There is something almost mythic of My Way’s story of two rivals who discover that their lives depend on each other. Beginning prior to World War II, we first meet Jun-shik Kim and Tetsuo Hasagawa when Tetsuo’s family comes from Japan to Korea where his grandfather is an imperial official. The two boys both claim to be fast runners. As they grow up, they become rivals in the marathon. After the grandfather’s assassination (wrongly blamed on the Kim family), enmity grows between the two. The cultural and political situation adds to the animosity between them.
Years pass. As the war begins, Jun-shik and others from the village have been conscripted into the Japanese army. After a defeat a new colonel comes to their unit to whip them into shape: Tetsuo. He believes that Japanese soldiers must be willing to die bravely rather than retreat. When a suicide mission goes awry, both Jun-shik and Tetsuo are taken to the Soviet Union as prisoners of war.
The plot continues with them shifting from prisoners to serving as Soviet soldiers to escape to German-held territory to serving as German soldiers until they find each other again on the shores of Normandy as D-Day begins. Their relationship goes from bad to worse, but in time they must rely on each other to survive all these trials. They learn that in spite of their differences and resentments, there is a bond that ties them together.
In many ways this is the same story director Je-kyu Kang told in his earlier film Tae Guk Gi. In that film the protagonists are brothers who end up on opposite sides of the Korean War, but the thematic elements are the same. (Perhaps the films may be a bit too similar in that he uses a similar twist at the end.) Like the earlier film, this is a film that treats war as horrific. There is a great deal of blood and violence throughout the film. Both films put the cameras right in the middle of battle. They offer a vision of heroism in the midst of chaos. But they also both are very clear that the loss of lives represents a great futility.
But the essence of war is most clearly seen in this film through the relationship between these rivals/enemies/comrades. They must help each other or both will perish. In this their lives, regardless of whatever stands between them, are joined into one. There is a sense that if either survives, they owe their lives to the other. Eventually this becomes very clear, even to the point of one living on in the other.
Because this epic journey involves Korean and Japanese soldiers who end up fighting as Soviets and later German soldiers, the film questions the very notion of what it means to fight for one’s country. It also questions what it means to belong to one country or another. It is often noted that many borders do not exist in nature. This film also suggests that nationalities do not exist in nature either. Flags and uniforms are not as important as the human beings who strive to survive in the midst of death and destruction.