In many ways, The Front Line is a typical Korean war movie which does little to introduce fresh motifs. However, the captivating cinematography and heart-warming characterization blossom a compelling story that gives viewers a glimpse into a vivid history.
Directed by Jang Hun, The Front Line depicts the last battle of the Korean War, following Kang Eun-pyo, Second Lieutenant for the South Korean Army, who is dispatched to join the Alligator Company, a band of South Korean troops on the Eastern border. There, Eun-pyo finds his long-last companion Su-Hyeok and is forced to adapt to the harsh reality of war on the front lines.
The film opens with a sunny day in Seoul as The Front Line Serenade croons in the background. After that, a majority of the movie is draped in brown dregs of war. While the movie is not particularly gory, each battle scene witnesses the desperation of the soldiers. Jang reproduces one scene so vividly that I constantly find myself reverting back to it: a scene when the Chinese, aiding North Korea, infiltrate Aerok Hill. As the Alligators shiver in the dark, pelted by unrelenting rain, the faint sound of a blow horn alerts them of enemy attack. The soldiers fire blindly. The blow horn grows gradually louder and louder, mounting suspense as flash after flash of lightning reveals an empty battlefield. In one final, piercing screech, the ground illuminates with a tidal wave of Chinese troops. Advancing soldiers run in synchronized chaos against the reddish backdrop of gunfire, likening the enemy to a swell of swarming insects.
Jang centers much of the film around a bunker on Aerok Hill. For two years, Aerok Hill consistently changes hands between the North and South, showing the pain, costliness and pointlessness of the Korean War. Knowing full well that the war will continue to drag on, the South Korean soldiers use the bunker to communicate with the North, exchanging gifts and letters. Jang clearly believes that when they aren't pitted against each other. Both sides develop a camaraderie and share excitement for their treasures. The theme of brotherhood recurs when, upon celebrating the end of the war, both sides acknowledge each other and move on. [Spoiler Alert] Even on their deathbed, Eun-pyo and the North Korean general share a bottle of booze and light each other's cigarettes. These men are brothers, and ultimately, they are the same people. [End Spoiler Alert]
Throughout the film, the ravage of war gnaws at your heartstrings until only a bitter resentment of reality is left. Jang's brush paints tears on soldiers who have only brotherhood to console them. A hellish battle in Pohang drives the men to turn on their own troops. Su-hyeok laughs in hysteria at a war orphan's amputated arm. The audience suffers a torturous standstill when a new recruit named Nam Sung-sik, barely seventeen and fighting his first battle, faces off with a teenage enemy soldier. Both kneel, trembling in fear, rifle-to-rifle and knee-deep in dying soldiers.
Despite the hopelessness of war that droops over their shoulders, Jang portrays what little life is left with compelling affection. He dabbles in the backstory of each soldier, justifying their sometimes morally-adverse actions. We remember Yang for his giggle, Oh for his humor, and Nam for his naiveté. Eun-pyo is bound by morals, but unfit for warfare. Su-hyeok has lost his morals, but can keep his troops alive. Il-young relies on morphine to erase a painful past. Possibly most compelling is the role of a North Korean woman soldier who kills with no emotion and finishes the job by munching on South Korean chocolate. While the presence of the woman soldier may be historically inaccurate, Jang's inclusion of her as a character only further illuminates the war as all-encompassing.
With harrowing images, Jang reveals a progression all the soldiers faces: slowly, humanity slips away. In desperation, the soldiers cling to the tokens of humanity that remain; an honor pin from the Liberation Army, a grainy family photograph, the melody of a Korean ballad. Even sadder is the irony that many of the treasures are gifts from North Korean soldiers: a tin cup etched with erotica, a pair of German goggles.
The Front Line has been criticized for historical inaccuracies and not breaking new ground; but cinematically, Jang presents a historical masterpiece that leaves audience members raw and aching. By the end of the film, as Eun-pyo stands upon an Aerok Hill wrought with two years of death, the audience is left pondering Jang's crystallized message: if we are all brothers, why are we fighting?
The Front Line is currently playing in limited release in the US. For more information, go to the film's official website.
Click here to read APA's interview with director Jang Hun.