Let me state from the start, I love South Korean war movies. They are always entertaining. Turn off your filters, sit back, shake your head, and enjoy. These directors know how to film balls to the wall action that makes “Saving Private Ryan” look like a documentary. Remarkably, I have yet to see one that does not treat the Korean War as a mess. There is no patriotism in these films and a lot of sympathy for the enemy. Compare this to Hollywood’s take on the war and remember that South Korea has a much better reason to pump up the patriotism and demonization of the enemy. The recent appearance of these types of movies starting with “Joint Security Area” (2000) clearly shows how far the country has come down the path of democracy. It was not that long ago that the director of a movie like this would have been thrown in prison. I read the other day that you could argue that in terms of positive results the Korean War was our most successful war. That may be a stretch, but when you see where South Korea today (and specifically Korean cinema as an example of this), you can see where this theory comes from.
“The Frontline” is set on the eastern front in the last month of the war. The Alligator Company (named after the fact that baby alligators have a low survival rate) is tasked with capturing Aerok (look at it in a mirror) Hill before the Armistice locks in the border. The hill has changed hands 30 times in 18 months. The company is low in morale and has recently had a change in command via fragging. The interim commander is a morphine addict. Kang (Shin Ha-kyun) arrives from the C.I.C. (Counterintelligence Corps) to investigate the murder and suspicions of collaboration in the unit. (The C.I.C. was created to ferret out communists in the ranks.) He is shocked to be reunited with his best friend Kim (Go Soo). Kim had been taken captive early in the war and was presumed hors de combat. Kim is now a cynical anti-hero.
When the latest order to take the hill comes the unit reluctantly saddles up, shrugs, and sallies forth. The result is SPRish with hand-held, quick cuts, close-ups pulling back, and even a tracking shot. If you’ve seen Tae Guk Gi, you know the Korean style. Kang takes part in the attack. Did I mention Korean directors are not big on reality? Being in the thick of it allows Kang to discover that there is a bunker in no man’s land that acts as fraternization central. Whenever it changes hands, the dispossessed side has left “gifts”. The South leaves America cigarettes and chocolate and the North leaves rice wine. More significantly, the communists leave letters for relatives in the South.
|Dammit! They left us some mouth wash.|
There is a really cool montage of a few more assaults as seen by a stationary camera to push the time frame ahead. A key subplot involves a North Korean sniper called “Two Seconds”. A “Full Metal Jacket” type of “I dare you to rescue him” scene is followed by a FMJesque revelation.
Another subplot involves the raw nerves of the platoon. Kang traces this back to an incident at Pohang early in the war. Flashback time. In an amphibious assault gone bad, the Alligators were attempting to withdraw when another platoon decided their Higgins boat could handle double capacity. A .50 caliber machine gun ended the boarding attempt and the incident was covered up, but the mental scars did not heal. Soldiers in Korean movies must suffer physically and psychologically.
|Who else thinks this is sexy?|
Just when you think things could not get worse, here come the Chicoms. A human wave attack in the driving rain results in Kim countermanding the new commander’s decision to follow orders and hold by putting a bullet in his head. What the frag?! Kang threatens court-martial. He just does not get it. Guess who doesn’t live to stand trial? Kang carries the body back only to learn the war is over. To emphasize this, Kang runs into the sniper’s band at a stream and they exchange nods and waves. Good game. Bittersweet and satisfying ending right? But wait, most of the cast is still alive. This violates Korean war cinema doctrine.
It turns out there are 12 hours of war left. Who really wants that moonscape of a hill? The generals. This actually accurately reflects the battle for the hills (ex. Pork Chop Hill) that closed the Korean War. Who wants to stage a grand set piece to close his movie? Jang Hoon. Leave the kitchen sink in the trailer, but bring everything else. Air bombardment by fighters that drop bombs they don’t have (learned from American war films). Slo-mo. Elegaic music. Hand-to hand. A stabbing death that reminds of Mellish’s from SPR. Graphic wounds. Intense violence.
“The Frontline” was a huge hit in South Korea. Apparently South Koreans do not like their war movies coated with sugar. (They don’t mind a whiff of bull shit, however.) The movie was critically acclaimed and was awarded the Korean equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar and was nominated as South Korea’s representative for Best Foreign Film for the Academy Awards. It may be a bit overrated relative to that. However, it is undoubtedly entertaining in a macho male demographic way. I don’t think females will be as enamored, but there is a significant female character which is something to commend it for. Hint: think “Enemy at the Gates”.
|Korea 1945 - today|
The movie is very well acted. The leads are good and typically sincere for Koreans. There are some interesting plot devices like the bunker in no man’s land. The themes of brotherhood, rivalry, and sympathy for the enemy (although a bit heavy-handed) are nicely laid out. These themes have been explored before in Korean movies, so there is nothing new here. Also not breaking new ground is the “it’s a small world” nature of many of the character arcs. And the ending is on the trite side.
If you have never seen a Korean war movie, this would be a good place to start. Don’t start with “Tae Guk Gi” because then you may be let down by the others. I would begin with “Joint Security Area”. Regardless, pop some popcorn and dive in.
grade = B-