Going into a film about war, one can assume that heartbreak, violence and tension will feature in spades. It is because of this expectation that a film like ‘Swing Kids’ is such a breath of fresh air; it manages to contain all of those things, all while maintaining a charming air of whimsy and optimism. It’s almost like director Kang Hyeong-cheol (‘Sunny’) let the wholesome mood of ‘Sing Street’ bleed into a war film, for better and for worse.
Set in a prison camp during the Korean War in 1951, ‘Swing Kids’ focuses on the charismatic soldier Ro Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo, ‘Room No.7’). Initially pushing back on the “Yankee culture” bleeding into the camp, he soon encounters American officer Jackson (Jared Grimes, ‘The Marc Pease Experience‘), who has been tasked with forming a tap dancing group to entertain the prisoners of war and help them pass the time, bringing together an unlikely oddball group (Oh Jung-se, ‘Pretty Romance’, Park Hye-su, ‘Will You Be There?’ and Kim Min-Ho). Each member has their own reasons for joining the group, but are all united by a love for dance.
I have a long-running soft spot for films with inherent senses of rhythm, or those where music is vital to the film’s DNA. ‘Swing Kids’ is overflowing with such energy, which manages to alter its shape as the film progresses through lighter moments to more violent ones. Watching Ro Ki-soo reluctantly fall in love with tap dancing is absolutely the highlight of the film (one particular scene involving rhythmic teeth grinding echoing a tap routine sticks out to me as the exact moment I fell in love with this film). A golden rule of filmmaking is "show, don’t tell", and ‘Swing Kids’ excels at showing how Ro Ki-soo lets music and passion flow through him and out of his feet. It’s shocking that a Korean film manages to borrow so much from classic Hollywood musicals and pulls it off with such ease; insane weaving camera work and long takes are used in spectacular fashion during the dance routines. The film should also be congratulated for its fantastic editing; there are plenty of cuts during major dance scenes that match the frenetic energy of the characters, but shots are also held long enough that the artistry of the routines can be appreciated. One particularly fantastic scene achieves this by intercutting two different dance scenes while David Bowie’s 'Modern Love' plays over both. For the film's first half, one could be forgiven for thinking ‘Swing Kids’ is simply a straight-up feel-good film.
It’s shocking that a Korean film manages to borrow so much from classic Hollywood musicals and pulls it off with such ease.
Unfortunately, my praise cannot extend as much into the film’s darker moments where the realities of war set in, which become more and more frequent as the third act begins. While the film tries its best to balance its wide range of tones, it does feel like the director is at times trying to force two magnets of the same pole to stick together. The leap from lighthearted moments into ones of extreme violence feel jarring and, in some parts, unearned. This may be by design to amplify how suddenly the prisoners of war can be thrust from peace into violence, but the film doesn’t quite land this well enough to make it believable, as it sets itself up for an all-out emotional assault of a finale. Even if the film doesn’t entirely pull the switch off, by this point each character has wormed their way into your heart, and as a result, the film is equal parts exhilarating and heartbreaking.
‘Swing Kids’ should be commended for its ambition, even if it doesn’t always manage to juggle all its balls as well as wants to. Is it the best film to come out of Korea this year? No, that title belongs to festival darling ‘Parasite’. But is it one of the most affecting experiences I’ve had with a film this year? Absolutely.