The Korean War is an historical obscenity so absurd that it feels like it was created for propaganda purposes. We are, in the west, well used to the hideous idea of people dying in the First World War right up to 11 o-clock on the eleventh of November, and the utter pointlessness of those deaths. In the Korean war (or as the Koreans call it, the war)* the same thing occurred, only the truce talks went on for two years after the fundamental desire for ceasefire was agreed, with the added piquancy that the fighting that occurred in the last few months and weeks was actually the most vicious, the most deadly of the entire conflict. Areas devoid of mineral richness or any natural strategic importance, hills too steep for farming and too bleak for settlement, became the focus of horrific and sustained fighting. Some small and pointless territories changed hands over 30 times in 18 months at the cost of countless Korean lives, as well as a significant number of Chinese, American and other troops. The perceived importance of these areas was due to their proximity to the 38th parallel, an entirely arbitrary line drawn at the end of WWII partitioning the country into North and South Korea, and sparking the inevitable war. In 1953, as the interminable armistice talks dragged on, these hills became a flash point merely because the owners of a hill could move the arbitrary border to the other side, gaining about three kilometers of extra territory. Thousands of people were killed and maimed fighting over them. The damn things are in the demilitarised zone now, and no one owns them.
The battle for Aerok Hill is the setting for Jang Hun’s film The Front Line, South Korea’s official entry to the Oscars this year. The film’s focus is Kang Eun-pyo, a South Korean intelligence officer sent to Aerok hill to investigate allegations of a mole in Alligator company, currently stationed there. North Korean mail has been discovered being sent through the South Korean postal system, and the company’s commanding officer has been shot and killed by a South Korean bullet. When Eun-pyo arrives at the hill, along with the new commanding officer and a raw recruit, he finds the company in disarray. The acting commander is addicted to morphine; the men wear North Korean uniforms to keep warm and refer to each other as “comrade” and the camp is overrun with children orphaned by the war. He also finds Kim Soo-hyeok, a college friend he thought killed in action several years before. Soo-hyeuk seems transformed (not least by the removal of his glasses,) from the childlike and terrified figure we see in flashback to a brutalized and efficient killer. Where once he prayed to be saved, he tells Eun-pyo, he now only prays to kill. The threads of the narrative paint a disturbing picture – the men have no reason to be fighting, and see no real difference between themselves and the enemy, and yet the warfare is unending, constant and harrowing. When Soo-hyeuk prays for deaths, he doesn’t differentiate between sides – as “only when one side is gone, will this stop.”
There is a lot to like in The Front Line. The battle sequences are well put together and both enthralling and terrifying, and the performances are universally excellent, with Shin Ha-Kyun and Soo Go imbuing the central characters of Eun-pyo and Soo-hyeuk with real depth. Soo Go is particularly fine, delivering an engaging and thought provoking turn as the bespectacled college friend turned embittered warrior. Those glasses, though, signpost my real problem with the film. If there is a less subtle way of depicting a man’s transformation from meek geek to killing machine than having him remove his spectacles, then I can’t currently think of it. Much of the film’s imagery is this crashing, unfortunately, and much of the script is equally banal. An example: it is, no doubt, historically accurate to portray soldiers wearing the uniforms of their enemies to keep warm. It seems perfectly logical to do so in the depths of the Korean winter. It is less likely, however, that a new commanding officer would be unaware of the practice, or that he would immediately assume a soldier in a North Korean jacket wandering around the South’s camp, unmolested and grumbling about missing cigarettes, was the advance guard of an attack. His response, predictably hysterical, was included only to draw attention to the swapping of uniforms, which serves as a clumsy visual metaphor for the interchangeability of the combatants. The soldier who undresses because he’s wearing a North Korean uniform under his South Korean one hammers the point home even further, just in case the audience wasn’t paying attention. Too many of the minor characters have been plucked, fully formed, from the stock war film stereotype chest, and the introduction of “grizzled veteran with boring stories” or “idealistic young recruit” felt lazy and distracting. The final insult to the collective intelligence of the audience is the naming of the battlefield. It’s clear that the film offers us a military engagement as a microcosm of the whole war, and of the whole country. The symbolic weight is not significantly increased by calling the battlefield Aerok, which, if you haven’t noticed, and I didn’t until an embarrassingly long way into the film, is Korea spelled backwards. You’re probably supposed to nod wisely at that; I belmed.
I don’t want to end this review on a sour note, as I did quite enjoy the film. Like I said, the actors do a good job with what they are given, and all are lovely to look at. The battle sequences are crunchy and realistic, and owe a fair bit to Saving Private Ryan, which, if you are directing battle sequences, is no bad thing. Ultimately, though, I doubt this is going to return to Seoul covered in garlands and statuettes, but it’s an interesting take on a conflict too little discussed in the West, and then only through the prism of American involvement. Jang Hun has a lot to say on the subject, and much of it is interesting and thought provoking, but he is too often hamstrung by his hokey and sophomoric presentation.
The Front Line is rleased on DVD and Blu Ray on 27 February
*Sorry, stupid joke. They almost certainly don’t simply call it that, actually. A brief study of the recent history of this battered peninsula suggests they’d need a considerably more specific name, unfortunately.