When writer/director Ho Choi released his rollicking rock and roll picture in Korea in 2008, it debuted during trying economic times, not making the impact it perhaps deserved to make. One hopes that increasing exposure at international festivals will bring it to a wider and more enthusiastic audience. The film, originally titled Gogo Chilship, could be described as a Korean version of The Commitments, Alan Parker’s widely successful story of a group of Dublin musicians who form a soul band. This comparison would be reductive, to be fair, and Choi deserves credit for crafting a film that deploys a number of “band on the run” tropes while establishing a unique cultural context that provides a good deal of added vigor. Adapted from the true story one of the country’s most successful 70’s acts, The Devils, the film is a window into a postwar Korea unfamiliar to many U.S. viewers.
Sang-gyu (Seung-woo Cho) is a struggling musician in a provincial town, playing tiny bars that cater U.S. servicemen from a nearby Army base. Obsessed with American music, Sang-gyu is a prickly, erratic character, aloof and arrogant but somehow sympathetic. He treats his friend and former lover, a similarly music-obsessed waitress named Mimi (Min-a Shin) like dirt, despite the great pains she takes to support his career. One night, he and his two backing musicians join forces with a rival group led by guitarist Man-sik (Seung-wu Cha), forming a six-man band, The Devils, who bond over their love of the pirated “black music” that is gradually gaining ground in a country some 15 years behind the pop curve.
After wildly successful gigs in their hometown, the band leaves for Seoul, with costumier/manager/den mother Mimi in tow. For a while, the film follows an expected narrative pattern. Audiences at the big-time Battle of the Bands are unimpressed, and the band is down to their last dollar before an avuncular music journo with an ear for the cutting edge divines their true talent. From there, its only a matter of winning over the straight-laced Korean youth, who are initially taken aback by The Devils’ caterwauling, gyrating antics. The power of the music is undeniable, however, and soon the band is the hottest thing on the circuit. Mimi is transformed into a bespangled Go-Go-dancing sex symbol, and teeming, screaming teens pack every concert.
The expected conflicts ensue, with arguments about artistic integrity and the price of fame threatening to tear the band apart. It is at this point that Go-Go 70’s takes its most powerful turn, placing the band smack in the middle of a far-ranging political struggle. The arch-conservative Korean government, made paranoid by the recent capitulation of South Vietnam, cracks down on a youth culture viewed by the powers that be as corrupting and unpatriotic. Young men are waylaid on the street, their long hair shorn off by repressive, brutal secret police. A harsh curfew is imposed, making rock concerts all but impossible, a circumstance reinforced by the arrest and “enhanced” interrogation of the band members and their musical brethren.
Released from jail, The Devils resolve not to give up, and their final concert, played through a choking haze of tear gas thrown by the armored riot cops outside, is a cathartic scene of rock and roll rebellion and redemption. Though we’ve been told this story before, in many guises, the unbridled enthusiasm of The Devils and their fans in the face of totalitarian evil isÂ joy to behold. Go-Go 70’s is not the world’s most nuanced movie, but there’s no denying that its a lot of fun to watch. The cast does their own singing and performing, adding to the verisimiltude and power of the concert scenes. The film’s prospects for distribution are as yet undecided, but keep an eye peeled if it comes to your town. This flick’s got soul.