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Korean war films tend to have an even more tragic feel to them due to the fact that they usually revolve around the North South conflict which has split the country into two. This is certainly the case with “71 – Into the Fire”, from “A Moment to Remember” director John H. Lee, which recalls a particularly poignant battle that saw 71 young South Korean student soldiers attempting to defend their strategically placed school from a Northern onslaught. With a cast headlined by T.O.P of the pop group Big Bang (real name Choi Seung Hyeon) and Kwon Sang Woo (“Fate” and “Running Wild”), supported by veteran actors Cha Seung Won (recently in “Blades of Blood”) and Kim Seung Woo (“Iris”), the film’s release was specifically timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and to commemorate the memory of those lost.
The film takes place after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and begins with a South Korean commander (Kim Seung Woo) being ordered by his superiors to deploy a band of 71 volunteer student soldiers to defend the middle school in the town of Pohang, a location of considerable strategic importance. Unfortunately, he and his men are soon called away to fight in the battle of Nakdong River, leaving the inexperienced young men to fend for themselves. Led by Jang Beom (T.O.P), the only one of them to have combat experience of any kind, they desperately try to hold their position from an attacking enemy battalion, headed by grizzled North Korean veteran General Park (Cha Seung Won).
“71 – Into the Fire” is very much in line with Korean War genre highpoint, the Kang Je Gyu directed blockbuster “Taegukgi”, being a historically rooted epic that mixes tough battle scenes with personal tragedy and a focus on the human cost. Thankfully, the film is not too heavy handed on this score, and despite having a background mainly in romantic comedies, director John H. Lee manages to avoid anything too melodramatic or cheaply emotional, aside from a few voice over scenes involving letters from Jang Beom to his mother. The film is actually very even handed, with even the North Korean soldiers never being overly demonised. The fact of the students’ young ages and their complete lack of combat experience plays a big part in the film, leading to some difficult moral choices for both the South and the North, and this furthers the tragedy whilst adding a little depth.
Unsurprisingly, the film is a pretty downbeat affair, though this fits the subject material, and it definitely benefits from an absence of nationalism or rousing Hollywood style motivational speeches. Though it does have a few moments of humour and is grounded by a winning and convincing sense of camaraderie, on the whole the film is tense and doom-laden, with there being a sense of inevitability having over the proceedings as the final battle approaches, which the viewer is only too aware will likely leave most of the cast dead. Although thinly sketched, the students are generally a likeable bunch, and never make any sudden leaps into idealism or suddenly transform into battle hardened killers. Rivalries within the group also make for another level of drama, as Kwon Sang Woo’s rebellious criminal butts heads with Jang Beom for leadership before their eventual friendship blossoms. The acting is of a decent standard, with T.O.P doing a good job and shouldering his pivotal role with surprising maturity, and with Cha Seung Won delivering the film’s other standout performance as the tough North Korean general. As a result, the film does get quite hard going during the last act when the bodies start to pile up, and the film carries a real emotional punch as it reaches its grim conclusion.
Lee gives the film a gritty look, with most of the cast spending the entire running time with mud caked faces and blood splattered clothes. The film never shies away from the harsh realities of the students’ desperate situation, dealing not only with the threat of the approaching enemy, but also with their ever dwindling supplies of food and ammunition. The battle scenes are suitably visceral and violent, filled with people being blown to pieces and losing limbs in bloody explosions. Although the film could certainly have done without some the slow motion, which notably detracts from the overall sense of realism, it is for the most part well handled and epic, making good use of its big budget to give a sense of scale and historical detail.
“71 – Into the Fire” is certainly one of the best Korean War epics of the last couple of years, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Taegukgi”. Thrilling, tragic and thoughtful, it shows the best of the war genre, highlighting the sacrifices made and the human cost of conflict, without needing to spend the whole film hammering the viewer over the head with obvious melodrama or platitudes.
John H. Lee (director) / Kim Dong-wo, John H. Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Cha Seung-won … Commander Park Moo-rang
Kwon Sang-woo … Koo Gap-jo
Choi Seung-hyeon … Oh Jang-beom
Kim Seung-woo … Captain Kang
Kim Hye-seong … Yong-man
Koo Seong-hwan … Nam-sik