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Korean Drama Review: Movie: Swing Kids (2018) | What a Horrible Way to Celebrate Christmas!

‘Swing Kids’ is a Korean drama musical released in 2018 about prisoners of war who learn how to tap dance like the Yankees.  It was a tough movie to watch.  Here's why.


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There is an American film titled “Swing Kids” released in 1993. Never bothered to watch it because the previews of the movie did not peak my interest. By contrast, I saw a preview of the K-drama movie by the same name and became extremely curious.

First: I recognized the main actor, Doh Kyung-soo. He starred in “100 Days My Prince”, a 2018 Korean historical period drama series, and I thought that his stare was very intense! When he looked at people it was like his eyes were piercing their body. While watching previews for “Swing Kids”, there was a scene where he was peeking through a door that was slightly ajar and he is watching this American soldier tap dancing. He was staring with the same intensity. His eyes drew me in like a magnet.

Second: It was a movie about war, specifically about prisoners of war in a prison camp, Geoje POW camp. This was a real camp and it held North Korean and Chinese prisoners who were captured by UN forces during the Korean War (1950–1953). I have never served in the military and I have never been in a country where there was a war going on. But I can not imagine being in that kind of situation and wanting to dance.

But then … come to think about it … dancing can make you happy and make you forget the cares of this world and maybe even the horrors of war. If you are some place where your future seems dark and bleak, maybe being allowed to dance can give you hope and you might think, you might even dare to dream about a brighter day in your life. That is … if you live.

It was tough because it was painfully realistic. The dance choreography was absolutely fantastic. There was an American soldier who used to dance on Broadway BEFORE the war. The American commander in charge of the POW camp decided that the soldier should teach some Korean prisoners how to dance, “Yankee-style”. He thought it would be great publicity and a way of proving that the American way was … “better”. He reasoned that if he could teach those “commies” (Communist soldiers) how to dance like Americans, the story about it would serve as propaganda to be fed to the American people and it would also cause division among the prisoners. You don’t fight the enemy with just weapons. You use psychology too. Loyal Communist soldiers would view learning how to dance like a Yankee as unpatriotic and a betrayal to their country’s leaders. So, in addition to fighting the foreign enemy and anti-Communists without, they would be fighting within with each other, i.e. the loyal Communists opposing the disloyal Communists who learned how to dance like a Yankee.

The movie was tough to watch for several reasons.

Reason 1: The American commander was a moron! The American commander — Brigadier General Roberts (played by Ross Kettle) — was arrogant, manipulative, stupid and … racist! He did not care anything about the soldier he assigned the task of teaching the prisoners how to dance, nor did he care about the prisoners of war. He only cared about making himself look good. As far as he was concerned, the soldier was his subordinate and had to follow orders; and the prisoners were just pawns in his power play. The story would be great publicity and show “proof” that deep down in their hearts, those “yellow gooks” really wanted to be Westernized.

Reason 2: The American soldier — “Jackson” (played by Jared Grimes) — was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The fact that the soldier was a black man was difficult enough. Even though he held a higher rank that many of the white soldiers and could give them orders, that did not make serving in the military any easier. He wanted to be transferred out of Korea. To go back to America? NO. Actually, he wanted to return to Japan because he had left a woman behind that he was in love with; and he wanted to go back and marry her. The commander knew this, so he used that fact to make sure that the soldier followed his orders. In addition to giving him the order, the commander “promised” that he would get his transfer IF … if he succeeded in teaching the prisoners how to tap dance.

Reason 3: The prisoners could have had a wonderful life, if it were not for the war caused by “ideology”.

There were four (4) people that the soldier would teach to tap dance. If you have an ounce of human compassion, your heart will bleed for each of them. The prisoners each had their own reasons for wanting to learn how to tap dance.

  • One prisoner was a Chinese soldier — Xiaofang (played by Kim Min-Ho) — and would have become a brilliant choreographer, if it were not for the war. Learning to tap dance was as close as he would get to achieving that dream.
  • One prisoner was a South Korean Kang Byung-Sam (played by Oh Jung-Se) thrown into prison because he had been falsely accused of being a communist sympathizer. He did not know where his wife was and reasoned that if he became famous, his wife would easily be able to find him.
  • One young girl — Yang Pan-Rae (played by Park Hye-Soo) — who was not a prisoner in the camp, but was alone in the world because both of her parents had died, learned to speak different languages, including English. She volunteered to serve as a translator for the American soldier; hoping that her participation as a member of the dance team might make it possible for her to live in America.
  • Last but not least, there was a North Korean “hero of the people” — Rho Ki-Soo (played by Do Kyung-Soo). He saw the American soldier tap dancing and desperately wanted to learn. But how he could he learn that Yankee dance? How could he even want to learn? It meant he would be looked upon by his fellow North Koreans as a traitor! It meant that he would have betrayed his own countrymen and his country’s leaders. It meant that he would have gone against everything he believed in and lived for. And yet … he really wanted learn how to tap dance!

Reason 4: The members of the dance team not only acted their parts well, but I imagine that their dancing would been praised by well-known American dancers during that time period such as Gene Kelly, and Sammy Davis Jr. As a viewer, your heart connected with them and you so badly wanted it to be a happy ending for the dancers. It was only during the times when they danced together that the harsh reality of the war could be erased and for a brief moment .. they could experience joy and hope and they could dream. No spoilers, but how the movie ended … broke my heart. I’ll sum it up by saying: It was a heck of a way to celebrate Christmas!

“Swing Kids has been listed on top 5 dance movies alongside legends like the Hollywood movies, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Happy Feet’ and the first ever Korean movie in history granted to use the Beatles song “Free as a bird” as part of the movie soundtrack.” (Quote source) It was based on Korean musical “Rho Ki-Soo,” written by Jang Woo-Sung. The movie is not a true story but it was very believable.

  • Voters on Dramalist gave it a rating of 8.8 out of 10 stars.
  • Voters on IMDb gave it a rating of 7.5 out of 10 stars.
  • Viewers on Viki rated it 9.7 out of 10 stars.
  • Viewers on Prime Video rated it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

I often use the 5-star scale for my movies ratings.  I give this movie 2 times 5 stars.  That's right!  10 stars!

Do you think it was easy to combine the horror and brutality of war, plus opposition and division caused by racism and differing political ideologies, with an awesome soundtrack and fabulous dance moves, and keep it real?
‘Swing Kids’ did it! For that they deserve 10 stars!

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