Or, in English, The Red Scarf.
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that war films (and by that I mean those films which stay true to the genre and aren’t crossovers or about genre-bending) fall into three main categories. The first is the propaganda film, like the Robert Taylor starrer Bataan: made, typically, during a war (Bataan was made in 1943), and aimed, mainly, at showing audiences how brave and self-sacrificing and patriotic their men in uniform are, thus (hopefully) spurring others on to enlist. There are more subtle propaganda films, too, the type that don’t outright yell the message out, but which show how glorious a death it can be to die for your country.
Then, there are the ‘grim reality’ films (and these feature some of the very best war films I’ve ever seen): films that strip war of the valour, the patriotic fervour, and all the other jingoistic claptrap used by political and military leaders to whip up support for whichever war they want their countrymen (and women) to die for. Films, like Paths of Glory or Battleground, which show the dirt, the pain, the agony of war. Not just for those who go into battle, but also for those who have to stay behind, the civilians.
Then there are the adventure films, the suspense-ridden, high-adrenaline films like Where Eagles Dare or The Enemy Below, which are rather more escapist—true, they don’t completely disguise the nature of war, but they make violence part of the adventure, instead of something that can wreck human life.
The South Korean film Balgan Mahura (The Red Scarf) falls pretty much in the ‘propaganda’ category, though it does have some surprises that set it a little apart from the more trite representations of that category.
This one’s a simple enough tale, set during the Korean War (1950-53). The Gwangneung Fighter Wing welcomes a bunch of new young fighter pilots, who are given a pep talk along with a red scarf. This, says the Wing Commander, is going to be their badge of honour, their identity. He hands the new pilots over to Major Na (Shin Young-Gyun), who will train them for the next three days.
Major Na, when he sees the young pilots wearing their red scarves the next time around, tells them to take off the scarves. You have to prove yourselves worthy, he says. Fly a sortie, show you deserve the scarf, and then you can wear it.
So we see the young pilots going through their training, taking off and flying into the blue sky. Flying in formation, understanding their new aircraft and their new boss. Major Na may seem at first glance to be a hard taskmaster (and he is), but he’s also a fair man, and—as the men realize soon enough—inclined to be one of the boys. As soon as they’ve finished their training, he decides to celebrate by taking them all off to a local bar, the Bar Lutetia.
Here, there’s an odd encounter with one of the bar girls (Choi Eun-Hee). She’s sitting with a patron, looking fit to burst into tears any moment, and Major Na, noticing her, looks worried. He asks the madam at the bar why this woman is here, and is told that there is nothing else she can do. She has no option; she has to earn money.
The woman herself, whose name is Ji Seon, stumbles away, distressed. Major Na tells her, in his gruff way, to keep away from Bar Lutetia. This place isn’t for her.
A couple of days later, the pilots go out on another sortie. This time, one of them, Lt Bae (Choi Moo-Ryong; if you’re at all clued into modern Korean drama and cinema, you might be interested to know that he was the father of current actor Choi Min Soo), goes a step beyond orders. While Major Na orders everybody back to base, Bae veers off a little to shoot down an enemy truck. He manages it, but in the process, his plane is hit and the wheels refuse to come down when he tries landing.
Much trouble and edge-of-the-seat panic later, Bae has to resort to a belly landing (Na has ordered him to bail out, but Bae wants to do whatever he can to save the plane). When Bae is finally safe and sound on ground, Na ticks him off, telling him that he should ideally be confined to quarters for pulling a trick like this. He follows it up by patting Bae on the shoulder and taking him to Bar Lutetia. They both need some liquor to get over the trauma of the day.
There, to Major Na’s anger and frustration (and this time he does little to hide either of those emotions), is Ji Seon again. And not just teary, but drunk, too. Major Na goes a bit mad and raves at her, but Ji Seon is too far gone in her drunkenness for it to register, it seems.
Later, Major Na tells Bae Ji Seon’s story.
In flashback, we see Na and another pilot, Doh (the dashing Namgung Won, who looks eerily like a young Gregory Peck), going in a jeep down a mountain road. They pass a lone woman walking half-bent under a heavy load, and when they stop to ask after her, we see that it’s Ji Seon. She tells them she’s going in the opposite direction, but Doh tells her that he and Na are anyway not going anywhere in particular: they’re on a joyride, to enjoy the falling snow.
So they give her a ride, and since she doesn’t know anybody in town, they take her to the only other woman they know: the madam at Bar Lutetia. She is gracious enough to shelter Ji Seon until the young woman has found a place of her own.
When Ji Seon does get a home, Doh and Na help her so settle in, lugging in pots and pans and boxes and blankets… by the time Na has taken himself off and Ji Seon has invited Doh to have dinner, Doh is well and truly in love with Ji Seon.
Things happen swiftly; Doh tells Na that he’s in love with Ji Seon and wants to marry her. Na admits to his friend that he was attracted to Ji Seon too, but is happy to make way for Doh—after all, Ji Seon loves Doh back. So Doh and Ji Seon are married, and are deliriously happy for a while. He goes off to her every other day, between sorties, and she’s embroidering a red scarf for him.
And then, one day, in a sortie, Doh’s plane is hit. He bails out, his parachute comes down in a tree, and even as he’s hanging there, struggling to get down, the enemy troops arrive and shoot him dead.
Which is why Ji Seon is in this condition now. Not just the fact that she has to resort to working at the Bar Lutetia to keep body and soul together; more than that, the desolation and sorrow of a woman who has lost the man she loves.
What will happen to Ji Seon? And to the men of the Fighter Unit? To Major Na, who worries so about the distressed widow of his old friend? To Lt Bae, who finds himself increasingly drawn to this lonely and sad woman? To the other men, all of them putting their lives on the line every time they go out on a sortie?
Balgan Mahura is considered one of the first big South Korean films to become popular outside the country—the start, in Taiwan, of what was to become the Korean Wave. Interestingly, the red scarf (which, in the film, is not just a badge, but becomes a visual aid to help rescue downed pilots—something that happened in the Airforce as well) became a fashion in Taiwan. The film itself went on to win several awards, including Best Director for Shin Sang-Ok at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival of 1964.
What I liked about this film:
The planes, the manouevres, the landscapes and airscapes. Balgan Mahura was made with the very active support and participation of the South Korean Airforce, and it shows—there’s very little here (except the closeup shots of the ‘pilots’ in their cockpits) that isn’t obviously real. If for nothing else, the beauty and skill of the flying is reason enough to watch this film.
What I didn’t like:
The propaganda, even though I was prepared for it, and even though it’s not as blatant as in some other films I’ve seen.
Balgan Mahura does bring into the picture other aspects of war—a pilot, for instance, returning from a sortie over what had once been his home town, and remembering his childhood there; wondering, too, if in his day’s mission, he has ended up killing some of his own relatives. Or a soldier calling this a ‘dirty war’. Or the obvious implications of men dying: the wives and sweethearts and mothers and families they leave behind.
But, all said and done, this is a fairly predictable film. You can pretty much tell what’s going to happen (a brave soldier is one who dies?), and—since it’s set during the war—the chances of dying are very high indeed.
Balgan Mahura was remade in 2012 as R2B (Return to Base), aka Soar into the Sun, starring Rain, Shin Se Kyung, Kim Sung Soo, Lee Song Jeok, Oh Dal Su and Jung Sook Won, among others. And, as is usual with me, as soon as I’d finished watching the 1964 film, I went on to watch Soar into the Sun.
And this one turned out to be a remake pretty much only in name. True, it is about fighter pilots (and the Airforce played an active part in the making of this film too), and there is a conflict (a fictitious one, involving—supposedly—an attempted coup) with North Korea, and there is a romance, but the overall story is very different. R2B is about a daredevil fighter pilot who, for disobeying orders and endangering civilian lives, plus risking a fighter jet during an airshow, gets transferred to another fighting unit. It’s about the friction between him and a senior officer, about the romance that develops between him and a pretty sergeant who services the planes. It is also about another officer, who has finally plucked up the courage to propose to a colleague and is getting ready to be married when he ends up going into combat.
This story, when compared to that of Balgan Mahura, is far more complicated. While that (along with, of course, the more sleek SFX) makes for a film that’s more geared to the ten-second attention span of the average modern moviegoer, it didn’t impress me as a story. What R2B lacks is the simplicity and the focus of The Red Scarf; there are too many things happening here, too many side plots, too many elements—the comic sequences between two dumb mechanics, for instance, or the interactions between South Korean Airforce and their US counterparts (the latter played by some singularly bad actors). What is the central message? That cheek is acceptable when combined with courage? That true courage is eventually recognized (and supported, when push comes to shove, by those least likely to have given that support)? That bravery is its own reward?
It’s a sleek film, yes. The women, unlike the bar girls of Balgan Mahura, are part of the action, one as a fighter pilot and the other as a mechanic. The action is good, the actors familiar (and, in some cases, much-loved) ones for me. But, in the final analysis, I liked the simple but effective story of Balgan Mahura more than the jazz of R2B.