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South Korea 2011

War, Action, Drama

Jang Hun

Shin Ha-kyun
Ko Soo
Lee Je-hun
Ryu Seung-su
Ko Chang-seok
Kim Ok-bin
Ryu Seung-yong
Jo Jin-woong
Jeong In-gi
Park Yeong-seo
Fuuma Uehara

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The Front Line

Story: It is the year 1953 and the Korean War between the North and the South has already cost half a million people their lives. Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is transferred to the alligator-unit in this war where he has to look into an unusual death case of a commander. In that unit he also meets his old friend Kim Soo-hyeok (Ko Soo) who he believed to be dead for years. The leader of the unit is the morphine addicted Shin Il-yeong (Lee Je-hun). Not just him but the whole unit has seen more in this war than any human being can digest in a lifetime. Eventually, the alligator-unit gets the task to recapture a hill. For months already the hill is captured by the South only to be recaptured by the North. The hill is of great importance for drawing a line through Korea because of its strategic location. Between the skirmishes Eun-pyo finds out that the alligator-unit leaves messages and presents for the North which they return, too. However, when it comes to battle no one is as unmerciful as Soo-hyeok and even Eun-pyo is about to lose his sanity in the counless bloodbaths on the hill.

Review: Korea has already brought its share of war movies to the big screen but for me the country's biggest box-office hit "Taegukgi" had to struggle with too much forced emotions and too much pathos in general. Furthermore, the story was too obviously aiming at depicting the two Koreas as brothers in the shape of two protagonists closely related. "The Front Line" proves to be way more effective as it works with the emotions in a more subtle manner and moreover makes very good use of the characters. Director Jang Hun thus manages fantastically to combine blockbuster cinema with a profound story and well elaborated characters. Seldomly you get presented the absurdity of war in such a caustic way leading the viewer to be eventually left with a heavy stone in the stomach. "The Front Line" isn't just high budget cinema, but also has to offer a lot beneath its surface. Tears as well as amazement and disbelief are almost guaranteed without the movie ever becoming a simple melodrama.

The greatest strength of this war drama are the very elaborately drawn characters. Very often you don't care at all about the demise of the characters in such movies but here we are actually introduced to individuals. Thus, it's even the more surprising that almost any of the characters, there are only a few exceptions, who don't survive the last battle, lose their lives in comparatively unspectacular ways. There is no celebration of slow-motion dying scenes but instead the dying of certain characters comes so sudden and with such an impact as you would have to expect on a battlefield where bullets fly around. Director Jang puts his focus on a selected amount of individuals and makes them become more colorful through their interactions and dialogues with each other. In the process it also becomes apparent on several occasions that war made these people mentally injured individuals. As Soo-hyeok tells us later on, although in slightly different words, some of them seem to be nothing more than walking corpses.

Winning war means to survive war. This cruel truth is something the soldiers have to experience every day anew. "The Front Line" doesn't set up a picture of an evil North that has to be smashed, it also doesn't draw an elevated picture of the "brothers" in the North, but simply shows that communists are Koreans as well and that the North doesn't find any pleasure in killing southern soldiers as it's also not the case the other way around. The absurdity of war is also shown in the shape of the hill that has to be hold as an important strategic line in the war. Its occupying force changed 30 times (!) already and there are countless bodies of both sides buried beneath the hill. During all this insanity the two army forces start to engage in friendly communication. There is respect for one another and everyone knows about the unneeded madness of war, still no one of those soldiers can change anything about it. They simply have to obey the orders they are given and that means that the next day they are once again butchering each other.

The madness of this everyday life is best reflected in Soo-hyeok's eyes. Ko Soo ("Some", "White Night") delivers a convincing portrayal of the leader who has killed off something within himself years back and is now merely a shadow of his former self. At some times he even looks like a monster, yet we have sympathy for him and can understand his actions. Shin Ha-kyun ("No Mercy for the Rude", "JSA") at first solely serves as an appealing figure since he is as little used to the rules on the battlefield as we are. But he is allowed to show more complex sides of his during the progression of the film, too. Lee Je-hun plays the drug addicted leader of the unit who had to make an awful decision in his past. As things evolve we also grow fond of him. The circumstances made individuals in "The Front Line" monsters and the absurdity of those circumstances is pushed into the foreground over and over again in a very painful and oftentimes also cynical way. Director Jang Hun even manages during the few short scenes where we get to see the soldiers of the north, among them Kim Ok-bin ("Thirst"), that we develop feelings of sympathy and pity for them as well. The ruthlessness of the protagonists simply serves them to ensure their own survival.

Jang Hun, former protégé of Kim Ki-duk, has already proven with "Rough Cut" and "Secret Reunion" that he is talented in creating interesting movies for a wide audience. You can't accuse him per se that this is something bad, as Kim Ki-duk did, in fact he even deserves some praise for that. The movie seamlessly moves along thanks to authentic characters, a very good screenplay by Park Sang-yeon ("May 18") and the very steady directing of Jang who always knows how he needs to combine drama and action. The madness that characterizes the Korean War (as well as any other war) is also reflected in a few scenes like that of Eun-pyo at the end when you want to laugh out loud and cry at the same time as he does. Just when you think the movie is over Jang takes the depicted absurdity to a new level, but the extremely sad thing about it is: "The Front Line" still remains authentic... When the credits roll over the screen you are so emotionally moved and devastated that you will need a few minutes to digest everything Jang presented us with in shape of this gruesome civil war, as you actually would need to call it. "The Front Line" makes everything right, from the emotions to the story and the characters as well as the action. Therefore, this film catapults itself to the top of Korea's war movies.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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