by Ford Carter, May 30, 2021

Please note: This article will contain minor and major spoilers for both Godzilla (1954) and Swing Kids (2018).

Despite being a massive fan of Asian dramas from across the continent, including places not covered by MDL such as Turkey, Indonesia, and India, somehow, a lot of Asian cinema has escaped my viewing experience.

Sure, I’ve had some experience with Indonesian cinema over the four years I studied Indonesian as a foreign language in secondary school. I even dabbled in a few Indian films when a short-lived passion for Bollywood musicals was at the forefront of my list of hobbies a few years back. However, Asian cinema, in general, was not something I had really given a great amount of thought to.

So, I recently decided that film was going to be my latest foray into the world of Asian entertainment, and that, like any good movie-watching experience, it would be best to tackle it as a Saturday Night Double Feature.

Movie #1: Godzilla (1954)

To begin my refreshed experience with Asian films, I decided to take a quick look into what some of the most influential Asian films of all time were. And almost every list began with – you guessed it – Godzilla.

Godzilla is a 1954 Japanese “kaiju” film (a Japanese genre about giant monsters) directed by Ishirō Honda, and began the well-known and world-famous Godzilla franchise.

For a film franchise touching on 70 years old, you would think that a tale as old as your parents or grandparents would have been retold so many times and with more advanced cinematic technology that the original film would barely be worth watching. However, there’s something about watching the original version of the story that feels special, like watching it for the first time all over again.

The Cast

Hirata Akihiko 
as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa
Kochi Momoko 
as Emiko Yamane
Takarada Akira 
as Ogata Hideto
Shimura Takashi 
as Dr. Kyohei Yamane

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa is an eccentric scientist who accidentally creates a weapon of mass destruction in the form of an Oxygen Destroyer, which can instantly kill almost anything, and which Dr. Serizawa refuses to acknowledge. He is engaged to the nurse Emiko Yamane, daughter of his older colleague.

Emiko Yamane is a nurse, the daughter of the paleontologist Dr. Yamane, and is betrothed to Dr. Serizawa, despite her love for Ogata. She is entrusted with information regarding the Oxygen Destroyer, which horrifies her, and doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her father about her engagement or their treatment of Godzilla.

Ogata Hideto is a sailor and marine officer, and the love interest of Emiko (despite her engagement to Dr. Serizawa). He is on Dr. Yamane’s investigative team and convinces Dr. Serizawa to use his creation for the good of mankind in defeating Godzilla.

Dr. Kyohei Yamane is Emiko’s father and Daisuke’s colleague, a paleontologist who believes that the government should study Godzilla and his powers, and who has arranged the engagement of Dr. Serizawa to his daughter.

The Story

The movie begins with the destruction of the freighter Eikō-maru, the rescue boat Bingu-maru, and then the rescue boat that goes out looking for survivors. Godzilla has an action-packed storyline that slows down for no one and stops for nothing, much like the monster in the film.

The earlier moments in the film feign an attempt at hiding what the cause of the attacks on the boats in the ocean and the fishing village on Ohto Island was, but people going in and watching the movie know exactly what they’ve gone in for. So while the suspense of what caused the damage may have little to no impact, there is still some interest in what the monster might look like, especially for those who haven’t seen the original 1954 version of the film.

And it isn’t just the action that creates the thrilling drama in the movie, either.

There are the ethical dilemmas of whether to kill Godzilla, or whether the opportunity should be taken to study why the prehistoric dinosaur is still alive, and how it managed to absorb so much radioactive energy. While the government, the army, the coast guard, and a great percentage of the population believe that the monster should be killed because of the havoc and destruction it has been causing around Japan, Dr. Kyohei Yamane believes that studying Godzilla can bring about a great amount of potential knowledge of the history of the Earth, atomic energy, and dinosaurs.

There are also relationship dilemmas revolving around nurse Emiko Yamane, who has been betrothed in an arranged engagement to her father’s younger colleague, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (whom she views only like a sibling), but has fallen in love with sailor and maritime officer Ogata Hideto. Before being allowed to marry Ogata, Emiko must first speak with either her father or her fiancé.

And one of the film’s largest ethical dilemmas revolves around the Oxygen Destroyer, a piece of technology created by Dr. Serizawa, which has the capability to destroy oxygen atoms and replace them with liquid, essentially leaving behind only a skeleton of whoever or whatever the weapon targeted. Despite having created the technology, Dr. Serizawa fears whatever might come of his creation, refusing to let anyone know what he has made in fear that he may be forced to create more Oxygen Destroyers against his will to be used as weapons of mass destruction.

The film itself is an allegory to Japan’s fears of nuclear war at the time, having just been fresh out of World War II and following the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Godzilla is a clear symbolism of the nuclear holocaust from a Japanese perspective, and can often be seen as a metaphor for nuclear weaponry. The movie’s producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, spoke on the subject, saying:

“The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

Meanwhile, the film’s director, Ishirō Honda, deliberately filmed Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo to mirror the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stating:

“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

Don’t go into this film expecting a cinematic masterpiece or amazing special effects. At the end of the day, Godzilla is still a movie that was filmed in 1954 with 1954-level technology. Looking back on it now, it’s cheesy, hilarious, and I occasionally sputter out a laugh at how fake the dinosaur suit or the toy cars are. But for its time, it was probably top quality. The true masterpiece of this film is, in fact, its storytelling, and the legacy it has left behind.

Movie #2: Swing Kids (2018)

The original plan for the second movie of the night was to watch one of the most critically acclaimed modern Asian films – the remarkable and unforgettable Parasite. Unfortunately, the movie was not immediately available to me. The film I did eventually end up watching – Swing Kids – featured one of my favourite South Korean idols, and came highly recommended.

Swing Kids contains a fair amount of English for a South Korean film, but not enough for you to not need subtitles entirely. It’s incredibly funny, heartwarming, and shocking, and will be a rollercoaster ride of emotions when you watch it.

The Cast

Do Kyung Soo 
as Roh Ki-soo
Jared Grimes 
as Jackson
Park Hye Soo 
as Yang Pan-rae
Oh Jung Se 
as Kang Byung-sam
Kim Min Ho 
as Xiao Pang

Roh Ki-soo is a North Korean prisoner of war who falls in the love with one of the many American and capitalist forms of expression – tap dance. As much as he does not want to become a traitor to his country, his love for tap dance, and eventual crush on a South Korean woman, overtake him.

Yang Pan-rae is a civilian translator from South Korea who is able to speak four different languages – Korean, Chinese, English, and Japanese (although she claims the last one is an occupational hazard in the war). She offers to translate for the American Jackson in order to make some money.

Jackson is an American sergeant with a love for tap dance. He used to be a tap dancer on Broadway before he was enlisted, and despite his position of authority (although limited), he is undermined by those who rank beneath him because of the colour of his skin.

Kang Byung-sam is a South Korean prisoner of war who is only at the prison camp on Geoje Island because he somehow managed to catch the wrong bus. He decides he wants to do tap dance so he can become famous and so that it will be easier for his wife to be able to find him.

Xiao Pang is a Chinese prisoner of war with an energetic love for performing, who wants to do tap dance in the hopes that he might be able to lose some weight and therefore rid himself of some of his heart problems.

The Story

Swing Kids, in a way, acts as an homage to the musical films and dance-filled movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, filled with tap dance numbers, and finishing up with a grand spectacular. But don’t get it wrong, despite all of its tap dancing glory, the film is still a story about the horrors of war.

Set at a prisoner of war camp on Geoje Island in the midst of the Korean War, Roh Ki-soo is one of two North Korean brothers infamous amongst the campmates and the soldiers who run it, as troublemakers for the Americans. While touring the American’s food supply, he hears the sound of Jackson shoes upon the wooden floor, and realizes he has found a passion he never knew he had.

Meanwhile, General Roberts (played by Ross Kettle) has decided that in order to improve the public image of the American army in the eyes of the international media by making it look as though he has greatly improved the lives of the North Korean, South Korean, and Chinese prisoners of war, Geoje Island should recruit and train a dance troupe out of these prisoners, forcing Jackson to do so.

Despite the numbers of people who audition, Jackson fails to see the potential in any of them, and struggles to see any hope of himself being transferred to Okinawa in Japan, where the girl he has fallen in love with lives. In the end, he comes up with a small but well-meaning crew consisting of Xiao Pang (an overweight Chinese prisoner of war from Manchuria with a shy demeanour), Kang Byung-sam (a South Korean only at the camp because he was on the wrong bus, hoping that his fame and exposure might help his missing wife find him), and Pan-rae (a civilian working as Jackson’s translator in the hopes of making an income). Alongside Ki-soo, these five form their small tap dancing troupe.

Things go awry between some of the American soldiers and the pan-Asian tap dancers, leading to a dance battle between the two that quickly leads to a physical fight. This is quickly followed by rising tensions between the same American soldiers and Jackson because of his race, which leads to evidence being planted to accuse Jackson of being anti-capitalist and siding with enemy forces.

In order to ensure Jackson’s release from his prison cell, Xiao, Byung-sam, and Ki-soo plan to hijack a football game and dance in front of some visiting media and dignitaries to convince General Roberts to free Jackson. The dance is unfortunately done in mud, leading to the dancers falling over one another like a comedic skit. General Roberts releases Jackson anyway, informing him he needs to prepare his dance troupe for a Christmas Eve spectacular, after which he will grant Jackson’s transfer papers to Okinawa.

The genre-mashing movie then features a twist that some people might see coming when they watch it, but also features an end that really shook me, as it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I can’t go much further into the story without spoiling the movie entirely. All I can do is recommend that you watch it, because it’s highly unlikely you’ll regret it.