“Fuck Ideology” the embittered hero of Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (스윙키즈) exclaims, pushing back against his casually cruel commanding officer from the comparative safety of the stage on which he decides to cast off his frustration through a natural love of dance. It may be too much of a truism to suggest you can dance your way to freedom while a very literal prisoner of war, but in any case Kang eventually shows us that sooner or later someone will be along to crush even the smallest of dreams and it may not be the people you’d most expect.
The film opens with a propaganda newsreel that eventually skews pro-North in lamenting the poor conditions at the Koje POW camp where a small civil war recently broke out between those who remain fiercely loyal and those who have been seduced by American freedoms and no longer wish to return. Unfavourably comparing Koje with a camp in the North which is run under strict adherence to the Geneva convention so you’d hardly even think there was a war on at all, the film ends by casting shade on the American forces’ casual cruelty and inability to keep their house in order. The old commander having been sacked, newbie General Roberts (Ross Kettle) is keen to reform the camp’s image and so he hatches on the idea of getting Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), who used to be a Broadway tap dancer, to teach the “commies” the American dance of freedom which seems tailor-made for front page photo sensation.
Jackson is reluctant to take the job but is persuaded when Roberts attempts to threaten him over his complicated personal life which has seen him breaking regulations to earn extra bucks in the hope of getting transferred back to Okinawa where he apparently had a woman he wanted to marry and a child he needed to make legitimate. Time and again we’re told that getting sent to the Korean War is something that happens to soldiers who’ve made mistakes, which might explain why the camp appears to be staffed by a collection of thoroughly unpleasant, incompetent foot soldiers while Roberts himself is mostly interested in raising its profile to save his own reputation.
“Communism, Capitalism. If nobody knew what they were, no one will kill or be killed” a young woman points out, quite reasonably before awkwardly wading into an ill-advised debate over who is more oppressed – ethnic minorities or women in a time of war. Sgt. Jackson who hails from the land of the free had to abandon his dream of the stage because of racism and continues to experience persistent micro aggressions from junior soldiers who refuse to follow his orders. The Korean internees are often no better, throwing up their own racial slurs and parading their cultural ignorance by reserving a special layer of scorn just for him in addition to that they feel for the Americans who have, after all, wandered onto their land and decided to have a war on it while making them join in. Communism and Capitalism, another soldier intones, are concepts made by and for the Russians and Americans, they have precious little to do with him so why are he and his loved ones supposed to die over an ideological disagreement?
Hero of the North Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) remains conflicted. He was loyal and truly believed in his cause, but secretly has the heart of a dancer and longs for the freedom of physical movement. He can’t talk to Jackson, or to another of the Swing Kids who is a lonely Chinese soldier who can only speak Mandarin (Kim Min-Ho), but discovers that they do have a shared language in dance and are able to communicate on an elemental level that makes culture an irrelevance. Feisty young woman Yang Pallae (Park Hye-su), who, out of necessity, has learned to speak three additional languages (English, Mandarin, and Japanese), discovers something much the same as she reluctantly begins dancing even though there’s no money it, while lovelorn Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) wants to dance to become famous because he’s become separated from his wife and thinks that then she’d be able to find him again.
As Pallae puts it, when she puts the tap shoes on all the awful things go away. Pointedly introducing the big dance number, Jackson describes the Swing Kids as longing for freedom and liberalism while fighting for their rights, speaking as much for himself thoroughly fed up with the manipulative Roberts who seems set to hang the bunch of them out to dry as he is for the disparate collection of dancers whose young lives have been ruined by the chaos of war. “Fuck ideology” indeed, all they want to do is dance but repressive regimes aren’t good with people having fun expressing themselves and so even this small dream seems to grow ever more distant. What started off as a cheerful musical comedy undergoes a decidedly Brechtian tonal shift in its final moments, neatly underlining the terror and unpredictability of life in war but nevertheless extremely hard to reconcile with the inspirational cheerfulness of all that’s gone before. Still for the vast majority of its running time, Swing Kids is a joyful celebration of the universal language of movement and an ode to the power of escapist fantasy in a cruel and confusing world.
Swing Kids screens for free in Chicago on Sept. 14 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Jared Grimes is expected to appear for a Q&A. It is also available on US blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA.
International trailer (English subtitles)