Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Film Review - 'The Guard Post'

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) marks the border between North and South Korea. On both sides of the DMZ, a line of manned guard posts allows soldiers to keep watch for any sign of aggression from the other side. It's probably one of the last locations I would ever think of for a horror movie - yet, take a moment to consider to possibilities, and it does start to seem oddly fitting. It's also exactly where we find ourselves in the South Korean horror film, The Guard Post (originally titled GP 506).

As the film opens, one of these guard posts set up along the edge of the DMZ seems to have fallen silent. In response to this failure to report on schedule, a team of soldiers is hastily deployed to investigate. There, the soldiers find a guard post which seems, at first, to have been entirely abandoned - though, as they explore, the soldiers find evidence of horrific violence. Blood, mutilated bodies, and, at the centre of it all, what appears to be the sole survivor - a man covered in blood, and holding an axe.

Sergeant Major Noh (Cheon Ho-jin) is sent to lead an investigation. But, before he even arrives, his superiors begins pressing for the bodies to be transported back to HQ, and for the guard post to be cleaned up. Fearing some sort of inevitable cover-up, Noh pulls rank with the soldiers at the guard post, in order to give himself time to conduct a proper investigation - hoping to uncover the truth of what happened at GP 506 while he still can.

But, then, things start to get really weird. First, guard dogs are driven into a mad frenzy the very moment soldiers try to bring them into the guard post. Then, there's the realisation that there has been no sign of rats picking at the bodies, despite the fact that every other similar bunker is typically infested. And, finally, there are only twenty soldiers accounted for, despite the fact that there was originally twenty-one stationed at the guard post. Obviously, there is something strange going on here - and, with only a single night to investigate, Sergeant Major Noh is not left with much time to figure out what really happened.

The Guard Post is a film which feels like it should be fairly straight-forward. It has a suitably gloomy and atmospheric location, in which something not entirely natural clearly happened, in the run-down guard post that acts as the film's setting. It has a charismatic lead in Sergeant Major Noh - a man who the audience can get behind, as he works to uncover what was truly behind the bloody massacre.

Given how straight-forward the film's premise actually is, on the surface, The Guard Post really has no business being as difficult to follow as it occasionally is. The film quickly settles itself into a rhythm of telling both the story of the events leading up to the initial massacre, and Noh's 'present day' investigation of the massacre, simultaneously - jumping back and forth between these two threads whenever it feels the need to do so. At first, it's easy enough to keep track of everything - but, it's not long before it all starts to get a bit out of hand. As the flash-backs move toward their inevitably violent conclusion, and as history begins to repeat itself around Noh, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow these sudden, and often entirely unmarked, jumps back and forth.

It also doesn't help that some of the film's flashbacks scenes are also, occasionally, deliberately misleading - showing us an inaccurate portrayal of what happened, only to reveal the truth later. Now, misleading flashbacks can be a useful story-telling tool, sure - but, the way that they were used, here, just struck me as strange. For the most part, these aren't flashbacks being framed as one character recounting events to another. These are flashbacks solely for our benefit - meant to bring the audience up to speed on what had happened. If they had been framed as stories, then the inaccuracies in these flashbacks could have served a dramatic purpose - representing flawed memories, or deliberate deception, on the part of one character, or another. But, often, it just seemed like the only people being mislead was the audience.

There were also moments where The Guard Post seemed set on misleading us about exactly what sort of horror film we are watching, too. One scene, in particular, shows us what is clearly a ghost - only for that same scene to play out very differently the next time it is touched on. Meaning that the initial appearance of a ghost must have been an hallucination? Maybe? Another scene, meanwhile, treats us to an instance of the classic 'ghostly footsteps' - only for this, too, to be seemingly brushed aside as a symptom of the strange virus that is ultimately revealed to be the true culprit. In both cases, these scenes seem to amount to little more than deliberate misdirection, for very little purpose - and which, ultimately, only seemed to harm the flow of the film. They became even more damaging later, too, when I was forced to admit that I would have actually preferred the 'haunted guard post' story they suggested to the vaguely defined virus that we ended up with.

That is, perhaps, the greatest flaw in The Guard Post for me. The film leaned so heavily in the direction of haunting and possession early on that, when it took a sudden swerve in the direction of a contagious virus, I was a little disappointed. It was strange, and ultimately entirely unnecessary, misdirection - and, it really didn't do the film, itself, any favours.

To be fair, though, there are still positive elements to be found  in The Guard Post. Any scene involving someone acting while under the influence of this strange and unnatural virus was suitably unsettling - with soldiers compelled to commit acts of extreme violence, whether upon themselves or against others, that they later could not remember. The make-up effects that went into showing the progress of the virus, while simple, are also very effective. In the end, it began to seem as if it wasn't even the virus, itself, that was the real danger - with the fear and paranoia that its presence caused being the catalyst that gave us some of the tensest stand-offs, and the most shocking violence.

The Guard Post is a film which is, unfortunately, dragged down a bit by its own flaws - though, there is still quite a bit to like here. There are times when the film drags a bit early on, sure - but, the film's willingness to slow things down, and to devote time to properly establishing atmosphere and character, is also probably its greatest strength. Similarly, while the film's second half may be somewhat difficult to follow, it is still the source of some genuinely tense moments. Overall, The Guard Post isn't quite the resounding success that it could have been - but, it is still fair from a complete failure

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