In terms of coverage at the UK box office, the Korean War is not particularly well known when compared with other wars such as Vietnam or the two Gulf Wars. The conflict raged primarily from 1950 to 1953 and in effect marked the start of the Cold War. The Korean peninsula has been occupied by the Japanese Empire since 1910 but following their capitulation at the end of World War 2, the peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel and the North half was occupied by Soviet Russia, the South by the United States. In the years following the end of the World War, the Northern half installed a Communist government and the South a Capitalist one. Then, in 1950, the North invaded the South which led to a deadly war which ensued for several years. In effect this regional conflict became the first flash point of the broader clash of ideologies which came to dominate international politics for the following four decades.
The conflict itself ended, in theory, in 1953, with the creation of the Korean De-Militarized Zone, a 2.5 mile wide buffer between the two countries. In reality however the conflict has continued ever since only in a toned down and more covert manner. The deep divisions that exist between North and South Korea remain to this day and flashpoints still occur along the DMZ at regular occurrences. The conflict claimed 2.5 million lives and is a pivotal moment in recent Korean history.
Jang Hun’s gritty and intense film chronicles a company of South Korean soldiers who are continuously retreating from and then retaking an area of land known as the Aerok Hills. These hills are strategically important to both sides purely because it will have a large effect on the dividing line that runs between the two countries. As the ceasefire negotiations rumble ever onwards, both sides continue to pay a bloody price in order to occupy this scrap of land come the finalisation of the agreement.
There is a definite element of something like Band of Brothers to be found in The Front Line. You can’t help but become attached to the men of Alligator Company as their struggles to survive gradually get harder and harder. They are plagued by grisly conditions, inept leaders and a deadly sniper known only as ‘Two Seconds’ (a body drops and two seconds later you hear the gun shot). Into this chaos is thrown Kany Eun-Pyo, a Lieutenant in the Defence Security Command who is sent to investigate the murder of an officer and a potential mole within the group.
Eun-Pyo’s old friend Soo Hyeok is part of the company and has moved up in rank considerably. He and the other officers in Alligator Company appear to have something to hide as the horrors of war are etched all over their faces. They appear to be far too cordial with soldiers from the Northern army. There is a touch of the film Joyeux Noel in there as well as regular soldiers on both sides of the conflict begin to realise that in reality there is little difference between them.
The director Jang Hun really captures the brutal reality of war, with a visceral camera style reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or indeed the aforementioned Band of Brothers. There are some particularly stand-out scenes, one of which sees the flashing of lightening used brilliantly to slowly show the encroaching arrival of swarms of Chinese troops. These battle scenes are hard hitting and pull no punches, making the film a harrowing but memorable experience.
The ultimate message of the film is one of the futility and madness of war. These men suffer great suffering and loss of life, purely so their Generals can claim control over a worthless piece of land. The continuous back and forth of the two armies amidst grubby trenches harks back to the horrors of World War 1 and anti-war movies such as Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. There’s a shocking reveal regarding the company’s past and a heart-breaking twist regarding the apparent end of the hostilities. Needlessly to say, a happy ending is not on the cards here.
It’s an incredibly poignant piece of war cinema and a picture that will linger with you long after the final gunshot and mortar blast has rung out.
The Front Line is out on DVD & blu-ray 27th February 2012.
Director: Hun Jang
Writer: Sang-yeon Park
Stars:Ha-kyun Shin, Soo Go and Seung-su Ryu
Runtime: 133 min
Country: South Korea