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Let’s face it: war movies have been done to death, and it’s pretty hard to top the Godfather of all war movies, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Of course, it helps if you have a true story to sell audiences, which in this case director John H. Lee does with his Korean War film “71: Into the Fire”. The film purports to tell the true story of 71 student-soldiers (young male students recruited to fight on the front lines) that held off North Korean forces while the main South Korean army was caught up in a bloody battle hours away. The student’s hopeless stand, we’re told, was crucial to the Allied victory.
“71: Into the Fire” opens with North Koreans, led by the supremely confident (on the verge of arrogant) Commander Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won) routing the South Koreans in a bloody battle for one of the country’s towns. The South, led by the fearless Captain Kang (Kim Seung-woo), retreats to fight another day, making their way to a girl’s middle school that has been turned into a field hospital further up the road in another town. Soon, though, Kang is ordered to take his men to engage the North in a battle that will decide the fate of the war itself. Meanwhile, student-soldier Oh Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyeon) is left in charge of 71 of his fellow student-soldiers, many of them fresh new arrivals, the rest of Jang-beom’s comrades having died in the preceding battle.
Will our hero be up to the task? We aren’t quite so sure. When we first see him, Jang-beom is running for his life through bloody streets as buildings and roads explode around him. Our young hero is not exactly the gung-ho type, and though armed, he never gets off a shot as the North slaughters their way through the first battle. Now given command of his 71 fellow student-soldiers, including the troublesome gangster Koo Gap-jo (kwon Sang-woo), Jang-beom is expectedly filled with self-doubt. Burdened with command, and faced with insurmountable odds as Moo-rang and the North Korean forces close in on the school, it’s up to Jang-beom to whip the students into soldiers, lest they all perish in the fire of battle.
The man behind the mayhem of “71: Into the Fire” is director John H. Lee, who previously helmed the Korean blockbuster “A Moment to Remember”. Lee was also announced as the director of a Hollywood remake of John Woo’s “The Killer”, but that was back in 2007 and there have been no movement on the remake since. If Lee intended “71” as an example of what he could do with Hollywood-style pyrotechnics, I have to say, mission accomplished. While it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the genre (post-“Saving Private Ryan”, you can say that about most war movies, unfortunately), Lee does show a masterful hand when it comes to orchestrating vast carnage. The battle scenes in “71” are excellent, with plenty of hero moments for the major characters.
The boys of “71” are led into battle by popular Korean hip-hop artist Choi Seung-hyeon, known to his fans by the stage name T.O.P. In some ways, you can see why the John Wayne-like Captain Kang likes the kid – he’s the strong and silent type, and given the chance, there is leadership potential there. Choi spends much of the film saying very little, doing most of the talking with his eyes, which are always peering out from underneath the brim of his hat. You are never really sure if he’s going to buckle at any given point in the film, and Choi brings a surprising amount of heft to the role. The script wisely never turns Jang-beom into an overnight Superman, though he does come dangerously close towards the end of the film. The long sequence on the school roof towards the end is ridiculously Hollywood-ish, but I’m sure it was also a real crowd-pleaser.
The other major cast in “71: Into the Fire” is Kwon Sang-woo, seemingly continuing his delinquent student character from his breakthrough role in 2001’s “Once Upon a Time in High School”. The proverbial rebel without a cause (though he claims to want to kill commies for the murders of his parents), Sang-woo’s brutish gangster is as quick with his knives as he is with his mouth, instinctively rising to challenge Jang-beom’s leadership as if he just couldn’t help himself. The two young men’s conflict grows throughout of the film, and I suspect this was one of those “creative licenses” created purely to generate ongoing friction within the student body as they prepare for the inevitable battle. Sang-woo is certainly effective in the role, though at times the character feels somewhat incongruous with the storyline. With such long odds ahead of them, would you really spend so much time bickering?
“71: Into the Fire” immediately shows off its war legs by opening with a big battle, before graduating to a final battle for the school. In-between, there are bloody skirmishes between the students and encroaching North Koreans. The film does a fairly good job of showing the chaotic and yet orchestrated nature of the opening and final battles, while the almost-accidental gunfights between the students and the North in the middle sections are completely devoid of any sense of order. John H. Lee certainly has a good eye for combat, and the film’s aesthetics is pleasing. The production value is excellent throughout, and Lee certainly puts all the money to good use. But hey, if you’ve seen any number of South Korean films, I don’t have to tell you that. No one gets more bang for the buck than the South Koreans.
Fans of war movies should find plenty to like about “71”. There is a great moment late in the film when know-it all Moo-rang realizes that his overtures to the students have been rebuffed (with mortar rounds!), sending him into quite the tizzy. Kids, right? The script seems to want to introduce some form of love interest for Jang-beom, but the fact that there were no girls at the middle school (ironic, I know) during the siege probably tied their hands. They did, however, manage to introduce a cute nurse early in the film, but unfortunately she’s gone by the end of the First Act. Instead, we get the expected doses of macho conflicts followed by teary male bonding. The film’s 71 student-soldier cast flies by in a blur, and it’s a challenge to keep track of most of them, but then again, that’s to be expected in films of this type, with its huge cast.
War films simply don’t re-invent the wheel in the aftermath of Steven Spielberg’s seminal “Saving Private Ryan”, and “71: Into the Fire” keeps that streak alive. John H. Lee’s movie does manage to stand on its own two legs, with solid characters and a heroic scenario that moviegoing audiences are naturally inclined to root for. Everyone loves an underdog story, after all. Despite plenty in the way of rah-rah jingoistic moments, “71” didn’t do as well in its native South Korea as other, similarly themed patriotic war movies like Je-gyu Kang’s “Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War”, which broke box office records back in 2004. Curiously, the film has done well overseas, having already accumulated $20 million in foreign box office.
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