R-Point (2004): Ghosts & Ghoulies Vietnamese style

This 2004 South Korean horror “war” film was the first horror film I’d seen set during a war. More importantly it was the first horror film set during the  Vietnamese war. This highly unpopular war (protested vehemently in the US on university campuses across the country and more draft dodgers than all the wars ever fought) has not featured a lot in the horror department. Except for the superior 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder.

Of course filmmakers might have been a bit leery about trying to compete with the brilliant Jacob’s Ladder; which to be fair was a great film based around the backdrop of the Vietnamese war and not during it. I know it scared the ever-loving crap out of me when I saw it and I don’t think I was the only person to be totally “creeped out” by the film.

But South Korean writer/director Su-chang Kong rose to the challenge and came up with a film that had all the creep factor of Jacob’s Ladder combined with the chills and uneasiness of the unknown and dead people who don’t look or act dead at all.

Set in 1972, R-Point is about a radio message from a patrol that went missing six months ago on a Vietnamese island and the men are all assumed to be dead. The commander of the base decides to send out another patrol to find the missing men.  Lieutenant Choi Tae-in (Woo-seong Kam) is a highly decorated war hero who is also in a lot of trouble for going to an off-limits part of town to visit a prostitute and while he’s there, the soldier who accompanied him is murdered by a VC insurgent. Choi kills the woman responsible, but the soldier is still dead.

After being told that this mission is his chance to redeem himself, he and eight other soldiers are to find the missing soldiers and bring their dog-tags home. The men who have “volunteered” are from the local base’s “Clap clinic” and men who are near their rotation date. They have all been told that if they are successful that they’ll take the jet back home to a heroes welcome.

Posing on the beach.

When the squad reach the island they take a picture of themselves on the beach and begin heading towards the location of the radio signals. While going through a forest, they get ambushed by an old man and a woman. When the ambushers are taken care of, the old man dead and the woman dying, the men come up to a Chinese message on a stone.

One of the men, who can read Chinese, reads the message that says years ago, Chinese troops killed Vietnamese villagers and put their body in a lake; later the Vietnamese filled the lake in and built a shrine over the mass grave. It is now a sacred place. As the men leave one of the men urinates on the stone revealing the rest of the message; it says that anyone who has blood on their hands will never leave the place.

The men find what they think is the  “temple” and use that as their base of operations. While they are there, they meet a squad of American soldiers who aren’t what they seem and they find out about a French garrison that was wiped out years ago. As the men begin searching the island, the radio operator starts getting messages from a French radio operator who tells him that he and his brother will come over to visit. When he tells the Lieutenant, the first thing the lieutenant asks is how the operator knows what the Frenchman is saying as he does not speak French.

So when did you learn to speak French?

This film is atmospheric, scary, uneasy, and will have you jumping at any loud noise. It is a “look behind you” movie. It will seriously “creep” you out and the many plot twists will have you second-guessing throughout the entire film. The film actually starts entering the land of “creepy happenings” from the moment the squad reaches the island. When the film ended, Meg and I went back to the beginning and found a lot of things that we had missed the first time, this not only showed the film makers cleverness but it  seriously added to the effect  of the film

All the actors are top-notch and really sell their characters and you can connect with them quickly. The film looks great considering it was shot on a shoe-string budget. All the scenes were filmed in Cambodia around Bokor Hill Station which is an actual French ghost town.

I have watched this film repeatedly and it never fails to give me goose bumps. I will leave you with one bit of advice: if you watch this film, do not watch it in the dark or watch it alone. It’s that scary. From the first scene where the radio picks up the static ridden signal of the “missing men” to the last frame, it is war horror gold.

The “missing” patrol.

The Squad (2011) Columbian Chaos

Until now I thought that the South Korean‘s ruled the military horror genre. They now have a serious rival with the Columbian film The Squad. Directed and written by Jaime Osorio Marquez The Squad is his first film. What a brilliant start to what looks to be a brilliant career.

The film opens with the camera following a soldier down a narrow alleyway. He is threading his way through more soldiers who are having an argument. Moving past the arguing soldiers someone calls him by name, he is Ponce and he comes upon another soldier who is tapping a bird-cage and whistling at it. He is moving slowly and he goes past the bird-cage and looks down at a lit spot on the ground. Something is there and just as it starts to come into focus the scene stops.

Ponce has been dreaming and he wakes up on a helicopter with his squad; a small nine man group of commandos. They are heading to a remote outpost that stopped communicating with the outside world two days ago and command presumes that it has been overrun by guerrillas. For this mission the commandos have been joined by a guide named Indio and a lieutenant, Fiquitiva.

The men arrive at the outpost which is situated on the top of a hill. The entire area is covered with fog. When they approach the long stairway that leads to the post, Fiquitiva is told by command to wait for reinforcements before proceeding. One of the men becomes impatient and charges up the stairway.

The lieutenant sends another man up after him. Seconds after he reaches the top the men hear an explosion and someone yelling in pain. The second man has stepped on a landmine and severely injured his leg.

When the squad reach the outpost with their wounded comrade, they find the place deserted except for one soldier who shot himself. The bunkers are drenched in blood, mirrors have been smashed and so has the radio equipment. They also find religious symbols and writing on the walls asking for protection from evil.

Indio finds a living “survivor” a woman who has been badly beaten and then has been “walled up” behind a freshly built cinder block wall. The sergeant and another commando start interrogating the woman and beating her to find out what happened to the soldiers at the outpost. The lieutenant makes them stop and leaves Ponce to guard the bunker with orders to let no one in.

Later the sergeant returns and tell Ponce to leave and enters the room to interrogate the woman some more. When the lieutenant finds out, he goes to the bunker to find the sergeant dead and the woman missing. Meanwhile the men are isolated on the outpost with no contact with command and the fog is getting thicker.

As they search for the missing woman, who at least half the men assume is a guerrilla, tensions start to develop in the group. There is a power struggle between the “assigned” lieutenant and the sergeant. The man who had his leg injured (Parra) is going to die if they don’t get off the outpost and his best mate (or lover?) Negro is beside himself with concern and grief.

Parra being comforted by Negro. The Squad 2011.

Indio the guide has been ordered to continue searching for possible survivors from the outpost and his paranoia grows. Divisions between the commandos get more frequent, aggressive, and bigger. Cortez, who is Ponce’s best friend, starts seriously losing control as he becomes as convinced as Indio that the woman was not a guerrilla but a witch. He has decided that the woman killed all the men who have vanished.

The fog gets thicker and the stress, paranoia and tensions grow.

This film is dark and a picture of tension, suspense and an ever prevailing sense of fear and foreboding. We know from the minute this film starts that these men are doomed for some reason. The dream, or memory, of Ponce is disturbing and unsettling. This sets the mood of the film from the very first frame.

The cinematography is dark and moody. The fog feels isolating and scary; when we follow the men through their ordeal our sense of disquiet and unease increases right along with the soundtrack that feeds those feelings as the film progresses.

This film is on par with the Korean film’s R-Point and Guardpost. A sure sign of the film’s potency and effectiveness has to be the news that an American producer (Scott Lastaiti) has already secured the rights for a remake. I would strongly advise watching this Columbian gem before it gets the “Hollywood” treatment.

Indio starting to freak out. The Squad 2011.

War of the Dead (2007) (2008) (2011)

This American, Italian, and Lithuanian film almost didn’t make it to the public. Made in 2007, edited in 2008 and “dead-in-the-water” until 2011 due to financial difficulties, it’s a shame that with such a checkered past the film isn’t very good.

If you look at the timing of the film, it’s obvious that the producers were getting on the haunted/zombie/war train that had been started in  2001 (The Bunker), 2002 (Deathwatch), 2004 (R-Point), et al. Unfortunately because of delays and the above mentioned financial difficulties they missed the train completely.

Granted there doesn’t seem to be a “use-by” date for zombie films so they have, in a sense, caught the caboose of that particular train. They just didn’t do very well.

With a cast comprised of actors taken from BBC and ITV sitcoms, cop shows and sundry drama pieces all doing their best American accents and filled in with a Finnish strongman (Jouko Ahola)  and a Lithuanian heart throb (Mikko Leppilampi), the film doesn’t do anyone any favours and probably would have been better off if money had never been available for its distribution.

Admittedly I recognised the two main English actors, Andrew Tiernan who looked like he needed to attend a few weight watchers sessions, and Mark Wingett who I have always been a fan of (ever since I watched him portray D C Jim Carver on ITV’s The Bill). The film could have done with more Wingett and less Tiernan. Tiernan also seemed to be of the opinion that in order to sound convincingly American he had to liberally sprinkle his lines with G**damn’s and M*****f****rs. Expletives aside, his accent wavered from New York to New Jersey to just plain bad.

English actor Mark Wingett

Mikko Leppilampi who was the only actor who actually looked like he belonged in WWII is a real workhorse of an actor. He seems to have been working in Lithuanian films steadily since 2003. He has the sort of matinée idol looks that, I predict, will ensure he stays permanently employed in the industry. I think Hollywood needs to snap this fella up quick.

You may have noticed that I have not written one word about plot. That’s because there isn’t really a definitive plot.

 The film opens with a series of shots dealing with men walking through a tunnel. They are mown down by machine gun wielding Nazi’s. One soldier survives and is dragged kicking and screaming into a room with a huge stainless steel table. He is operated on and before you can say the Zed word he becomes a zombie.

The next thing you see is a screen full of text stating that a special American Elite Force helped the Finnish army in a highly specialized mission. The test is left up on the screen long enough for you to reach for the DVD’s remote, because you think the film has frozen.

We are then thrust into the film.

I am being a little unfair about the subject of plot, I know. But the film is one of those where the sound effects, the music and the dialogue have all been mixed by someone on drugs or with such good hearing that they could hear the actors mumble their lines over the too loud effects and mood music.

I will put hand on heart and admit that I have not watched the entire film. I had to stop when it got two-thirds of the way through. By that time most of the extra’s that comprised the Finnish and American soldiers were dead and Wingetts character was long gone.  The winner of the Strongman contest had been turned into a zombie and the direction of the film was going downhill faster than a go-cart on speed.

The only two redeeming factors of this film was the presence of English actor Mark Wingett and  Lithuanian actor Mikko Leppilampi. Wingett because he is a good actor and Mikko because he shows that he can do a lot more than MC the Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision Song Contest 2007 Presenter Mikko L...
Eurovision Song Contest 2007 Presenter Mikko Leppilampi at the semifinals on May 10, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)