Director: Brian Iglesias
While just about every modern tragedy is an instant candidate to be adapted into a big budget feature film, many historical events, particularly the lesser-known ones, are easily overlooked. It may sound as though I’m observing that trend in a negative light, but if anything, it’s probably a good thing because then there’s more of a chance the material would be handled in a documentary format instead and given proper representation as is the case with Chosin.
On June 25th, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea initiating the Korean War. The United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea after which the US, amongst other countries, assembled their troops. With WWII barely in the past, the US was nowhere near ready to engage in another war, however, had the US not stepped in, millions of innocent lives would have been lost. Therefore, there was no choice but to send whatever we could whether they be professional military men or reserves with little to no training.
The American armed forces followed what at the time seemed to be the best course of action, but little did they know another factor was about to demolish that plan, the Chinese. On November 27th, 1950, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army attacked, encircling the US forces and cutting them off from supplies and escape. Even with the odds against them, being completely outnumbered by the Chinese and suffering through below freezing conditions, the US forces pushed on and managed to airlift out some wounded and retreat to the coast for a more thorough evacuation.
The story of The Chosin River Campaign is monumentally significant, yet poorly covered in high school textbooks. In fact, the entire Korean War was sequestered to a tiny portion of class time. On top of that, Chosin is the very first documentary to cover the event. When you consider how many lives were lost and how many were changed forever during just those few days, the lack of coverage is astonishing.
On the other hand, this is a film and while the subject matter may be of prime importance, there’s no ignoring the fact that Chosin is almost entirely a talking head documentary. On the one hand, there’s really very little director Brian Iglesias could do when it came to gathering material. He’s got a fantastic assortment of veterans, most of which are naturals in front of the camera, but when it comes to actual footage and still images from the 1950s, the resources are limited. There’s just enough imagery of the actual events to allow the viewer to get a decent sense of what the environment was like, but not enough, as heartless as this may sound, to up the film’s entertainment value.
There are a handful of interviewee stories that are clearly important, but when you’ve only got their words to latch onto, are just not as effective. On the other hand, Chosin also has quite a few moments that not only don’t need image accompaniment, but don’t even need a shot of the storyteller, the recollection is so profound. Chosin may paint a fuzzy picture when it comes to the grander military movements and tactics, but when it comes to the personal experiences, it’s overflowing with heart wrenching details.
It’s easy to picture untrained recruits first learning to assemble their weapons on the way to the war zone as well as the more terrifying moments, like when one man nearly lost his life in a ditch packed with dead bodies. One veteran describes the massive amounts of Chinese tracer bullets flying through the night sky as having an “eerie beauty” and barely needs to say much more than that to paint the picture. Many watching this film likely weren’t in Chosin, but sympathize with the interviewees’ pain and suffering with frostbite, literally freezing eyeballs, wounds that didn’t bleed due to the temperatures and even one man’s heel falling right off when he took his sock off.
It’s really impossible to say a film like Chosin isn’t worth seeing because the topic is just so profound and so vital to history. I’d have preferred Iglesias include the interviewees’ names to properly honor them and alter the background music a bit to break up the monotony of the somber strings, but when you think about what the boys at Chosin went through, those minor critiques lose all value. No, Chosin isn’t a movie you see in place of your weekly wide release, but it is something crucial to watch in terms of historical knowledge for yourself and just to honor those who actually suffered through and survived the battle.
Chosin is playing at the Village East Cinemas in New York on September 10th and at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles on September 17th.
Acting (Interviewing): A-
By Perri Nemiroff