Front Line, The (2011)

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The Front Line

Director: Jang Hoon

Starring: Shin Ha-kyun, Go Soo, Lee Je-hoon, Ryu Seung-soo, Ko Chang-seok, Kim Ok-bin, Ryu Seung-ryong, Lee David

In the United States, there are many films about the many conflicts in which our country has taken part. From the American Revolutionary War to the most recent War on Terror, military films are aplenty and I’d like to think that any avid film lover has seen their fair share. Conversely, South Korea is a country that has no real pedigree when it comes to military warfare depicted in film, despite the Korean War being viewed as a major international conflict. Barring a few earlier films, it is safe to say that the Korean War is hugely unexplored as topic for movies. Considering the huge boom in big budget productions coming out of South Korean within the last 15 years, many sub-genres of film are finally being produced with close to the same frequency of other large international film making countries. The Front Line comes to us as the next film from Jang Hun, whose hugely successful Secret Reunion was a box office smash only a year ago. Does this film duplicate the positive response of his last film? Or does it fall short as many follow-up films are seemingly want to do?

In the final days of the Korean War, both the North and South find themselves battling over a small hill that will determine the boundary between the two sides. Battles are fierce and frequent and possession of the hill changes almost daily. When a commanding officer is found shot with a weapon belonging to their side, South Korean officer Kang Eun-Pyo (Ha-Kyun) is sent to investigate if there may be saboteurs or traitors at the front line. Once there, he meets up with his old friend, Kim Su-Heok (Soo), a once meek and unfit soldier who has been promoted and has transformed into a ruthless soldier and tactician. As Eun-Pyo searches for the possible mole within his unit, he makes a surprising discovery concerning the hill and both North and South soldiers’ intimate methods of coping with the hardships of war. As the final battle for the hill is approaching, how will each side fight to protect each of their ideals when revelations are discovered between the once faceless soldiers on the other side? 

Like many films concerning war, The Front Line is very dark and gritty. The expression, “War is Hell” is one that fits aptly. Battle sequences are violent and graphic and desperation is clearly evident in soldiers’ expressions and actions which leads to a very realistic feeling film. The battles are not the only aspects explored but downtime and the feelings and desensitizing of soldiers are all dealt with in equal measures. Some scenes viewers will find shocking, but the depiction is matter of fact and one that is realistically portrayed. The various methods of the soldiers which they use to cope with the pressures of not knowing when you will die are graphic but provide the viewer with empathy at the same time. Their reasoning makes their actions have purpose and motivations are clearly defined.

Shin Ha-Kyun and Go Soo are the stars here, they give their roles an intensity that belies their characters’ sensitive side. At one point similar, but now two sides of the same coin, Ha-Kyun gives his Eun-Pyo an analytical, disciplined, and full common sense about the nature of war but still very much patriotic. Go Soo’ Su-Heok is ruthless, loyal, and driven to survive when so many others have not. Seeing the two of these actors through stare-downs, fighting side by side, and through those few moments of pre-war brotherhood, one really gets the feeling that each actor really understands their character. Good supporting performances by the rest of the cast provide enough development and emotional tie that when you see someone die, it hits you. Kim Ok-Bin and Ryu Seung-Soo are standouts among the soldiers in both sides of the conflicts.

Production value is high with long and intricately choreographed action. The graphic injuries and deaths of the soldiers are emphasized with good prosthetic and makeup work. Bullets whiz by and explosions really pop thanks to VERY good sound direction. There is a claustrophobic feeling that exists when they are in the trenches which is visually assisted with the manic movements of the popular shakey-cam technique. I personally think this is overused, but it’s here to stay and it is thankfully relegated to appropriate scenes only. Cinematography is very good with the use of craning shots and closeups at many different moments, the DP used a lot of dynamic movements to create a visually stimulating film and solid framing for personal moments. The music is strong and has the typical swells when moments of heroism are on-screen and the melodramatic notes when a character is either baring their soul or dying in someone’s arms. Adequate but typical, it doesn’t really stand out amongst other films in the genre. The film does run a bit long but that is standard of big budget SK productions.

The winner of the Grand Bell, Korea’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, The Front Line has quite a reputation that I unfortunately did not completely agree with, as other films in the past year were much more deserving in my opinion. That’s not to say the film was bad, far from it, it’s a technically polished film with good acting and fantastic design that accurately and emotionally depicts the effects of a conflict to a country that is still very much shaped by it.  While not a perfect film, The Front Line is solid and engaging war film that will give perspective to this particular conflict and the horrors of war. While this subject and conflict have been addressed in many other films before, the uniquely Korean perspective will provide insight to this conflict which, for the most part, is widely unknown to viewers in the West. In the end, go see it.

You may enjoy The Front Line if you enjoyed: Tae Guk Gi, Days of Glory, Saving Private Ryan

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