February 3, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Yim Soon-rye
Korean, Dari and Pashto with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2006, in Afghanistan and in South Korea, the action film “The Point Men” (inspired by true events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A diplomat, a National Intelligence Service agent and a coordinator/interpreter from South Korea have conflicts and challenges in trying to rescue 23 South Korean missionaries who are being held hostage in Afghanistan.
Culture Audience: “The Point Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an action-movie version of a hostage crisis.
As an action film inspired by true events, “The Point Men” can be flawed and often formulaic. However, the movie is appealing for the three charismatic central performances of the negotiators who sometimes clash with each other during a hostage crisis. In addition, “The Point Men” (which also has the title “Bargaining”) offers a web of intrigue, as betrayals and questionable identities have an impact on this rescue mission.
Directed by Yim Soon-rye and written by Ahn Yeong-su, “The Point Men” is inspired by the real-life 2007 crisis of 23 Christian missionaries from South Korea being held hostage by Taliban kidnappers in Afghanistan. “The Point Men” changes the year of this kidnapping from 2007 to 2006, with the movie taking place from September to December 2006. Some of the action sequences are very over-the-top and obviously did not happen in real life, but “The Point Men” is not intended to be completely factual in telling this story.
“The Point Men” begins in a remote area of Afghanistan, on September 19, 2006: the day of the kidnapping. (The movie was actually filmed in Jordan.) The 23 Christian missionaries from South Korea are on a bus that is hijacked by armed Taliban terrorists, who force everyone off of the bus and then plant an explosive in the bus to completely destroy it. The unnamed Taliban leader (played by Fahim Fazli) who masterminded this kidnapping is both ruthless and fickle.
At first, the kidnappers say that they will let the 23 hostages go if 23 Taliban inmates are released from Afghanistan prisons. However, the terms of the deal and the deadlines to meet the kidnappers’ demands keep changing. At one point, the kidnappers demand a small fortune in ransom money. The Afghanistan government refuses to release any Taliban prisoners, much to the frustration of the South Korean government.
The South Korean government has sent several officials to Afghanistan to negotiate for the release of the hostages. The diplomat who has been appointed the chief negotiator is Jung Jae-ho (played by Hwang Jung-min), who thinks of himself as someone who has a strong morality and effective negotiating skills. Jae-ho is unfamiliar with a lot of Afghan customs, so he is ordered to get help from National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent named Park Dae-sik (played by Hyun Bin), who has been embedded in Afghanistan for a number of years. Dae-sik works with a coordinator/interpreter named Qasim, also known as Lee Bong-han (played by Kang Ki-young), who can speak Korean and the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto.
Dae-sik is first seen getting out of jail in Afghanistan, after serving a sentence of about three or four months for counterfeiting. It’s the first sign that Dae-sik is a roguish agent who might not hesitate to break rules to get what he wants. By contrast, Jae-ho is very “by the book,” and doesn’t want to violate any laws in this negotiation process. Dae-sik tends to be impulsive and would rather take part in a combat rescue mission to get the hostages free, while Jae-ho is very methodical and thinks that non-violent negotiations are the best way to free the hostages.
It’s a formula that’s been used in countless action movies that pair up protagonists of opposite personalities who have to find a way to work together despite their differences. The older person in this partnership is usually the more cautious one, while the younger person is more of a risk-taker. If a third person is along for the ride, that person usually has the role of the goofy sidekick. And that’s exactly what Qasim/Lee Bong-han is, since he provides most of the movie’s comic relief.
“The Point Men” has a very good balance of showing the type of discussions that take place in government offices during a hostage crisis and the physical work that takes place outside of government office buildings during these types of missions. Jae-ho is often frustrated by Afghanistan’s unnamed minister of foreign affairs (played by Iyad Hajjaj), because this Afghan government official doesn’t seem very willing to help the South Koreans. Meanwhile, Dae-sik and Qasim spend a lot of time meeting with members of the Taliban in various locations, in attempts to get information helpful to their mission.
It doesn’t take long before the tension-filled action starts. Jae-ho and some other South Korean officials get stuck in traffic on their way to an important meeting in the Afghan capital city of Kabul. They try to bypass the long line of vehicles by dangerously going into a lane for traffic going in the opposite direction. But that doesn’t work either, since they encounter another roadblock. Just as they are about to get out and walk, a suicide bomber gets out of a car and detonates the area, injuring several people, including Jae-ho.
This harrowing incident is a reminder to Jae-ho that his life could be a stake in addition to the hostages’ lives. Two of his colleagues who are with him on this mission are Vice Minister Kim (played by Jung Jae-sung) and Secretary Cha (played by Jeon Sung-woo), Meanwhile, a mysterious Afghan British businessman named Abdullah (played by Brian Larkin) offers to help because he says that he has been successful with previous hostage negotiations. Dae-sik thinks that Abdullah could be an important ally, while Jae-ho is very skeptical.
“The Point Men” goes along at a fairly energetic pace, although some parts of the movie’s plot has people getting out of difficult situations a lot easier than they would in real life. The dynamics between Jae-ho, Dae-sik, Qasim/Lee Bong-han are among the highlights of the movie, since Hwan, Hyun and Kang embody these roles in ways that are always watchable. The movie shows the expected bickering as well as the evolving respect that develops between these three rescuers.
“The Point Men” falters in how little screen time is given to showing the hostages. A few hostages are mentioned by name and by occupation. And there are scenes of the hostages huddling in fear in their place of captivity. But the hostages are essentially background characters. The movie’s ending is a little too contrived, but there’s enough in “The Point Men” to hold the interest of anyone looking for a high-octane “heroes versus villains” story that takes place during the war in Afghanistan.
815 Pictures released “The Point Men” in select U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. The movie was released in South Korea on January 18, 2023.