Ghosts Of War (2004)
Director: Kong Su-chang
review by Max Cairnduff
The problem with using war as a backdrop for horror is that the fear and insanity of war itself is probably already worse than whatever monster
the characters are about to face. The First World War movie
Deathwatch (2002) ran into this issue, among others.
There, a squad of British soldiers go over the top into the face of German machine-gun fire. After that the torments awaiting them in a malevolently
haunted trench, while atmospheric, are a bit anti-climactic. Speaking personally I'd rather be in that trench than in no-man's land.
Ghosts Of War (aka: R-Point) has a lot of
similarities with Deathwatch. The year is 1972, the place is Vietnam and, as the film begins, a radio transmission has been picked up
which seems to come from a group of soldiers who went missing on a strategically important island. The message says that they are all dying,
but one man returned from their mission blind and hideously burnt, and he swears from his hospital bed that he saw the others all killed.
Lieutenant Choi (the quietly effective Kam Woo-seong) has just lost a man to an ambush in a Vietnamese brothel. He has a history of getting
the job done and losing men while doing it. Perhaps as punishment he's picked to head up a search and rescue mission comprising of 'volunteers'
each of whom is sold the job on a promise of a quick trip home afterwards.
The men are the usual characters from a hundred war movies and few of them stick out particularly (not the actors' fault - this isn't a
character-driven film). Sergeant Jin (Son Byung-ho) is easy to remember being the stock figure of the psychotic who may be as dangerous to his
comrades as he is to the enemy and Sergeant Mah (Park Won-sang) for the rather better reason that he's the only particularly interesting one -
he spends much of the film pretending to be a combat veteran without much convincing anyone.
When they get to 'R-Point', aside from one small firefight there doesn't appear to be anyone there. It's no spoiler though to say that they're
not alone, and that the memorial stone they pass on the way in, warning that nobody with blood on their hands will return, proves all too prophetic.
What works best in Ghosts Of War is the cinematography. There are some wonderful shots here of an abandoned French plantation which they
set up camp in framed against the evening sky. A scene where a soldier inadvertently follows what the audience soon realise is the ghosts of the
previous squad rather than his own group is quietly eerie. As fear, confusion and what may be supernatural influence leads to men dying the camera
lends R-Point itself a sense of isolation and watchfulness.
Otherwise, the main problem Ghosts Of War faces is that for any veteran horror fan there is a sense of familiarity to it all. People go
into a bad place and realise that something there intends that none of them will ever leave. Will any of them survive? If you've seen many films
of that sort this one will contain few surprises, but there are some moments of genuine originality. The revelation that follows the first death
impressed and surprised me, but from there the film spent more and more time in territory I'd seen before. Add to that the usual episodes of
plot-driven stupidity and we're left with a film that, ultimately, is less horrific than Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (a film which this
one owes a clear debt to, in places, but which didn't need monsters for its scares).
If you like horror cinema that's heavy on atmosphere and you're comfortable that not everything is explained (at least one character who dies,
as best I could tell, had never had any blood on his hands - I suppose there's no guarantee that ghosts are fair though), then this is well worth
watching. If you prefer something with a bit more action or more developed characters then this may be worth giving a pass.
Ghosts Of War comes with a solid array of DVD extras including a commentary and various featurettes about the making of the film, its
special effects and the recreation of the period.