October 27, 2013

Fading Away: Survivors From the Korean War Talk and Talk and Talk

Does every man, woman and child have a story worth hearing? I used to think so but when I watch the testimonials in Christopher H.K. Lee's Korean War documentary Fading Away, I think so less. I also start to feel that the creation of art may, in truth, be reserved for a select group and that when the inexperienced or uninspired take a stab at it, you're left with something that makes you feel dishearteningly small. Thankfully, in Fading Away, such depressing feelings are momentarily dispelled during an uplifting if all-too-short section devoted to a trio of women veterans who reminisce about their lives in the national military, which up until the Korean War didn't accept female cadets at all.

Recruited in their late teens and early 20s, these women are pioneers in the truest sense as they bravely forge ahead into the unknown without any self-importance. Unlike most of the men interviewed, the women consistently look back with a greater sense of wonder and a lot less nostalgia. They talk of peeing in their helmets; assisting in surgery without formal training; administering shots willy-nilly on the front lines; washing uniforms blood-stained and full of maggots; seeing naked corpses piled high...

Sadly, Lee doesn't seem to recognize what a remarkable threesome he's assembled. Soon enough, he's moved on to an elderly white couple who met at a square dance in Seoul a few years after the war. Why that particular couple gets screen time is a mystery but it's hardly the only misguided choice this director makes. Some of the scenes with his father in particular feel more appropriate as home movies. When you're documenting the last members of a generation, your responsibility should be to a larger story -- wherever you find it. Put the personal needs to the side.

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