Stationed at the coastline separating North and South Korea, Private Kang, an enthusiastic young solider is obsessed with catching a spy from the north, which he and all other members of his unit are given strict orders to shoot should they observe one. One night while Kang is on watch, two young lover cross over into a restricted area for a romantic rendezvous and Kang, believing them to be spies, unloads his rifle, killing the boy. Although rewarded with a weeks leave and congratulated for following his duty, Kang is unable to come to terms with having murdered an innocent civilian and is eventually discharged while Mi-yeong, the girlfriend of the man shot by Kang, has lost all touch with reality and begins returning to the military base, sleeping with all the soldiers. Unable to adjust with life outside the military, Kang too comes unhinged and after being turned away from the base after multiple attempts to return becomes murderous.
Kim’s films are often open ended in nature and although The Coast Guard (Hae Anseon, 해안선) features plenty of Kim’s trademark abstract imagery and is highly symbolic, what makes The Coast Guard stand out amongst some of Kim’s other films is that not too much is left to the imagination in regards to its main ideas. Obviously the most noticeable thing regarding the film is Kim’s antagonistic approach to South Korea’s mandatory military service and jingoism. Although the film never crosses over into Starship Troopers (1997) territory in its portrayal of hyper-militarism, its potentially dangerous effects are ever present, making the central story of Kang and his mental collapse all the more interesting. Given that Kim presents Kang’s mindset before his murdering of a civilian in a rather negative light, it begs the question of whether or not Kang’s psychological ordeal is intended to be sympathetic or not. This is of course in sharp contrast to the films other central story, that of Mi-yeong, who’s descent into madness following her boyfriends murder is undeniably tragic, with her repeated visits to the military base giving way to one of the films most unforgettable moments. Kim’s surrealistic imagery makes its appearances when he’s focusing solely on Mi-yeong, scenes which, despite being melancholic due to her mental state, also have a strange innocence to them, as if her insanity has freed her, if only temporarily as opposed to Kang, who’s torment eventually brings him to the streets of Seoul for one of Kim’s most memorable finales.
On the North American DVD release, Kim discusses his intentions in making the film, stating “The film talks about the tragedies that have become part of our lives as we live in a divided country. All young men still have mandatory military service, and many of those men protect the coastal borders in order to strop North Korean spies from infiltrating the South. In reality, it has been confirmed that we haven’t had any spies since the year 2000. But we still continue to put these young men through hardship after hardship in order to protect our borders. I wanted to show, through this film, the cycle of pain that we often incur upon ourselves in this situation. The same kinds of things can occur not only in Korea but also in the United States, when you are always preparing to attack and trying to defend during wartime. I wanted to show that you can’t really be happy during such times.” In a way the film couldn’t have been more timely and from a purely socio-political angle, the film is still as relevant as it was in 2002 and never once does the film, or Kim for that matter, come across as self-righteous of preachy. Perhaps a bit more talkative than most of Kim’s other work, The Coast Guard is nevertheless quintessential Kim, provocative, even quite brutal at times but most importantly, heartfelt.