War is Still Hell, by Josh Long
By this time in cinema history, we are all pretty familiar with the war movie, the anti-war movie, and the fact that the two often go hand in hand. We know the formula – we meet a platoon of soldiers, get to know them, see them killed one by one, and hopefully understand the horrors of war. It works, so we don’t often see much variation from the formula. South Korea’s official submission for Best Foreign Language film for this year’s Oscars is a film that mostly sticks to the formula, but finds a few ways to be notable in a sea of repetition.
The Front Line (Go-ji-jeon) stars Ha-kyun Shin, who American audiences might recognize from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In this film, he plays an officer sent to investigate a small platoon whose captain may have been murdered. Shin’s character (Kang Eun-pyo) arrives and discovers that his friend Kim Soo-hyeok is a part of the platoon – there is an emotional reunion, as Kang thought Kim had been killed.
The issue of the captain’s murder quickly takes a back seat when Kang begins to experience what has been happening on the front lines. The war is very close to truce, both sides wondering why they are still fighting. Kim’s platoon has been continually taking and losing the same hill, Aero-K (pull out your mirror to figure out the clever name on that one). Plagued by memories of recent blood baths, haunted by a sniper whose bullets hit two seconds before they’re heard, and following commands without knowing why, the platoon is barely able to hold themselves together.
The most tragic part of the story comes at the end (SPOILERS – all though much of the film’s promotional materials act as if this is the only part of the movie). A cease fire is declared, and it seems as if the war is over. But through a technicality, fighting can continue for 24 more hours. The higher-ups are demanding that a last push must be made to capture Aero-K, which will determine the border between North and South Korea. The battle is fierce, but is ultimately farcical, in that the most brutal of the fighting takes place after the war has already ended.
The Korean war is one about which most US audiences will know very little. From this perspective, the film gives some interesting insights into the history of the events, and the Korean attitudes towards the war (past and present). It works to make two major points: that those involved in the fighting see no reason to continue doing so, and that there is little difference between the North and South Koreans. This idea holds particular weight for the filmmaker, Jang Hun, who is an outspoken supporter of the reunification of Korea.
One of the best plotlines in the film involves a secret compartment in one of the bunkers of Aero-K. Kim’s platoon has been leaving cigarettes and other wartime trinkets in the compartment every time they take the hill. They always lose the hill again, but when they recapture it, they find alcohol, gifts, and letters from the North Koreans who had taken the hill from them. This connects them to their enemies as people, not simply faceless cogs in an enemy war machine. When the “friends” who left them booze are recognized on the field of battle, the horrible realities of the war are all the more poignant.
The film is firmly footed in the subject matter, but does have a tendency to slip towards the melodramatic. The final battle sequence particularly seems overwrought. Every character who is killed gets a lengthy death sequence, proportional to the size of their role in the film. The actors never seem disingenuous, but there is a sense that we’re dwelling on the sadness for longer than artistically necessary. Although there is some depth to Kang’s character, he isn’t very engaging. Perhaps unintentionally, he acts more as our guide through the world of the film than as character in it. Kim on the other hand (played by Soo Go) is much more fascinating. He’s a rebel who realizes that he’s trapped in a world driven mad by the war, and protocol be damned, he’s going to do whatever he can to get by.
The direction in the film is excellent, if not entirely original. There are clear influences of Saving Private Ryan and Paths of Glory, particularly of the latter in a lengthy shot towards the end of the film, tracking across the post-war battlefield. The film’s color palette is composed of the dingy greys and browns one expects from a way movie, but the filmmakers bring some warm colors to the film when addressing the secret compartment.
The Front Line succeeds in presenting an emotional war story that speaks to lingering issues within Korea. Hopefully, the film’s push towards the Academy Awards will inform international audiences about a war that has, for many, fallen from memory. While it may not bring anything new to the war genre, there are some good moments to help it stand out in the throng.