While it’s an old cliché to declare that war is Hell, Vietnam may just be the literal translation of that truism. While the country has long since resolved its inner conflict to become prosperous and productive, the name still suggests a human morass shrouded in mysticism and misunderstanding. Many Americans died to determine a rather unclear foreign policy, and the permutations of such an unwise decision have yet to reap their wisdom rewards. While Iraq indicates our lack of learning from these Asian atrocity mistakes, a similar dynamic has developed in the other nations involved in the war. One such country is South Korea, and as the recent R-Point illustrates, there are many ghosts still haunting the country’s participation in its ethnic brethren’s business.
Part horror film, part fascinating docudrama recreation, director Su-Chang Kong overcame many practical hardships (the accompanying commentary track on the new DVD presentation from Tartan Video presents these problems in wholly honest detail) to bring this story to life. He pledged authenticity while still rooting his narrative in the spiritual superstitions of the Korean people. The result is a story that follows a special mission into an ambiguous area in Vietnam known as R-Point (as in “Romeo”). The locals believe it to be a sacred region, while many of the outsiders who’ve entered have never been heard from again. Lt. Choi (Woo-Sung Kam) and his rag tag group of short-timers (men with mere days before ending their tour of duty) must locate a missing squadron as part of some hush-hush HQ bureaucracy. Once within the region however, the scarred and scared soldiers soon learn that R-Point is much more than an empty lake bed riddled with temples and ancient ruins. It appears angry, and possessed by a need for vengeance.
What starts out creepy ends up getting stuck several times in the requirements of the genres being explored. On the one hand, we have the military aspect of R-Point, a formulaic facet that mandates heroes and villains, the cowardly and the courageous, and the sort of mannered machismo pecking order that immediately brings to mind past American icons like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. There is lots of lewd discussion about personal prowess and sexually transmitted diseases, and for every GI jaded by experiences in the field there is a frightened, jittery private who merely wants to be back home. Whenever R-Point focuses on this aspect of its story, the movie tends to stop, taking forever to rediscover its footing and finally restart.
Then there are the terror tenets. One of the best things about R-Point is the level of dread Kong develops. From the beginning, where a night out in a brothel turns deadly, this director creates layers of unease, making it clear that in a situation like this one, there are no guarantees. Even the most hard-assed grunt can be cut down by an unsuspecting teen with a machine gun—or an eager ghost seeking revenge. In fact the film gets even better once we step foot in the area of R-Point. At the center of the sequence is a bombed out, mausoleum like mansion that Kong first shows us in a stunning establishing shot. Like the equally sinister skeleton of a hollowed out haunted house, this incredibly creepy façade presents a wealth of occult opportunities for the film, and the filmmaker.
Unfortunately, Kong doesn’t do the location justice. When he’s out among the rice patties and dense bamboo jungle, this filmmaker flies. He understands inherently how to build tension and apprehension with carefully crafted action scenes. But once we get inside this real life leftover from the war (the movie was made in Cambodia), Kong plummets. Keeping his cast in a single area of the aging artifact, we never fully explore the environment inside the manor. While the behind the scenes featurette on the DVD again explains how such a backdrop caused numerous problems during production, it’s a found cinematic element that’s just too precious to waste. But waste it R-Point does. Even the faux fright finale, loaded with paranormal potential, keeps the action in a single, static room.
Part of the problem with R-Point is that it doesn’t determine its focus right up front. Anyone watching the movie post prologue (where a creepy radio transmission from the “missing” platoon sets up the scare dynamic) would think it a standard war story. Even as we push along into the forbidden zone, there is very little to indicate that we are about to go ghost. Once the exotic temples and their written out warnings arrive (no one with “blood on their hands” can ever leave R-Point, literally) we see phase two of Kong’s storytelling strategy. Instead of employing a slasher style to the soon to be seen deaths, R-Point suggests something evil in the ever-present fog, and allows human fear and error to craft the carnage. We get soldiers slaughtering each other by accident, and wandering into areas where they are no longer protected by their fellow fighters. Blood does flow here, and some of the graphic deaths will make a horror fan cheer.
But R-Point gets muddled at about the 80-minute mark, and then goes off the discernible deep end from there. The ending is about as badly botched as any in recent J-Horror memory, as we are introduced to a dark-haired girl with a vacant, vile stare. Lt. Choi has seen the ghostly gal a couple of times previously, but she was never established as a portent of pure evil. Throughout the movie’s running time, we have also tolerated a kind of “ghost cam” ideal that turns the visuals an icy blue. It’s never explained, but it is obviously some manner of supernatural POV. So while the sudden shift over into the spook zone is not a complete surprise, it feels like a cold, calculated cop out. We’ve had lots of unearthly occurrences in the film, including a classic scene where a lost soldier follows a platoon that then simply merges INTO the landscape. And when handled properly, Kong and R-Point stays fresh and engaging. But once our angry apparition arrives, the film loses its deft touch.
Had R-Point kept its terror cemented in the morally ambiguously plane of battle, and avoided the derivative demon gal ideal, it would have been a unique example of military macabre. But Kong was obviously hemmed in by the trappings of the Asian aspects of the horror genre, and ended up with a movie made up of two competing conceits. The fact that they don’t successfully come together may be his fault, as the filmmaker, but there was really no need for such a mash-up. War is an evil enough enterprise without adding pissed off phantoms to the mix, especially when their vendetta is so ambiguous and poorly defined. R-Point does have its virtues, but its last minute move into poltergeist parameters doesn’t work. It’s antithetical to everything that came before—sort of like war itself.