April 21, 2012

Quick review: THE FRONT LINE (World Cinema Showcase)

The Front Line is a Korean film set in the dying months of the Korean War and is a film that has taken a lot of obvious influence from Western war films, particularly the World War II films of Hollywood. It has a knowledge of the genre tropes and the typical characters that populate a film such as this. It goes big, bombastic and with a clear obvious message at it's heart.

My knowledge of the actual war itself is incredibly sketchy, something I should really rectify. But any sense of history isn't really required, as the film takes place during the protracted negotiations to end the war; negotiations that have dragged on for years. South Korean CIC Officer Kang Eun-pyo is dispatched to a post on the front line - a sad, dirty camp that has fought with the North Korean army over a single shitty hill for far too long. One day the South Koreans have the hill. The next, the North. The day after it's back with the South. This has gone one for months. At the camp Eun-pyo (who, from what I could gather, is some sort of MP) finds his friend Kim Soo-hyeok, who he thought was MIA years ago. Soo-hyeok has been aged by the war into a hardened, bad-ass officer making his way up the ranks by attrition.

Eun-pyo doesn't really do much in the way of investigating reports of a camp mole, but instead serves as the outsider whose eyes we see these beaten soldiers through. They're a close-knit group but allow Eun-pyo and the fresh-faced new recruit he brought with him into their fellowship. Less welcome is the new CO; he's from the school of ignorant, pompous braggart of Movie Officer Training School.

The bulk of the film is taken up with various excursions to and from the hill, battles that win it and battles that lose it. Also hiding in the surrounding countryside is a North Korean sniper nicknamed "Two Seconds" by the poor bastards that come under fire. But within all this brutal warfare there are moments of shared humanity - a hidey-hole where soldiers from both sides swap notes, booze and cigarettes. It becomes an exhausting watch, getting a little bogged down in the constant fighting and sense of tension but makes up with a couple of unseen turns (or, at least, unseen for the time they happen at).

The final third is where The Front Line really, painfully hits its mark: after yet another painful assault peace is finally declared. But, due entirely to a stupid bureaucratic fuck-up, the higher-ups on both sides decide there's still 12 hours left to fight of this devastating war. It's a kick to the guts for the characters and the audience. And director Hun Jang really uses the time to hammer his point home: what, exactly are they all fighting for? None of the poor grunts slugging it out on the front lines know. Who the war doesn't kill it utterly destroys.

This is very much a Korean tale to be told and I'm glad it was told by Koreans and for Koreans. Despite the obvious influence of their filmmaking style, the American (and UN) forces barely make any sort of appearance.

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