KFF Review: 'The Front Line'

The Front Line
(South Korea, 133 min.)
Dir. Hun Jang, Writ. Sang-yeon Park
Starring: Ha-Kyun Shun, Soo Go, Je-hoon Lee, Ok-bin Kim.
The first Korean Film Festival in Canada’s capital began with the Ottawa premiere of The Front Line, a film that offers film buffs a historical account of a pivotal period in Korean history and a good snapshot of the strength of contemporary South Korean cinema. The Front Line, which was South Korea’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film race for the 2011 Oscars, is a war film of impressive scope. Featuring some excellent battle sequences and a potent tale on the futility of war, The Front Line makes a worthy stand to kick-off this week’s fête for Korean cinema.

Director Hun Jang, who worked as an assistant director with Kim Ki-duk, offers a gritty and realistic look into the 1953 ceasefire of the Korean War. Talks of ending the war between North and South Korea have abound for two years when The Front Line flash-forwards to the main plot of the story. The film marks the passage of pointless battle during talks of peace by opening with the separation of two friends, Eun-pyo (Ha-Kyun Shun) and Soo-hyeok (Soo Go), following their seizure during a battle, only to reunite them as combat resumes their the talks of peace. The two leads create an appropriate hero and anti-hero to carry the battle of The Front Line.

Despite the stagnation of the war itself, both men have moved up in the ranks. Eun-pyo, now an officer for internal affairs, is sent to Alligator Company to investigate a potential mole and the odd death of a high-ranking official. It’s at Alligator Company that Eun-pyo reconnects with his friend, who is now second-in-command to a young, morphine-addicted captain (Je-hoon Lee). Like the battle going on between the North and South, the years of the war have created an irreparable distance between the two men. War, as The Front Line shows, changes people. It reveals character, rather than builds it, as men become machines and do what it takes to win and stay alive.

Hun draws out the pointlessness of the war’s epic devastation in an impressive sequence in which the men of Alligator Company fight to retake control of Aerok Hill. The sequence, which calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s death march to defend the Anthill in Paths of Glory or perhaps even the harshest moments from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, sees the hill change hands in a drawn out battle that wipes out the lion’s share of men on either side. The struggle is realistic, gritty, and brutal. As the cameras crawl in the dirt with the men and trawl the hill, the battle of Aerok Hill stands as an epic centrepiece.

The sequence also reveals the sheer pointlessness of the battle despite the victory of the South. As Soo-hyeok explains to his friend as they wear off the shell shock of the battle, control of the hill exchanges between the North and South with predictable routine. It’s become like a game of returning a shuttlecock as the hill changes hands between two players. The game of the hill has brought out a thread of humanity between the two sides, however, as Soo-hyeok notes that whereas one side would literally leave their shit as a surprise for the other platoon, the hill now comes stocked with spirits to toast the victor, plus letters for loved ones from the losing party. The war brings out the worst in men, but a common bond as well.

The Front Line suffers somewhat in its overdrawn second half as Eun-pyo continues his investigation following the battle. He, too, has been transformed by the war, but his efforts to see through the binary “us” and “them” distinction that war creates takes the film down an unsatisfying story of unrequited love and of fractured fraternal bonds. The film nevertheless maintains a few riveting sequences in its lengthy latter act, particularly a suspenseful turn of events in which the men of Alligator Company are targeted by a legendary North Korean sniper dubbed “Two Seconds” who has the ability to pick off soldiers with a stealthy precision.

Impressive for its scope, resonance, and notable production value, The Front Line is a compelling anti-war film. It’s a smart look through the history of South Korea and a worthy snapshot of where the nation’s cinema stands today.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Front Line screened in Ottawa at The Canadian Film Institute.
For more screenings in the Korean Film Festival, click here.