Hero (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A passable musical film about one patriotic activist

I was ready to give a chance to South Korean musical film “Hero” even though it is not for me from the beginning. No, I have no problem with its genre at all, but, just like many of its director’s films, the movie often tries too hard for squeezing laughs or tears from the audiences, and I only found myself quite distracted while not caring much about its story and characters.

The movie, which is based on the local hit stage musical of the same name, mainly revolves around An Jung-geun (Jung Sung-hwa), who was one of the most prominent real-life Korean-independence activists during the early 20th century. During that time, Korea was about to be colonized by Japan, and An and many other activists were determined to stop this by any means necessary. What he eventually committed has still been remembered and admired by many people in South Korea, though that did not stop Japan at all in the end.

Anyway, the movie starts with the grand opening number scene where An and a bunch of his comrades show their considerable commitment with a rather gruesome act of self-mutilation. You may wince for good reasons, but then the music swells as everyone sings together on the screen, and the resulting mood is as forceful as that certain highlight moment from “Les Misérables” (2012).

During the early part of the film, we get to know a bit about An’s personal life. When he is about to leave his hometown in Korea for fighting for the independence of his country, his wife and children are not so happy about that, but his mother understands and accepts his decision – despite knowing that she may never see her son again.

What follows next is how An fights along with many other activists during next several years. Although they score some big victories at first, they are eventually overwhelmed by a massive attack from the Japanese Army, and we are naturally served with lots of bangs and explosions as An and his comrades are desperately fighting against the Japanese soldiers.

After this devastating defeat, An and his comrades go undercover for some time in Vladivostok, Russia, but then there comes a possible big chance for their independence movement. There is one prominent Japanese political figure who has been leading the ongoing colonization process of Korea under Japan, and he will soon drop by Harbin in Northeast China for meeting a Russian minister. An believes that killing this Japanese politician may stop that process via demonstrating more defiance of Korean people against Japan, and his several comrades willingly join him even though being well aware of the considerable risk in their assassination plan.

Of course, they should be more careful as their fateful day is approaching. While they are constantly informed about their target from their spy who manages to get quite close to their target, they are chased by a vicious Japanese detective who surely looks villainous with a mustache to swirl. At one point, he and his men brutally beat one of An’s comrades just for squeezing any information from him as soon as possible, and the mood becomes quite solemn as he eventually dies without telling anything at all.

However, this gritty and violent aspect of the movie often clashes with its less serious parts. Many of substantial characters surrounding An in the film are more or less than broad caricatures mainly existing for cheap laughs or blatant melodrama, and that is not so surprising considering several previous works of director/co-writer Yoon Je-kyoon such as “Miracle in Cell No.7” (2013). Although I did not like that film much, I observed how much it appealed to the audiences around me, and I noticed that “Hero” also worked on the audiences in the same way during my viewing.

At least, the songs in the film are mostly fine on the whole. I must tell you that they are not as catchy as, say, the songs from “Hamilton”, but Yoon and his crew members did a fairly competent job of presenting these big musical moments on the screen. While some of them feel stagy at times, they are handled with enough skill to compensate for that, and I appreciate that even though, to be honest with you, I cannot hum any of the songs in the film.

The main cast members of the movie try as much as they can do with their respective archetype roles. While he is not a bad singer at all, Jung Sung-hwa is usually stuck with looking serious and determined throughout the film, and many of his fellow cast members are under-utilized due to their superficial supporting roles, though some of them manage to distinguish their parts more than expected. While Kim Go-eun and Park Jin-joo have each own moment to shine as two substantial female characters in the film, Kim Sung-rak, who plays that Japanese politician, delivers his two Japanese musical scenes with gusto, and Na Moon-hee brings some presence to her thankless role even though she does not speak much on the screen.

In conclusion, “Hero” does not annoy me like many of Yoon’s previous films, and that is the only consolation for me. Yes, he and his crew and cast members surely did a lot, and that surely shows on the screen, but the movie still does not engage me much due to its weak storytelling and thin characterization. Incidentally, this is the last South Korean film of this year for me, and that is a shame, considering that there are many better South Korean films during this year. Please watch “Decision to Leave” (2022) or “The Apartment with Two Women” (2021) instead, and you will thank me for that.

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