“F*** ideology, I want (to) just dance,” says the rebellious North Korean prisoner Roh Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo, best known as D.O., one of the main vocalists of the South Korean-Chinese boy group Exo), to Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes) in a scene in Swing Kids.
And the charismatic K-pop star taps out a storm in a makeshift hall in the infamous Geoje island prisoner-of-war camp in South Korea, back during the 1951 Korean War.
He has been torn between internal cliques comprising pro-communists and anti-communists. And then, there’s his mentally-challenged brother, a war hero, but someone who has been used as a killing machine as well.
Along comes an offer from Broadway star Jackson, the tap dancing American sarge, and the 2014 Astaire Award winner for Outstanding Male Performer in a Broadway show! Who wouldn’t choose to dance with a teacher like that!
Adapted from Jang Woo-sung’s stage musical, the story basically is about the young Ki-soo (of the 2017 Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds fame) and his journey into tap dancing, in the midst of all the propaganda of communism, capitalism and in a world of real-time brutality and starvation.
Jackson has been ordered by his commander Roberts (played by Ross Kettle) to get these commie prisoners to like some American culture, like tap dancing, and to put on a show for the media, and boost the U.S. Army’s public image.
Jackson tries to demur, as he feels Asians might not get tap, but he’s told not to be racist. Oops, and that is that. Get the irony?
As Jackson struggles to find some recruits for his dance team, director Kang (of the 2015 Doraemon: Nobita and the Space Heroes fame) gives us a sense of the Korean War and the struggles of the people on both sides of the divide.
Swing Kids is neither a war story, nor is it a dance hero story. It’s like that 1985 movie, White Nights, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, where ideology gets in the way of real lives. Of course, the movie is about Hines’ dazzling tap artistry and the incomparable ballet of Baryshnikov.
When was the last time you saw tap dance in a movie? No, I don’t mean Happy Feet! For me, it was the 2000 movies, Bootmen and Billy Elliot. Who can forget Billy (Jamie Bell) tap dancing out of his house, down the street, and uphill, to The Jam’s Town Called Malice.
It is about releasing emotions and it seems tap dancing is freer as an art form for that portrayal in the movies. Check out Roh’s emotions let loose on stage, and in the camp.
Watch his dance team mates of Yang Pan-Rae (Park Hye-soo), a singer and a resourceful miss, Kang (Oh Jeong-se Oh) who takes on the dance in the hope his wife will find him amid the promised fame, and Xiao (Kim Min-ho), a gutsy and plumb wanna-be, who is more of hip-hop dancer so he is rather visionary for 1950s Korea. They have their own heartbreak stories that they spill onto the stage.
The big band is fantastic, while the soundtrack can be a little confusing with bits of modern-day music between the swing brassy sounds of the live orchestra.
So, you have this feel-good dance scenes juxtaposed with war-time horrors like amputated limbs. The conflict is disturbing when a radical and Roh’s friend from school turns up at the camp. It’s a clash of dance versus national pride, about survival versus bullets.
The conclusion is as ironic – a mix of heartbreak and cheer.
Swing Kids is not a family-friendly movie night of dance on screen… as you can tell from the “f*** ideology!” slogan that brings home the finale.
But it’s worth a watch, and then some! Those tap-dance scenes are meant to be seen, and seen again.
** This review appeared in the New Straits Times. https://www.nst.com.my/lifestyle/groove/2019/01/449322/showbiz-cold-war-drama