Saturday, 24 March 2007

DVD: Kokoda

Lowdown: Australia pats itself on the shoulder.
Review:
As far as myths that help build a nation up are concerned, Australia's count is on the lower side of things. As far as the ruling white perspective is concerned, the country never had to fight for its independence, nor were its shorelines ever invaded. As a result, stories that would have been relegated to the bottom of the pile anywhere else - say, the story of the petty criminal Ned Kelly - become famously dominant.
Out of the war time heroics pile, which Australia seems to have no shortage of (having participated in pretty much every famous war over the last 100 years or so), two stories of heroism stand out as far as national psyche is concerned: The first is the story of the disastrous Gallipoli landing during World War 1, where hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers landed in Turkey only to retreat a short while after with an incredible 400,000 casualty count on both sides.
The second story of heroism is the story about the Kokoda Trail fight during World War 2. The Kokoda trail links the north part of Papua New Guinea, the side closer to Japan, to its southern side - the side closer to Australia. The Japanese were massing large amounts of troops along the trail in an effort to establish a landing force that would invade Australia, while the vastly outnumbered and under-trained Australians had to rely on guerrilla tactics, heroism and courage in order to stop the Japanese that were already bombing the northern parts of Australia. Well, at least this is what it took if you take the word of Kokoda - the film - for it.
The film follows a group of Australians on the Kokoda Trail as the Japanese are about to be engaged for the very first time. They are not trained soldiers; they just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time. Long before the Japanese first indicate their presence we see just how harsh the jungle environment of the trail is: everyone suffers from some sort of an infection or dysentery. Then the Japanese come and the fighting begins, with different people reacting differently and most dying in one of many horrible ways. After a few skirmishes and near misses what is left of our group of soldiers joins other Australians for a major stand, the film's climax, and after that we get a short slideshow telling us the Japanese never got anywhere and that the Australians ended up winning. And that's it.
I find it hard to just watch a simple, plain clothes, war film like Kokoda - a film that is there to say not much more other than "look at us - we're such heroes". While that is true - and people like me owe their existence to those that fought on the right side during World War 2 - this does not make for a particularly good film, not by today's standards at least. Just compare it to Letters from Iwo Jima, an American film about the Japanese side of the war, and you can clearly see how you gain much more appreciation towards what took place by looking at things through the other's perspective than by just praising yourself.
Kokoda's Japanese are ghosts. You never see their faces: you see their boots trotting along, you see their camouflaged soldiers suddenly appearing as mirages out of the jungle just behind an unsuspecting Australian to slit his unsuspecting innocent throat, you see them out of focus. But you never see their faces, which automatically elevates them to a ghost like status - i.e., the Australians weren't fighting people at Kokoda, they were up against superman or something similar. And the fact the Australians won just goes to show how great a bunch Australians are. Well, call me a cynic, but I can't go with that. Again, I would prefer the Iwo Jima way.
An overabundance of self praising is not the film's only problem. At its basis, it is not a cohesive pack. There is no real lead, no real plot that progresses along, no real start and no real ending. I assume this is very much intentional, but it mainly served to leave me wondering about better ways in which I could have spend an hour and a half of my time.
Kokoda is an overly patriotic and nationalistic film. You don't really learn much from watching it about what really took place, but you do gain a perspective for the environment in which the battle took place. Mainly, though, you are supposed to be a proud Australian.
Worst scene: I couldn't find a "best scene" here, so I'm settling for the opposite.
The film starts with an overview of an Australian caravan of soldiers moving through the trail. One of them slips in the mud and gets himself covered in mud from head to toe, Rambo style; he then searches for his wounded brother, finds him, but in what turns out to be a nightmare scene learns that there are snakes in his brother's stomach.
Now, we've all seen nightmare scenes before, but this one is not only very long and tiresome, it is also very much pointless. I was under the assumption we will revisit the scene later on, but the "revisitation" never touched the nightmare part. Very weird film making, if you ask me.
Picture quality: Obviously, the film makers didn't have the budget to properly light the scenes. If you take that into account, things are not that bad. Some scenes still look spectacular, others suffer from low resolution. Overall, color inconsistencies are the rule.
Sound quality: Surprisingly for a war movie, sound effects offer nothing special. Even the battle scenes fail to immerse you in the spirit of the fight.
The real issue, though, is with the dialog: it's incredibly unintelligible, and not just for me (a person for whom English is the second language) but also for native tonguers. It would be a safe estimate for me to say that I did not understand about half of the film's dialog. I just can't think up any other DVD with problems that are even remotely close to those of Kokoda in the dialog recording department.
Overall: Maybe if it was done immediately after the war Kokoda would have been another successful story of heroism. In this age of Private Ryans and Letters from Iwo Jimas, Kokoda feels pointless. 1 star.

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