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16 Apr

Review: 300 – Last weekend my wife and I saw 300, the film based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller of the same title. I had not originally intended to see it, mainly because I didn’t think Hyunjin would be interested. But we had caught Sin City on television a few times (when they show a movie on television here, they tend to run it into the ground—but it’s nice if you happen to miss the first hundred showings) and she had enjoyed the art and the story. So when we passed a poster for the film and I mentioned that it was another Frank Miller work, she said, “Oh, well we’ll have to go see that.” And so we did. (Today’s entry contains spoilers for the film.)

“When I was young I was very much into history in general and military history in particular, and my father and I would sit at the table after dinner and quiz each other on famous battles.”

I went into 300 expecting to see a visually stunning presentation of a familiar story, and I was not disappointed. I read a number of reviews beforehand and heard the familiar complaints: the computer-generated backgrounds were distracting, the dialogue was nothing special, all those glistening muscles made my testicles shrink in fear and shame, etc. I have to say, though, that none of those things bothered me. The computer-generated backgrounds, for example, served the film very well in my opinion. Yes, they did look unrealistic, but I think that was the point. And maybe it was just me, but it also seemed to have the effect of focusing the attention on the actors at center stage (I use the term “center stage” because what it actually felt like to me was a play).

Being familiar with the battle of Thermopylae, I wasn’t expecting any surprises in terms of the dialogue or the story. For me, one of the joys of the film was hearing those famous lines that I learned as a schoolboy. In a way it reminds me of how Korean audiences appreciated (and still appreciate) performances of pansori, a narrative art form performed by a single drummer and a single singer, the latter alternating between spoken narration and singing to tell the story. There were only twelve different pansori works at most, and only five have survived until today, so most audience members knew the stories by heart. They didn’t go to these performances to see how the story ended, they went to see what this particular singer would bring to their favorite scenes and lines. Because entire pansori could take up to half a day to perform, singers sometimes only performed the most famous parts or the parts at which they excelled.

In a way, that was what 300 was like for me. When I was young I was very much into history in general and military history in particular, and my father and I would sit at the table after dinner and quiz each other on famous battles. I would study maps of these battles, smiling in wonder at the brilliance of these ancient generals and their tactics—tactics still used by the military today. But all these battles were played out only in the theater of my mind—I wanted to see how Frank Miller’s vision made the transition from graphic novel to silver screen. Having never read the graphic novel made me even more curious.

So, ultimately, my judgment of 300 is a judgment of how well I think this vision translated to the medium of film. Visually, it was everything I had hoped for. The slightly unreal look turned the ballet of violence into an almost dream-like work of art. In terms of the story, I was able to appreciate the elements with which I had been unfamiliar, namely the detailed depiction of the politics behind the scenes and the fantastic elements added to the battle. The former was probably based on history at least to a certain extent, while the latter was pure legend. Being a student of oral literature, though, the fantasy elements didn’t bother me. I simply saw them as expressions of the cruel and brutal enemy that our heroes faced. After all, the story was told from the point of view of the Spartans (in particular, by Delios, who acts as the narrator).

There were some especially memorable moments during the film. There were, as I mentioned above, the famous lines, but those were expected. I was more impressed by other moments that weren’t as expected. Like when the Spartans pushed the enemy back to the edge of the cliff and cast them down into the ocean. At one point the scene was shown from the side in silhouette, and the enemy soldiers fell like autumn leaves from the cliff. Another moment that sticks in my mind is when Queen Gorgo stabs Theron in the council and, rather than the expected blood, a shower of gold coins stamped with the likeness of Xerxes pours out.

So, to sum up, 300 was everything I expected it to be stylistically and visually. I wasn’t expecting much more, so I wasn’t disappointed. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be challenged, or to think deeply about the film. As we left the theater I asked Hyunjin what she had thought about it, and she said, “Well, it’s hard to say.” I took that to mean that she wasn’t especially impressed, but what it actually meant was that she was still thinking about it. We ate lunch, did some shopping, and were on our way to the parking lot when she suddenly said, “My life is filled with trivial choices.”

I looked at her in surprise at this sudden remark, but she was staring off into space. “What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “Do I get the strawberry yogurt or the plain yogurt? Do I order the fried rice or the noodles? Do I take the bus or the subway? All of the choices I make, they are so trivial.”

Then I realized she was talking about the film. Before I could think of something to say, she continued.

“I wonder if I will ever have the chance to make a decision like that, a decision with such historical significance. But I fear that I never will.”

I was still taken aback, and the best I could muster was, “Well, you should probably be thankful for that.” What I meant, of course, was that never being faced with such a desperate situation was something for which we should be thankful.

We talked a little more about the film, and she asked me about the history behind it. I was surprised. “You mean you never studied the Battle of Thermopylae in school?” I knew that Korean schools would obviously have a different curriculum than American schools, but I figured such an important moment in Western history would have at least had to get a passing mention. Even if it had gotten a mention, though, it obviously didn’t leave a lasting impression. I realized that she was seeing the story the way I first saw it as a young boy, a story of heroes fighting insurmountable odds, but not without hope.

So I’ve been thinking about it, and the question I keep asking myself is this: what is heroism? Were the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae heroes? I think it is safe to say that, from the Greek perspective at least, they were. But things were not so black and white. Not all of the Greeks left the Spartans to their fate—thousands stayed and fought to the death with them. And while 300 emphasizes the distinction between the free soldiers of Sparta and the slave soldiers of Persia, in reality a large number of Helots—Spartan slaves—fought and died alongside their masters, yet they received no honor or glory.

But the world is not black and white—any human being who makes it out of infancy knows this. Even the greatest hero has his flaws, and even the most vicious villain has a human side. I’m not going to criticize the way the Persians were depicted in the film, mainly because I think that would be reading too much into it. But the question of heroism still hangs before me. True heroes are people who triumph in extraordinary circumstances. For some, such circumstances may be part of their job, but most of us are not put in these sorts of situations on a daily basis, if at all.

True heroes are also usually humble. When a hero is interviewed after the crisis has passed, they will invariably say something like, “I was just doing my job” or “Anyone else would have done the same thing.” And when we hear things like this we begin to think that everyone could indeed be a hero. That is true to an extent—I believe every human being is capable of acting heroically, but not every human being does. If we all acted heroically, heroes would be nothing special. So we come to the conclusion that while anyone could be a hero, not everyone is, and this leads us to wonder: do I have what it takes.

I think this is what prompted Hyunjin to say that her life was full of trivial choices. No one really wants to be faced with such dire circumstances. No one really wants to be faced with death. But stories like 300 appeal to us for a reason—because although we may not really want to be put in such a situation, I think there is a tiny part of us that longs to be put to the test. Faced with an overwhelming Persian army, would we march off to the field of battle? That decision in and of itself was heroic. But what about when our one weakness was discovered and defeat became not only inevitable but imminent. Would we take our shields and spears and retreat, or would we be among the brave few who stayed behind to die so that those who retreated might have a chance to live?

Hopefully we will never have to answer that question, no matter how we may wonder from time to time. We can’t have it both ways—to live a life of comfort is to live a life of trivial choices. But if the history books are any indication, heroes very rarely get to choose the circumstances in which they prove themselves. I only hope that, should such a time ever come, that I would have the courage to do what needs to be done.

I guess I wandered off a bit in my musings there. To wrap up this entry, I will say that ultimately I enjoyed 300. It had its strong points and its weak points, as does any film, but I think the former outweighed the latter. And I am glad we saw it on the big screen—I don’t think it would have had nearly the same impact on a television screen on DVD.

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