Return to Base is purportedly a loose adaption of SHIN Sang-Ok’s The Red Muffler (빨간 마후라: 1964), which was released at the height of tensions between South and North Korea. Yet, the two films have very little in common, with Return to Base relying on the star power of superstar singer and actor, Rain, to draw in viewers and in the process neglecting the intricacies of the relationships between characters caught up in the Korean War which drives the narrative of The Red Muffler.
The plot of Return to Base,such as it is, concerns the exploits of Tae-Hoon (Rain), a member of the elite Black Eagles combat squad, whose arrogance leads him being dismissed from the squad during an aerobatic team display in which he flouts the rules in order to win the competition. Dismissed and disgraced, Tae-Hoon is summarily transferred to the 21 combat flight unit, where he meets the beautiful engineer Se-Young (Shin Se-Kyung) with whom he falls in love – despite her reluctance to have a relationship with him. Tae-Hoon also comes in conflict with Cheol-Hee ( Yu Jan-Sang), whose rigid following and adherence to the rules is at odds with Tae-Hoon’s inability to accept them. Then one day, a unidentified fighter plane crosses the DMZ (the border between North and South Korea), and it is up to our titular hero, Tae-Hoon, to save the day.
While the aerial acrobatic sequences are visually stunning, as are the combat scenes towards the film’s conclusion, the first half of the film drags by caught up in the fine nuances of daily life in a combat squadron. It is only in the second half, that the film comes to life and we are given a glimpse of the film that Return to Base, could have been with tighter editing and more integration between characters’ relationships and the conflict between a rogue North Korean element and the South. Herein lies a big part of the problem, while the North/South conflict continues, it is no longer a military conflict and indeed attempts continue to be made to reunite North and South. Indeed, the most explicit critique in the film is not about North Korea or against communist ideology but against the continuing presence of the US in South Korea – at one point a South Korean general tells the US military that they can deal with the problem on their own, i.e. the US is no longer either needed or wanted and is seen as an impediment in the process of reconciliation between North and South.
For those members of the audience, who are fans of Rain, myself included. There was nice moment, albeit totally gratuitous, in which half naked, and heavily oiled, Tae-Hoon and Cheol-Hee fight each other.
This aside, the performances were strong, but the actors were let down by a poor script and lack of narrative coherence. However each to their own, and a large part of the audience at the screening last night seemed to thoroughly enjoy the film, to the extent that a smattering of applause broke out at the film’s conclusion.