While the Korean War lasted from 1950 – 1953, the nation remains divided into the Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even today, a source of constant tension between the two peoples. It’s hard to imagine the stress and discord created between families broken apart due to living on opposing sides of the 38th Parallel, but films like THE FRONT LINE can offer citizens of the world a look back at the final moments of a struggle still creating divisions even today.
THE FRONT LINE primarily deals with the various battles surrounding Aerok Hills, a hilly, cave- and trench-filled area where the fiercest battles result in the large piece of property changing hands between the two nations several times. A South Korean company commander turns up dead, but, when the body is examined, he’s found to have been killed by one of his nation’s weapons. Defense Security Lieutenant Kang Eun-Pyo (played by Shin Ha-kyun) is sent to investigate the affairs of Alligator Company. Once there, he learns that a former soldier/friend of his, Kim Soo-Hyuk (Go Soo) – a man he long thought dead – is still alive, and Kim’s actions may very well be close to the mystery of what’s happened at the front. Assuming Kang can survive the battles long enough, he may learn the shocking secret of what drove a soldier to turn on his superior … a secret that may prove better left unknown.
The film is a powder keg of action, intrigue, and drama as it explores not only the complex relationships that these soldiers develop in their respective times of crisis but also delves deeply into what it means to sacrifice for one’s nation. The audience is introduced to all of Alligator Company, and they’re shown with all their beauty and scars. They laugh together, they cry together, and, if fate has it, they die together, but never do they go into it blindly or without a reasonable amount of reflection on what war – the most brutal experience known to man – has done to them and their band of brothers.
Also, the script is wonderfully peppered with amazing character moments. Each of these soldiers – even the few we’re introduced to in service to North Korea – are given some defining characteristic: no one is simple a soldier or a killing machine, even if that’s the role they may inevitably play in the climax. For example, an adversarial officer is shown early on in flashback, and, when confronting his enemy, he’s respectful and, even, forgiving about having done what was needed to capture them. Showing compassion, he turns them loose, telling them that the war will be over soon. When we see this officer later – after the strain of three years of fighting – he maintains his nobility, but his face and body are covered with scars – the most strikingly visible effect combat can have on flesh. The message here is that no one – despite their predilection for goodness and mercy – escapes war without consequence, a grim message indeed.
While the narrative is clearly very anti-war (certainly, a handful of characters all reflect on the futility of the campaign to recapture Aerok Hills from the enemy), the film never descends (as so many American films tend to as of late) into sanctimonious preaching about the ills of combat. Yes, all of these men are scarred from what they’ve done; and, yes, they each go to some length to question the legitimacy of it; but, in the end, they’re all soldiers doing a dirty job. As much as they’d like to put it all behind them, they repeatedly toe-the-line – with some prodding for drama’s sake – with a spirit of nationalism, pride, and honor to carry out their orders.
The camerawork is particularly harrowing as these men march, climb and crawl throughout the blasted remnants of Aerok Hills. Other engagements are shown in flashback (I won’t spoil any details, suffice it to say that there’s a very specific backstory to the central mystery; it doesn’t fully unfold until fairly late in the picture, but it’s a frightening experience that underscores why some of these soldiers act the way they do). The majority of it appears to have been accomplished through handheld cameras – with a fair amount of jerkiness to the action – but, unlike other films, I never found it intrusive or unnecessarily disturbing. Director Jang Hun struck a terrific balance between the heavier and the lighter moments – inserting moments of human tenderness to balance out the realities of harsh combat. Where some films descend into what’s been termed ‘war porn,’ THE FRONT LINE retains a focus on recording the history of these events, always leveraging them against the human cost, and it’s exceedingly well done from start to finish.
The film is a joint presentation of Showbox and Mediaplex with production by A-Po Films. It served as South Korea’s official submission to the 84th annual Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, and it won four Grand Bell Awards (awards presented annually by The Motion Pictures Association of Korea), including Best Planning, Best Cinematography, Best Lighting, and Best Picture. The disc is marvelously produced with exceptional picture and sound. Sadly, there’s only a brief (3 minute) ‘making of’ feature, but there’s also a section of the film’s highlights and several trailers. Still, the film’s a winner through-and-through, and this is one that deserves to be in any film fan’s collection. English-subtitled.
HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION. It’s as gritty and uncompromising as it is heartfelt. THE FRONT LINE starts out slowly but builds toward its dramatic war-torn conclusion. This is take-no-prisoners guerilla filmmaking on par with SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and Korea’s own TAEGUKGI or SILMIDO. This is one of the best films on war that I’ve seen in a very long time.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD screener copy of THE FRONT LINE for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
War is hell. Civil War may be worst than hell and much more ‘hellish’ than one realizes. At least, that is what director Jang Hoon may be trying to communicate with his Korean war epic “The Front Line”. Set towards the end of the Korean war, this film takes the viewer into the mind of the soldier; their thoughts, their fears and even their fragility are all on display. War is hell and truly in war, no one truly wins. During the time when an uneasy … more