White Badge (1992)

 

 

Director:     Ji-yeong Jeong.

Starring:     Sung-kee Ahn (Kiju Han), Kyeong-yeong Lee (Chinsu Pyon), Hye-jin Shim (Yongok Kim).

South Korean film about the experiences of South Korean soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War

In Korean with English subtitles.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

November 7, 1979. Kiju Han is asleep at his desk. He awakens. He smokes a cigarette. The phone rings but no one responds to his hellos. He goes outside. On the porch there is a newspaper with the headline "General Chung of investigations reports on assassination of President Park."

On the television the newscaster says: "Former CIA director Kim Chaegyu fired one shot at President Park and another shot at chief of Presidential security service. . ."  When Kiju enters the news bureau of Korea News the guys are talking about the news. The fellows say: "Even that strongman Park had to fall. And slain by his own man. No power lasts longer than ten years." The boss yells at them to get busy and go get some stories. Someone says thereís too much confusion because of the martial law to get any story straight. But the boss isnít buying that.

The boss asks Kiju about his manuscript. Kiju replies that he couldnít write it, so he suggests trying something else. The boss tells him that now is a good time to tell the truth about Vietnam. The boss gets a phone call. A Professor Kim is mad about them censoring his story, but the boss tells Kiju that they did it for his own good. Itís dangerous to criticize the military.

Kiju takes a walk in the park with his son. While walking he thinks about the novel he is writing set in the Vietnam War years. He remembers it as a war of "confusion and despair." He has doubts of being able to capture his nightmare objectively.

His boy tells him that mother and his stepfather said they are going to the United States. His son tells him he would be happier if dad could come along to the States. Dad smiles. His son has to rush off because someone has come to pick him up.  Kiju concludes that he wonít write about that damn war.

At home Kiju gets a call from a man who calls him Sgt. Han. The man says his name is Pyon Chinsu and he knew him from the Vietnam War. He heard that Kiju was going to write a story about Vietnam. Kiju wants to keep talking but the man soon says goodbye and hangs up.

Flashback.. Vietnam. In the hot sun the South Koreans dig trenches and tote sand bags. One fellow asks why the hell did they come to Vietnam for anyway? Kiju narrates that the war was very boring. They dug trenches for two months. The guys get mail from home and they go wild. They sit around reading their letters.

The unitís officer Cfc Kim has a sister Yongok Kim who is a sophomore majoring in dance at Hansong Womenís College. She was chosen from a picture by the men of the Third Platoon to be their pen pal if she was willing. The officer says she is willing to be a pen pal with one of the soldiers. The men line up hoping to be the one to be chosen.

The officer kicks a guy who already has a wife and tells him he said no cheating. He tells anyone who has a wife or a girlfriend to get out of line. Three more go sit down. He then asks the men to show him their underwear. Those with goofy underwear are eliminated from the contest. That leaves three men. Now the officer wants to see their penises. That eliminates the one with a short penis. Now there are only two left.

Pyon Chinsu says he will let the corporal have the honor, but the officer tells him not so fast. He asks him how he would support his sister if he lost an arm and does he think he can live long enough to make it back home?  Kim likes Pyon's answers, so he chooses him to be the pen pal to his sister. 

Back to the Present. The boss tells Kiju that his writing is nothing but a cheap war novel. He tells Kiju that heís got to make it more interesting. He suggests bringing in the controversy over the mercenary role of the Korean troops in Vietnam into his novel. They are interrupted by a phone call for Kiju. Itís Pyon again. He says heís waiting downstairs for him.

Kiju doesnít see Pyon anywhere around, so he goes home. Someone follows Kiju back home. At his supper he sees a man looking in the window. When he gets up the man flees. He goes outside to look but the man is gone.

The fellow following Kiju is met by some kids who call him Uncle Vietnam. He looks at a movie billboard for the Vietnam movie "The Deer Hunter" with Rober De Niro. The fellow goes home. A beautiful woman, the former Yongok Kim, is sitting at home.  She tells Pyon to please tell her when he is going out. Now, however, she has to leave to go to work. Pyon tells her he went to visit Sgt. Han. He lies and tells her that the sergeant told him he had changed and that he saw the sarge'ss very beautiful wife, but sheís not as beautiful as his wife.

His wife tells him she will not be back tonight. She leaves. Pyon acts like he is watching a child although there is none. His wife left him some money on the table. He takes out a pistol and puts it to his head. He thinks back to Vietnam.

Pyon calls his sergeant again. He asks if he received the package? But Kiju doesnít know what he is talking about and Pyon quickly says goodbye and hangs up again. Kiju is really puzzled by the manís strange behavior.

The door bell rings. Kiju receives a parcel and signs for it. He takes out a pistol from the package and examines it. It is a loaded weapon, as he finds out, when all the bullets fall to the floor.

Flashback. A misfire gets everyoneís hopes up for a little action. Kim speaks with Pyon. He asks him how many letters did he write to his sister? Two. And he didnít really write. He sent her some of his drawings. The officer kids him about having to find a new brother-in-law. He tells Pyon to get some help with the letters from Sgts. Han and Chou.

The fellow on guard duty with Pyon, Corporal Cho, thinks he sees something. Pyon doesnít see anything. Then the fellow calls out "Vietcong!" and opens fire. Everyone else starts firing too. Red Flares are sent up into the sky to throw some light on the battlefield.

In the morning when they check out the damage, they find only a lot of dead water buffalo. And soon the local villagers are protesting with signs saying: "Pay for the bulls!" The soldiers debate as to whether or not they have to or should pay for the buffalos. The regimental commander is talking to the village elders in the commanding officerís office at headquarters.

An American soldier tells the local kids not to come here, not even to go through their garbage.

Back to the present. The guys at the dinner get-together tell Kiju to snap out of it, donít be a jerk, at least not when heís with old classmates. Kiju thinks to himself that his classmates havenít changed a bit sine he returned from Vietnam ten years ago. They are just interested hearing about  the sex, tales of heroism and the money made in Vietnam.

The guys are really teasing Kiju and his boss tells them to donít tease him so much. He says that Kiju was running for his life in the jungles of Vietnam when the rich manís father was making a killing in business off the war. The wealthy guy gets angry and throws some money to the 'poor" Kiju. Kiju tells him: "Fuck you!" and the guy tries to get at him, but he is held back by others. Kiju just keeps downing drink after drink.

At night Kiju wakes up to find a woman in his bed. She tells him that he really ignored her and hurt her pride. The woman also says that nobody should get that drunk. He gives her some money, even though she says she was already paid.  Kiju starts to leave. She grabs his hand and says heís no fun for a war veteran. She gives him her phone number and asks if she can have another chance with him.

Going home Kiju sees the newspaper headline for December 13, 1979. Chief Martial Law Administrator arrested as accomplice in Park assassination. He lifts it up and finds Pyon under it huddled in a ball. He makes some food for Pyon. Pyon says he read the installment about him and was wondering who will Kiju be writing about this week?  About Corporal Cho Taesam and Cfc. Kim Mungi.

Kiju takes out the pistol and asks Pyon why he sent it to him? Pyon just laughs. There are several cracks of lightning and thunder and Pyon tries to take cover. When itís over he picks up a picture of some of the guys in Vietnam and asks about Toffeeman Yun, Trumpet Cho and Sgt. Chon. Theyíre dead says Kiju. They died in Vietnam. Pyon says now he remembers. He did , however, see Corporal Cho.

Kiju gives Pyon back his pistol and tells him he should tell the police about it. Pyon says he will. While Kiju has some more drinks, Pyon just leaves without saying anything. Kiju yells for him, but Pyon wonít answer. Looking downstairs, Kiju sees the fellow running away. And he left his pistol behind.

Flashback. The South Koreans were sent on search and destroy missions. Six months after they arrived in Vietnam, they were given a search mission in a village near Hon Ba Mountain. Their job was to eliminate the Vietcong sympathizers and to pacify the area. They gather the villagers in the middle of the village. An underground tunnel is discovered by one of the Koreans. Cfc Kim tells  Pfc. Yun and Sgt. Han to search the tunnel.

Some of the soldiers are firing way too indiscriminately. Another entrance is found to a tunnel. Sgt. Han throws a grenade into the tunnel. Then he goes in to have a look. He is taken aback when his flashlight shines on a very wounded man with a grenade in his hand. The sergeant shoots the man with a burst of automatic rifle fire. Kiju gets out of there as fast as he can. He looks very shaken up. Some of the guys ask him if he feels alright, but he doesnít answer.

Then some other soldiers bring in two male and one female Vietcong. They found a pistol on the girl and Pyon puts it in his vest. The guy working with Kiju says he couldnít bring the guy out that he killed because he was just so much pulp. But he did bring him one of the enemyís ears. The sergeant just pushes it away and goes down on the ground as if he were going to throw up.

The other guys start torturing the prisoners. One of the guys is particularly nasty to the female Vietcong. He pushes her around and kicks her. He puts a knife to the womanís throat and she pulls the pin out of a grenade. The explosion kills them both. The Koreans start smashing the village males with their rifle butts. And they start indiscriminately firing again.

Two helicopters arrive with some military bigwigs and a cameraman. The cameraman puts some of the soldiers to work acting. The men donít act very well and the cameraman complains about it. One of the soldiers tells him to get professional actors, because they didnít come to Vietnam to make films for the fellow.

Back to the present. Someone pounds on the door. Kiju lets his boss in who complains that Kiju didnít even answer his phone. The boss picks up the pages of the next installment off the floor. He is pleased. Kijuís work has become the talk of the town. The publishing section has decided to print it as a book. Kiju gets upset and tells his boss that he wonít write anymore. He is sick of thinking about Vietnam. The boss says heís got to keep writing. Money and fame await him. The boss even gives him a special bonus for his good work.

Kiju goes back to the woman at the classmate party and tries to have sex with her.

Flashback. Some of the guys go to the bars and the prostitutes in the city. Sgt. Han is one of them. He is about ready to get busy with a prostitute when he starts reading a letter. It turns out to be a Dear John letter. His girlfriend says she has fallen in love with someone else. The prostitute is ready for sex with him, but now Kiju just puts on his helmet, grabs his gear and rifle and leaves.

In the bar Corporal Chon gets into a dispute with three American soldiers. They start fighting and the bouncer has to intervene. Chon shouts at the Americans that the Koreans are here only because the Americans asked them to come to Vietnam. The Americans get in a jeep and ride away, but not before Chon fires his weapon and the bullets hit near the jeep.

Back to the present. The prostitute from the party tells Kiju that he must be impotent. She says what a waste, but adds that itís good that now she knows his lack of performance the first time had nothing to do with her. Kiju just wishes he had never started the book on Vietnam. And he decides must get rid of that pistol. At home he looks for Pyonís address.

Pyonís wife works as a stripper and a prostitute at a bar. One of her Johns says he wants to take her back to the States with him.

In the morning Pyonís wife walks with him along the railroad tracks. She says they are looking for their memories. But as she is talking to him he starts to hear the helicopter sounds from Vietnam in his head. He apologizes to his wife and says he has to go see Corporal Cho. He runs along the tracks.

Flashback. Kiju comments that the soldiers no longer felt anything. They were exhausted by continual operations and missions. One month before they returned they went on a week-long mission to Hon Ba Valley. This would be their last mission in Vietnam.

On the last day of their mission in the Swamp of Death, Toffeeman picks up a bobby-trapped helmet. It explodes and kills him. Then the men come under heavy fire. Cfc. Kim goes out to find the enemy. He sees some movement in the reeds and opens up on what he suspects is the enemy. But it turns out he only killed a bunch of civilians. Kim searches for their weapons, but they have none. They are just farmers. Kim goes crazy and starts killing the survivors. He wants the others to help him, but they wonít do it. He threatens to kill one of the men, so he starts killing the survivors. Then he threatens another man and he has to kill the rest. Then they cut off three ears. When they come back to the group tKim brags that they killed three Vietcong in hand to hand fighting.

At night the two men start talking about what happened, but are stopped by Cfc Kim. He warns them that he will cut off their ears. When one of the two guys start walking Cfc Kim knifes him from behind killing him. In the morning the men find both Corporal Cho and Cfc Kim dead. From that day Pyon started to exhibit strange behavior.

Back to the present.  February 17, 1980. The radio reports that a government spokesman said illegal demonstrations and assemblies of students demanding the abolition of martial law will be strictly regulated.

Kiju finds Pyonís wife at work. She is the one that the Third Platoon chose to be the pen pal girl. She tells him that Pyon came to see her soon after he was back from Vietnam. He was disappointed that she was a stripper, but by their third meeting he said he wanted to marry her. When he was discharged, she quit dancing and Pyon opened a portrait studio for American soldiers. When she was pregnant he started acting strangely. One day he even kicked her in the stomach and she lost the baby. Then he became very gentle. But he took off for days at a time and she had to go back to stripping for American soldiers.

She met Sgt. Harry and fell in love with him. Now she is going to go to the States with him. She just canít handle Pyon any more. She adds that Vietnam took everything away from her. She lost her brother and Pyon too. Kiju does learn that Pyon said he was going to see Corporal Cho Taesam.

Kiju goes to see an old bar-restaurant that he and the guys would frequent.

Flashback. The men are eating in a bar-restaurant. They are in great spirits and they say they will make a man out of the one virgin there by getting him a woman. April 11, 1969, Pfc. Ahn Pyongki.

Back to the Present. Kiju looks around inside the empty bar- restaurant.

Flashback. The men are delayed in their going home because of a suspected Communist offensive. They have been given the job of guarding a village. At night the men guard the perimeter from trenches. The Vietcong come at them and the Koreans open fire on them. They also set off a couple of claymore mines. Corporal Song is hit. They take him to the medic but heís dead already.  The men in the front trench fall back to the second trench. The Vietcong reach the trenches and at times itís hand to hand fighting.

In the morning Kiju is still alive. He is now the highest ranking man in his platoon. The South Koreans were used as a decoys while the Americans went after the enemy stronghold, while the Koreans had to deal with the main force of Vietcong. The American General never thought they would do so well against the main force.  But the Koreans lost so many men!  The General tells he complainer that it's true, but they helped save many more lives. You always have to look at the bigger picture, he says.   With Kiju are only two other Koreans.

Back to the present. A man delivers a note to Mr. Vietnam from his wife. Pyon cuts off his left ear. Kiju gets a call from the hospital about Pyon.

April 18, 1980. Kiju gets Pyon from the hospital. He asks him why he cut his ear off and Pyon says he doesnít know. He just felt so good after Yongok left.

A big demonstration is being broken up and it sounds like a war is going on. Pyon wants to hide. The two men get swept up in the riots. Then the police start scuffling with the two former soldiers. Kiju grabs Pyon and makes a break for it. Pyon is a real nut case. He says he carried the gun with him because he knew someone was following him.

Kiju feels so bad for the poor man who still is wandering in the jungles of Vietnam that he shoots and kills the now smiling Pyon with Pyonís own pistol. Kiju lies down beside his dead comrade. He says now itís time to write the novel, a real novel.

 

Good movie.  What's interesting is that the South Korean experience was so much like the experiences of so many Americans in combat in Vietnam.  The Koreans had the same problems of misbehavior by the soldiers to the civilians.  There were war crimes committed as was the case with some American units.  And when the Korean soldiers got back home, many of their veterans suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  And like the American Vietnam War veterans, no one paid that much attention to those suffering from what was once called battle shock.  Seriously ill veterans were allowed to walk around without any treatment causing problems for themselves, their friends and their families.  And like many American films about Vietnam veterans the ending of this Korean film is violent too. (The DVD version for the many night scenes is way too dark.)  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

In the film they keep mentioning the money the soldiers were making being in Vietnam.  This is because of the monetary bonus given to any Korean soldier volunteering for service in Vietnam.  For each year served in Vietnam they were credited for three years of military service.  They also received other monetary entitlements as well. 

The South Korean units sent to Vietnam were:  the Tiger Division, White Horse Division and Blue Dragons Division.  These units were chosen because they had the longest and best records from the Korean War. The total sent was 114,902.  The casualties were 2,111 killed and 4,474 wounded. 

The division in the movie is the White Horse Division. 

The movie was based on the book:  Ahn Jung hyo. White Badge: A Novel of Korea.  New York: Soho Press. Inc., 1989. The author served in the ninth division of the Korean army

1966 (September 22)  --  the 9th  White Horse Division arrives at Ninh Hoa.

1973 (March 11)  --  White Horse Division officially leaves Vietnam.

Hon Ba Mountain is 30km from Nha Trang.  The mountain is close to the sea.  It is in Khanh Hoa Province, a coastal province of South Central Vietnam

 

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