Lee Chae Young) as a hard-as-nails marine, but even then my complaint is more about her incongruously doll-like looks than about her acting. Everyone just slips into and inhabits their roles, so it’s hard for me to separate the actors from the characters.
I was fully convinced by Choi Soo Jong as the righteous Sergeant Lee Hyun Joong (and was so taken I couldn’t resist sending him a fangirly tweet, haha!). But I also realise that this is but a rehash of his saeguk general-king persona, complete with commanding glance and majestically flaring nostrils. CSJ expertly delivered resolution and anguish, but I can’t say to what extent he had to stretch himself as an actor, Srgt. Lee being probably one of the least complex characters to play, unremittingly noble and brave, resolute in leaving no man behind, practically a messianic figure.
Lee Tae Ran was amazing as the fascinating Lee Soo Kyung, beloved of Sergeant Lee. From flirty girl to determined young woman walking away from her lover, from resolute military commander to an ideologically-driven woman who is stricken by the dirtiness of war, we follow her as she descends into a hell of the soul. Tortured by her love for a man who is her mortal enemy, brutalised by war, she is in turn heartbreakingly vulnerable and frighteningly implacable.
And I could go down the cast list… Kim Roe Ha as a battle-hardened sergeant fighting inner demons, Lee Seung Hyo who fights his hated commie enemy with verve but also has to fight his own hatred and then rise above a more difficult foe, Kim Myung Soo as the steadfast and humane North Korean commander… they all aced their roles.
But I suppose that if I were compelled to pick out another cast member for special mention, it would be Jung Tae Woo. His character starts the series by deserting his post and it appears that he is set up to be the despicable coward of the piece. But as the show progresses, Jung Tae Woo conveys Private Chun Seong Il and his motivations, heart’s desires, humanity and selective courage so amazingly, he practically winds up as the hero, the only truly sane person in the madness. Except that, with Comrades, it’s not that simple for to the end Sung Il also remained unable to fight for comrade or country and hence by the rules of war was simply not on. In all his complexity and all his moral ambiguity, Jung Tae Woo fleshed him out as a real and sympathetic human being.
It’s truly hard to pick just a few. Everyone shone, even the one-episode-only supporting roles. But let’s talk about the ones that left the deepest mark.
This is my first look at Choi Su-jong and I believe I will always love him as an actor, no matter what other roles I will henceforth watch. I love his Sergeant Lee character so much. It took about ten or eleven episodes, but when he stood on the beach alone and waved to his astonished men on their lifeboat as they set off for freedom, my heart just swelled with love for him. Sergeant Lee is the kind of man who makes you feel completely safe; everything is brighter and more bearable with him around. I believe all his men felt that same way; they could trust him with their lives.
Jung Tae-woo. Again, my first time seeing this actor and wow, what have I been missing all this while? That range, that depth. He could play cowardly, childlike and crazed so convincingly I had chills just watching. Then there’s Kim Myung-soo. I’ve never seen him in so humane a role; his gentleness toward Seongil (despite whatever misgivings he might feel) is truly touching.
I love all the Squad One members, but I have a special affection for Private Yeom Ha-jin, played by Nam Sung-jin. I don’t know, but there was just something so unaffected and earthy about this illiterate soldier who carried his wife’s photo everywhere with him. When he drew the Korean flag because he didn’t know any words to express himself, I cried.
Three most memorable scenes?
This is so difficult, because for me, the entirety of Comrades itself was so memorable. And there are definitely way more than three scenes that I will never be able to forget. But there are a few that stick out a little more than the rest.
The first time I really felt the bond between these brothers in arms was when they were trekking through the Gaema Plateau, starving and freezing. That whole sequence was so difficult to watch, so tragic and horrendous. But it was with an unexpected moment of warmth that the drama made me choke up with tears for the very first time. Park Il-kwon, who until then had seemed rather unlikeable, unexpectedly became the hero. The youngest soldier, Beom-woo, collapses in the snow, unable to go on any further. And without a word, Park picks him up, despite being exhausted himself, and piggybacks him onward. Watching that, my eyes suddenly started stinging, and my throat choked up. I’m a sucker for unexpected moments of humanity, and this was definitely one of them.
Another unforgettable moment was during the interrogations of our band of brothers (heh) by the South Koreans, on the suspicion of them being Communists. Watching them protest their innocence, to no avail, absolutely broke my heart. Watching Il-kwon be called worthless and seeing him believing those words, watching the illiterate Ha-jin draw a Korean flag (and I’m not even remotely patriotic!), and watching Sergeant Lee decide to sacrifice himself for his men, made me feel…well. It’s impossible to describe how I felt. All I can say is that I shed tears for them, and hoped with every breath that they would manage to escape this desperate situation.
My last choice for a memorable scene is the one of Seong-il’s execution. All of the deaths in the last three episodes made me wail like a little girl, but his death especially I felt to be so unfair. He had become such a symbol of peace, and had done so much for the very soldiers who were now executing him, that until the very last second I kept hoping someone would intervene, stop this pointless death of such an innocent soul. So when he was shot, and embraced by a weeping Sergeant Lee, I just went ballistic. I wanted so badly for him to live. But I should have known better – this drama does not pull any punches, does not hold back in showcasing the full extent of the unfairness of war. It’s one of the many reasons I love Comrades. But it really ought to take responsibility for my permanently bruised heart. Even now, I still fall apart every time I hear this drama’s soundtrack. Dammit. Comrades is a disease.
I always see and remember dramas as a whole, so I’m probably the worst person to ask this kind of question. Isolating one scene out of context would mean losing all the emotional and narrative baggage of what came before it (and hence the consequences it establishes), but let’s say Sergeant Lee letting the rest of the squad go on the lifeboat and remaining behind at the last minute; Yongtaek and Seongil’s last meeting, and of course the medal acceptance scene from the last episode.
Oh my God. Tough one. And they’re all death scenes. The bridge scene where Beom Woo is murdered in front of their eyes (NONONONONO), the scene where the soldiers froze to death (horrifying), and the scene where Hyun Joong has to execute Seong Il (heartbreaking). Crying now….
Scene 1: Strange Interlude on the Road to Enemy Headquarters. In one of the stranger plot twists in the Comrades, Private Chun (a South Korean deserter who passes himself off as a North Korean soldier in order to slip through enemy lines) and General Park (who made a bargain with Private Chun for military pardon in exchange for saving his life) find themselves being escorted by a Korean-Chinese People’s Volunteer soldier to the People’s Army headquarters.
As Private Chun and General Park sit behind the truck resigned to their fates, the Korean-Chinese soldier says something that really hits at the heart of the tragedy of the Korean war. He says, “Isn’t it ironic? We’re all Koreans, but you [pointing to Private Chun] fight with the People’s Army, and this comrade here [pointing to General Park] is with the southern defense forces, and I’m with the People’s Volunteer Army.” As the words sink in, the look on their individual faces shows the bitter truth of these words and that despite each of them being accessories to the destruction of their motherland, no one, not the volunteer, the private or the high ranking general can do anything to stop the momentum of this war.
Scene 2: Sergeant Park Carries Private Beomwoo in the Snow (or what I thought watching this scene “You ain’t heavy, you’re my comrade”). What makes this scene work so well is the beauty of the fallen snow, the back story of Private Beomwoo, Private Baek & Sergeant Park, the hunger and tiredness of the marching men and Kim Roi Ha’s incredible non-verbal acting. It has been such a long time since I’ve seen a multitude of meaning behind just a few body gestures. I’ve replayed this scene something like five times just to study how he does it and the scene always manages to catch my breath in its beauty and simplicity.
Scene 3: A Death of a Private. The scene that was the hardest to watch for me is the death of Private Chun Seong-il. After 20 episodes of witnessing his long and incredible journey, I wanted Private Chun to live almost as desperately as he did. It was easy to judge him as a coward for deserting his fellow solders in the first few episodes but after watching his relentless scratching and clawing for survival, you come to sympathize with his predicament and even admire his tenacity in wanting to change a situation that was fated on him by history.
Though my brain knew the possibility of survival might be slim, I had enough hope after investing 20 hours of time in this character to pray that he would make it. So it was something of a heartbreak to discover that after finally make his way back to the South Korean camp and calling on the General Park for the military pardon he was promised, General Park reneges on the promise. He is given the choice of either going back to fighting for South Korean Army or death by firing squad for deserting his military post. Ultimately Private Chun winds up being executed but in a weird twist of fate, he is executed by his former commanding officer; the very same officer who had tried so hard to save him in Episode 1.
Memorable? Only three?!
I don’t know how Thundie is going to attempt to keep this a spoiler-free zone, but it is impossible to talk about the most memorable scenes of this show without talking about the mortality rate. This is the single most searingly unforgettable thing about Comrades – that save for Private Jung Taek Soo who is crippled for life and Sergeant Lee himself, every one of the ten original members of the South Korean squad whom we have come to know and love is killed within the space of the last three episodes. In a bitter irony, the noble leader Srgt. Lee who was willing to give his life for his men was left with not one man standing. And every North Korean soldier we have come to know and respect also dies. It is shattering. I think about every death, each one, and each poignant and heartbreaking circumstance.
And I wonder whether right here the show crossed the line and became manipulative, taking us all the way to hell just to wring every last drop of tears from us. But you know what, I don’t think we can even accuse Comrades of being manipulatively extreme, for it is not positing anything implausible. Yes, in a war like the Korean War, entire squads do get wiped out. That is war’s tragedy. I do wish that the show had tossed us some comfort… come on, a handful, just a couple, even one more soldier to survive and live to soothe our shattered hearts? But, no. This show is not into compromise.
In fact, about halfway through the series had I detected a flaw in the show’s realism, and that was that no significant member of our squad had died, in spite of having run through countless hails of bullets. I forgave it because I recognise that it takes time and effort to establish characters and you don’t want to kill them off too quickly in the show or you’ll have no material left to work with by the end. But it did lend a slightly unreal feel to the story, that this squad survived hell and high water. The show practically acknowledges this in a meta moment which now feels killingly poignant, when our squad is sarcastically dubbed by their jaded platoon leader “the immortals”, immediately following which the show more than makes amends for their up-to-then unrealistic survival rate…
It was the collective death toll that slayed me and cost me a sleepless night. But if you asked me which death I thought about the most, for me it was the medic Private Park Ju Yong’s. I’m not sure why – Sergeant Baek’s death was more pathetic, poor Beom Woo’s death was more horrific, Lee Soo Kyung’s death was more tragic and Chun Sung Il’s was packed with pathos.
But Private Park had always been a favourite of mine. Partly because I think the actor Ryu Sang Wook is cute, but also because I found him an interesting but illusive character. I guess against such a plethora of characters there was only so much screen time left over for Ju Yong, with the result that I found him fascinatingly under-written and wondered what exactly made him tick, this enigmatic young man with the medical kit in one hand and the rifle in the other.
We were shown a little of his mental anguish at killing someone at close quarters, but apart from seeing that his Christian faith was important to him (he was inseparable from his crucifix), we are never really shown exactly how his soul withstood being in battle. When he was killed I gasped in shock. And at first I was horrified at the sadness of his end – saved from near death but then separated and given up for dead by his friends through sheer bad luck, caught on the wrong side of the lines, shot by mistake by a wounded South Korean whom Ju Yong then tended as he was dying, his immense humanity unnoticed by the world, his lonely passing un-mourned and unmarked.
Then, as I grieved and reflected more, I realised that he perhaps had the easiest death, passing as he did with compassion in his heart rather than frozen in fear or poisoned by bitterness. His self-identity was in his acts of mercy and not in which side he was on (“I am a medic,” he says to the soldier who has just shot him, not “I am South Korean too”), and perhaps in a sense he was the one who most triumphed over the war, dying in with dignity even after all the sh*t war had thrown at him.
Don’t get me wrong, though. While we can’t talk about what Comrades is without talking about how it ends, the show is more than the mortality rate. Even without its dramatically tragic ending, it would have been a kick-ass, gripping 20-hour roller-coaster ride worth every cent of admission.
Other memorable moments? Well, there’s the scene I mentioned in my First Impressions Review, when Srgt. Lee and Soo Kyung meet unexpectedly at close range and at the ends of their respective firearms, and I will never forget their respective shock, confusion, love and regret, communicated wordlessly.
In this encounter, surrounded by soldiers from both sides and with stakes high, she unexpectedly tries to take him hostage when it seems the situation has resolved. It’s never explained why she did this, but I believe it’s because she couldn’t bear to let him out of her sight (presumably forever) and instinctively wanted to preserve him. This was their first encounter since she left him to defect north, and subsequent encounters are just as highly-charged, but Soo Kyung gets increasingly resolute (no such sentimental lapse ever again), and their mutual horror becomes as much about what they have become as it was about what they had forsaken.
Another memorable moment for me was when Privates Jung Taek Soo and Kim Beom Woo were sheltered by an elderly North Korean couple, met their home-leave soldier son in a palpable stew of danger and hatred, grudgingly made friends, and saw him off back to war in a flood of tears and fears. That story of the boys reaching each other across hostile lines but having ultimately no power to resist the war would be worthy of a movie on its own, packed with bittersweet.
And finally the entire sequence of events on the bridge spanning episodes 18 and 19 – Beom Woo’s horrible fate, Comrade Won Cheol’s grief-induced insanity, Lieutenant Lee’s grand gesture, the hate-ridden knife killing frenzy, both sides howling with justifiable fury at the other, and Seong Il’s desperately crazy and sense-defying intervention. These nail-biting, hard-hitting, gasp-inducing moments may be the best encapsulation of Comrade’s central message of the horror and inhumanity of internecine war.
Too many memorable scenes to count, but I’ll tell you about three that made me wail.
Sergeants Park and Lee at the POW camp, in the middle of the square, in the pouring rain, the two of them kneeling on the ground, hugging and crying their eyes out, just before Park was taken away, presumably to never be seen again.
Sergeant Lee and Seongil at the makeshift execution site. Seongil pleading for his life. Lee cradling Seongil when it was all over.
The medal ceremony, when the Squad One members appeared next to Sergeant Lee one by one.
I essentially watched the final episode in a blur of tears. And then, when it was over and my eyes were so puffy, I watched it again. And again. Comrades is a drug, a sickness.
And so this epic review ends, although I suspect it will be months and perhaps even years before the six of us can think and talk about Comrades without tears welling abruptly. (And yes, that includes the only guy among us, the one whose moniker gives away his abject fear of his cat.)
To daheefanel, GangstaKitteh, langdon813, nycgrl and Serendipity, my gratitude for watching Comrades with me. Thank you for sharing this journey, and thank you for writing so lovingly about it.