South Korean tap-dance musical ‘Swing Kids’ soars even as it stumbles
South Korea’s fascinating “Swing Kids” is such a dizzying, anachronistic mash-up of genres and cultures -- tap-dancing musical, violent war movie, social-justice drama, and slapstick comedy with music from David Bowie, The Beatles and swing king Louis Prima -- that it deserves respect, even if it falls short as it strains to cover all these bases.
Set during the Korean War at an American-run POW camp for North Koreans, “Swing Kids” -- based on the Korean musical “Rho Ki-soo” -- offers something unusual on screens on this side of the Pacific: the war as seen through Korean eyes. That perspective proves enlightening for any American whose idea of the Korean War is shaped primarily by “M*A*S*H.”
Jared Grimes is Jackson, a homesick African-American soldier stationed at the camp who had tap danced on Broadway and just wants to reunite with his Japanese girlfriend in Okinawa. In order to boost the camp’s morale, he is ordered to enlist some of the prisoners to put on a Christmas show.
He’s left with the outcasts to whip into shape: an overweight Chinese man with a heart condition (Kim Min-Ho), a young woman who lost her family in the war (Park Hye-su), an older man (Oh Jung-se), and, most surprisingly, heroic North Korean soldier Rho Ki-soo (Doh Kyung-soo from the K-pop band Exo), who has inexplicably developed a fascination with tap, even if it’s symbolic of what he feels is a depraved Western culture.
But just when you think “Swing Kids,” playing at AMC Studio 30 in Houston, is going to be “Footloose” behind barbed wire and that love of some good old-fashioned hoofing will conquer all, it turns surprisingly dark and bloody during its second hour. “Footloose” doesn’t have burning bodies, head shots, or a woman being stoned. Neither does it have a black man who feels isolated from both his racist white American brethren and his sometimes equally anti-black Korean charges or a North Korean trying to reconcile his communist beliefs with his gotta-dance heart.
Director Kang Hyoung-Chul, working from a script co-written with Jang Woo-sang, often loses his battle to cram so many movies into one. As it’s billed as a musical, there’s not enough singing and dancing, though the finale shines. The broad comedy sometimes is forced and unfunny (or simply doesn’t translate) and the machinations of the conniving American officers, their rebellious, vengeful North Korean prisoners and the South Koreans in the middle could be from another movie entirely.
But when Doh Kyung-soo and Park Hye-su leap with abandon to Bowie’s “Modern Love” or Kyung-soo and Grimes have a tap-off that feels like a cool tip of the hat to Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in the 1985 film “White Nights,” “Swing Kids” really does live up to its title.