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“The Front Line” is the latest blockbuster film to tackle the tough subject of the Korean War, this time revolving around the battle for a strategically placed hill during the final days of the conflict. Directed by the talented Jang Hoon, who debuted with the excellent “Rough Cut” and whose “Secret Reunion” was one of the best and most popular Korean hits of 2010, the film features a script by author Park Sang Yeon, best known for the Park Chan Wook helmed “JSA”. Dealing with similar themes of brotherhood and duty, the film has a cast of top Korean stars, headed up by Ko Su (“White Night”) and Shin Ha Kyun (“Thirst”), along with Ryu Seung Ryong (“Battlefield Heroes”), Ko Chang Seok (“Rough Cut”), Lee Je Hoon (“Bleak Night”), Ryu Seung Soo (“Second Half”) and David Lee (“Poetry”), with Kim Ok Bin (“Thirst”) as the sole female on the battlefield. The film was another huge success for Jang, scoring big at the box office and bringing home Best Film at the 48th Daejong Film Awards.
Taking place as the Korean War is drawing to a close, the film begins with Shin Ha Kyun as South Korean intelligence officer Kang Eun Pyo being sent to a hill right on the disputed new border between the North and South, where an officer has been found dead in suspicious circumstances. Charged with uncovering a North Korean mole, Eun Pyo is surprised to find the battalion guarding the hill to be a seemingly undisciplined gang of rejects, led by his old friend Kim Soo Hyuk (Ko Su), who he had thought killed in a skirmish earlier in the war. The more time he spends with the men, the more he comes to understand the horror of their situation, and despite the fact that the war is nearly over, it becomes clear that further conflict and needless sacrifice are inevitable.
Given that there have been a great many similarly themed Korean War films around of late, “The Front Line” was always going to need to be pretty special to stand out. Thankfully, former Kim Ki Duk protégé Jang Hoon is easily one of the most interesting directors working in Korea at the moment, and he does a fantastic job of mixing commercial sensibilities with gritty depth, backed by a fantastic script from Park Sang Yeon. Whilst most such films tend to either go the route of slow motion epic action or comradely melodrama, “The Front Line” successfully works in a bit of both, starting off as a mystery themed character piece, Eun Pyo’s investigation into the mole providing a neat introduction to the madness and moral ambiguity of the soldiers’ situation. The never ending, back and forth battle for the hill makes for an apt and powerful metaphor for the insanity of war in general, a struggle for an essentially useless piece of land, which sees countless men losing their lives, used coldly as meaningless pawns by the uncaring authorities.
Through this the film explores the cost of war, not only in terms of the loss of life, but more specifically the loss of humanity, pushing the men to do whatever it takes to survive. The film is a markedly compassionate affair in this respect, taking an even handed view of the supposed enemy, making good use of a plot device which sees the two sides exchanging notes and booze through a hidden drop box. At the same time though, it never shies away from the harsh reality that the two sides are there to kill each other, hammering home during the last act in particular the cruel fact that the best anyone can really do in war is hope to survive, and that the vast majority will not – the characters often reflecting that a soldier’s duty is simply to die when and how he is told. Thanks to the skilful and effective characterisation in Park’s script, although the film has a large cast, most of the soldiers are recognisable and sympathetic, something which makes the incredibly harsh and bleak last act all the more hard to take.
At the same time of course, despite its determination to present war as a pointless and glory free slog through the mud, the film also packs in some very spectacular set pieces, with several breathtaking mass battle scenes as soldiers swarm towards the hill under waves of friendly fire US air bombing. These sequences inevitably result in the supporting cast being decimated, though thankfully while the film is bloody at times it steers mostly clear of “Saving Private Ryan” style slow motion gore and flying entrails. Jang is a director with a keen eye, and the film is visually impressive throughout, making great use of light and shadow and the changing weather to create the sense of the soldiers being trapped in a hellish purgatory of a no-man’s land with little hope of escape.
Although grim, “The Front Line” rings tragically true, and is arguably the best of the recent bunch of epics about the Korean war and one of the very few to capture its madness without too much melodrama or showboating. Well deserving of its success, it should be enjoyed beyond fans of the genre, and sees Jang Hoon cementing his reputation as a director of the highest calibre.
Hun Jang (director) / Sang-yeon Park (screenplay)
CAST: Ha-kyun Shin … Kang Eun-pyo
Soo Go … Kim Soo-hyeok
Seung-su Ryu … Oh Gi-yeong
Chang-Seok Ko … Yang Hyo-sam
Je-hoon Lee … Shin Il-Young