‘The Korean peninsula is the only divided country on Earth. After the Korean War, the South Korean coastline was enclosed in barbed wire to block any attack. After the war, roughly 20 spies were captured or killed. To this day, whoever crosses the coastline after sunset may be treated as a spy and executed.’ This is the matter-of-fact exposition that, in tandem with a patriotically-scored military training montage, opens Kim Ki-duk’s typically uncompromising The Coast Guard, a further commentary on the inherently universal nature of violence by a director who devoted much of the 2000s to exploring that particular theme. In an interview for the DVD release of The Coast Guard, Kim insisted that it had been years since spies from North Korea had made any attempt to infiltrate South Korea. However, the manner in which the soldiers in his film patrol the coastline with some very heavy artillery at their disposal implies that the South Korean government still believes that its watery borders represent the ideal opportunity for enemy infiltration and, as such, must be closely monitored by those young men who have been drafted into national service. The emphasis on the conflict between North and South Korea makes The Coast Guard a companion piece to Kim’s earlier Address Unknown (2002), in which three small town teenagers living near an American military base struggled to escape a stifling environment with constant reminders of the Korean War. However, the relatively remote setting of The Coast Guard also makes it comparable to The Isle (2002) and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) in terms of locating contemporary anxieties and psychological unravelling against a timeless landscape that will outlast whatever pain Kim’s characters inflict on one another, or on themselves.
Private Kang Han-chul (Jang Dong-Kun) is a member of a South Korean military unit that is based at a coastline area which has reportedly been penetrated by North Korean spies on three occasions since the war. The commanding officer of the unit assures his men that, if one of them kills a spy, that soldier will not only be ‘regarded with honour’, but will also be rewarded with special discharge from military service. Although most members of the unit enjoy engaging in alpha-male activities as means of passing the time, they are not particularly keen on using their weapons for anything other than target practise and simply want to complete their military service with a minimum of fuss and return to civilian life. Their presence is barely tolerated by the locals, who generally regard them as ‘military assholes who can never get laid’ and doubt that their training is sufficient to protect South Korea from spies. Kang, however, is determined to prove otherwise and opens fire one night when he believes that he has spotted a spy on the beach. Unfortunately, he has actually fired at a Young-kil and Mi-Young, a young couple who have wandered into the ‘forbidden zone’ to make love; Young-kil is shredded by Kang’s bullets, while Mi-young takes cover and survives but is left traumatised by the horrific experience. Kang is granted leave, but exhibits violent behaviour towards other members of his unit after returning, and is discharged on the grounds that he is mentally unfit for duty; Mi-young also breaks down and engages in sexual relations with various soldiers, confusing them for her dead lover. Both go so far off the deep end that it is impossible for them to return to a state of sanity, with members of Kang’s unit and friends of Mi-young struggling to come to terms with their respective descents into madness.
The Coast Guard is largely concerned with comparing civilian and military life in contemporary South Korean society, thereby illustrating the tensions that exist in certain areas (both coastal and urban) due to unwanted military presence. The division between these worlds (military and civilian) is emphasised in a scene in which Kang is saluted by his fellow soldiers and awarded seven days of leave for his efforts to protect the coastline, while members of the local community scream for his blood from the other side of a wire fence. Once he leaves the protection of his unit, however, Kang finds himself to be on the receiving end of some revenge-fueled violence, showing that brutality is not limited to those in uniform. Whilst being driven out of the base, Kang is hit in the head by a rock thrown by one of the locals, then slapped and verbally scolded by a woman on the coach ride back home for breaking her child’s toy gun, eventually receiving a belated beating from Young-kil’s friends once he returns to the coastline to resume his military service. These occurrences of violence reinforce the often-stated observation that Kim considers such behaviour to be evident in all aspects of contemporary South Korean society, with anyone being capable of such outbursts regardless of whether their daily environment is a bustling urban metropolis or a comparatively tranquil beach community. Admittedly, it is the military presence in this particular coastal region that is bringing the propensity for such rage to the surface, but the locals actually prove to be more capable of violence than the solders as they band together just as tightly but act based on impulse, without any need to adhere to orders, protocol or rank.
The effect of this societal situation on the individual is examined through the character of Kang, who is established as the loose cannon of his unit even before the unfortunate incident at the beach. Aside from instigating arguments with the locals, Kang also infuriates his fellow soldiers and his platoon leader with his overly-determined behaviour which extends to applying unnecessary face paint to carry out a routine detail, reporting a stray fishing net as a ‘suspicious object’, and preferring practising ambushing techniques to playing soccer. Kang has a serious case of ‘trigger finger’, as seen when he does not simply take out the local youth whom he believes to be a spy with a single shot, but instead unloads an entire round of ammunition before finishing off the job with a hand grenade. This is the kind of arguably gratuitous sequence that critics of Kim cite as an example of cruelty in his work – the audience is not spared any of the gruesome details with Kim lingering on a shot of the shaken Mi-young holding on to her boyfriend’s severed arm – but it also serves to illustrate the unpleasant reality of Kang’s spy-shooting fantasy and provides justification for the level of communal unrest that follows. Aside from a scene in which the self-loathing Mi-young hacks off her hair on a wooden block used for gutting fish and her deluded trysts with soldiers, The Coast Guard does not feature as much self-harm as The Isle but is no less powerful for it. Kim charts the psychological deterioration of Kang and Mi-young in a methodical manner with both characters gradually losing touch with reality as they fail to accept the events that they have recently experienced (the shooting of a civilian, the resulting military discharge, the untimely death of a lover) while the lack of a redemptive coda ensures that The Coast Guard remains one of the director’s most troubling critiques to date.