”This is war, man. Not fucking hopscotch,” proclaims a pint-sized Patton in this disturbingly inventive film about a bunch of sixth-graders playing capture the flag one Saturday afternoon in the woods. Like much in I Declare War, you don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at lines like these coming out of the mouths of babes approaching adolescence. (That’s particularly true when said mouth is wearing a retainer.) Homemade slingshots morph into crossbows and sticks tied to tin cans become rifles in the fertile imaginations of the 12-year-old participants in these crude military maneuvers. The wicked conceit here is the audience’s shared perception of this warfare: the staccato gunfire emanating from automatic weapons, the billowing smoke from a freshly exploded grenade, the splintering bark of a tree grazed by a bullet. The distressing line between fantasy and reality imbues this 2012 Fantastic Fest Audience Award-winner with a sense of dread you can never fully shake; you keep wondering if the next gunshot will be real, despite the constant reminders it’s all make-believe. This anxiety escalates when a self-loathing soldier abandons the rules of the game and personalizes the conflict with the flick of a pocketknife. At this point, the splattered red liquid from a paint balloon signifying a player’s elimination from the game threatens to turn into something more viscous.
While the narrative in I Declare War stops short of Lord of the Flies, it’s a mistake to view the film in sociological terms, such as the innate nature of human aggression or the desensitization of youth to violence. At heart, it’s a simple, unassuming piece about how young boys (and one girl) think, how they interact with one another, how their own little worlds will soon give way to the less insular world of adulthood. The unseasoned cast of preteen actors manages to keep things real – Yu is a standout as the sensitive and loyal Kwon – though their characters’ behavior may mislead you into critiquing their performances as occasionally amateurish. In the end, I Declare War is both enthralling and a little frustrating in its refusal to fit neatly in any box. Its unpredictable tone clicks back and forth between the comical and the serious like the safety catch on a firearm. But no matter what you ultimately think about it, you can’t deny one thing: It’s not like anything you’ve seen before. In an age of stale ideas and endless repetition, how can you go wrong with that?