There seems to be a “Kool Aid” formula in most documentaries: original historical footage (water), historical re-enactments (Sugar) and interviews with people such as survivors (Kool-Aid powder). With their documentary “Korea – the Unfinished War”, Bruce McKenna has abandoned the standard Kool-Aid formula and produced a nice fruit punch. Masterfully blending many different ingredients into one delicious mix. It’s easy to digest and very good for you.
In many documentaries I’ve watched (particularly ones on the history channel), the historical footage does not mesh well with the rest of the film, and the rest of the film consists of unconvincing re-enactments and terrible acting. Korea – The Unfinished War challenges these stereotypes. It is seamless through and through.
After the Second World War the Japanese are kicked out of Korea and the peninsula is divided at the thirty-eighth parallel. The Communists under Kim Il Sung take the North and the Americans take the south. Throughout the series survivors of the war recall America’s bizarre and oft-oppressive presence in Korea, from the installation of an American educated man with strong ties to the American right as president to the violent suppression of alleged communists. Tensions between the Soviet Union and America heat up and the Korean peninsula is used as a stage in their escalating dispute. The war has dire consequences for all involved whether it is President Truman, the soldiers, or the Korean civilians. Their lives were drastically altered by the events surrounding the war and this documentary gave equal voice to the many groups of people who were affected by this war. The most unique voice was that of the North Korean veterans. Much of this documentary was filmed on location in Korea, both North and South. On our American dominated television images of North Korea are scant at best and fear mongering at worst. In Korea – the Unfinished War, the footage of North Korea is objective and intriguing. It’s a levelheaded glimpse inside of a land that has been demonised by certain American hotheads in the last two years.
The historical footage was woven in with such ingenuity – so much so that it is difficult to discern where the historical footage ends and the acting begins. The re-enactment scenes are convincing and seamless in their production. All of the lines spoken by the actors are exact quotes, taken from journals, and speeches of those in the war. The actors were convincing and tasteful in their performances. And perform they did. They did not just sit in front of a screen and read a script, they actually re-enacted scenes from the war. For example, the actor who played journalist Marguerite Higgens did many of her scenes in a moving jeep through the Korean countryside; she almost had to yell her lines over the loud roar of the engine. The scenes were built around the reality of the war – not the other way around. The director took every detail into account whist developing this masterpiece.
An added benefit to this Historical footage of the Korean War has not had the intense exposure that images from the Second World War has had, so even the historical footage seemed fresh and new to me. This documentary is a Canadian masterpiece that has set a new standard for future projects but most importantly it honours the many victims and survivors of a devastating war.
Korea: The Unfinished War, airs on Sunday, November 9, 2003 at 8:02 PM.