The story centers around a few fictional characters placed in the midst of the turbulent events leading up to the violent clash between the civilian militia and the ROK military under the command of Chun Doo-hwan. Kang Min-woo is an easygoing taxi driver, supporting his studious younger brother, Kang Jin-woo. There's the requisite fragile love interest in Park Shin-ae, a nurse at the local hospital.
The movie clocks in at just under two hours, and while it doesn't drag per se, you do see a lot of slow-motion death scenes and shots of overwrought mourners that might have been trimmed by a few minutes here and there. (I'd like to take this moment to say: can moviemakers agree to stop with the overdone "slow-motion, cut the sound" editing style whenever someone mourns the loss of a beloved character killed in action? It's overdone to the point of being cliché.) It doesn't quite cross the line into ham-handed (for me, anyway) but it gets kind of close. Melodramatic theatrics are more of a staple in Korean pop culture than in American, so I assume this was well within the Korean standards of "acceptable drama."
It's also easily excused because the rest of the film is pretty damn good. I admit to not being a good judge of acting (except in picking out the absolutely terrible), so when I say I thought it was extremely well-acted, take it with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, Kim Sang-kyung's performance as Min-woo definitely gave me the sniffles. It's a shame he hasn't been in more movies; IMDB lists a little under one a year since his first movie released in 1998. Hopefully this is because he has discriminating taste: one of his roles is the detective Seo Tae-yoon in Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (another movie I've been meaning to watch because Bong Joon-ho makes some good stuff).
The only problem with the movie is the lack of moral ambiguity. When you take a story about military action that left hundreds of civilians dead, you're going to have to tread a fine line when it comes to representing the soldiers. I don't doubt for a second that at least some of the paratroopers were as bloodthirsty as portrayed in the movie, but I'm sure there were ones who were just plain horrified. Instead you get a black-and-white, "the militia is good and the paratroopers are sadistic bastards" treatment.
Unfortunate since it started out with potential to be fairly balanced: the movie opens with an idyllic (if a bit overdone) shot of Min-woo driving around the countryside in his taxi. The title flashes, and then immediately cuts to paratroopers getting ready to be deployed. As the plane takes off, the commander gives them your generic military pep talk: go get those commie rebels and give 'em hell, etc. One of the troopers asks his commander if that means they're going north. The commander replies that their destination is top secret and that they'll know when they get there. Everyone takes this to mean that yes, they are going north. Only when dawn breaks does another private realize they're flying south:
"We're going south."
"The sun's rising on the left. We're going south."
Upon upon realizing this, the expression of smug satisfaction on their faces (at fighting the DPRK) changes to a mix of confusion and horror. An expression that you don't see on another paratrooper's face for the rest of the movie; they all seem to take pretty readily to massacring unarmed civilians.
The only exception to this portrayal is the token "good guy" paratrooper. Shin-rae's stoic and respectable father had served in the military and left or been discharged for reasons never made clear. One of the mid-ranking paratroopers assigned to Gwangju served under him during this stint in the military and holds him in great esteem. He pays a visit to Shin-rae and her father to warn them of the troops being stationed at the university in Gwangju, lamenting the corruption of the generals and other higher-ups. In the final confrontation at Provincial Office, he lets the father go, unwilling to kill him in cold blood.
The rest of the movie, though, the paratroopers are all sadistic and violent, with nary a shred of humanity in them. And on a visceral, am-I-enjoying-the-movie level, I'm okay with this. People want clearly-defined bad guys and clearly-defined good guys; it makes for easier story-telling. The too-easy moral schematic only really bothers me if I stop and think about it too much.
The movie follows most of the major events that happened over the course of the nine days, ending with the doomed confrontation at the Provincial Office. The violence is also handled tactfully, in that it's far more understated than the events in question were. For example, eyewitness reports confirm the indiscriminate use of bayonets on unarmed civilians, even a pregnant woman. Needless to say this doesn't show up in the movie. No headshots, no extreme gore or mutilation, just your standard-fare bullets and corn syrup splatters.
Did I learn anything about the Gwangju Uprising from watching this movie? No, nothing I didn't already learn from Wikipedia and reading around on the Internet. But does it help bring to life the some of the absolute horror of the incidents? Sure thing. Worth watching? I'd say so, though this is hardly the first SK movie about Gwangju. 1996 saw the release of A Petal, which won a bunch of awards at assorted film festivals; Peppermint Candy is not exclusively about Gwangju but touches on it; and the TV drama Sandglass. Sandglass is sometimes credited with touching off a sort of "Gwangju revival" in the Korean public consciousness, resulting in movies like A Petal and Chun Doo-hwan's conviction of assorted war crimes (though his life sentence was later commuted on the advice of Kim Dae-jung, Chun still paid something like 53 billion won in reparations).
Overall, I liked it, but I seem to be in a minority, as reviews online are mixed. It's managed to escape the view of all the major critics in the US: it has only one audience review on Rotten Tomatoes, and nothing from the so-called "Top Critics." Not sure why this is, when the deplorable and mediocre 2009: Lost Memories has five proper reviews, including three Top Critics. The difference in the audience rating between the two is only a mere .2, but oh well. I stand by my assertion that May 18th is a good movie and worth watching, nonetheless.