Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Thrillers Movie Review of ‘The Front Line’ (2011)

Movie Review of ‘The Front Line’ (2011)

A war movie from South Korea, 2011’s The Front Line is an intimate depiction of the Korean War from a resolutely Korean standpoint. Rather than an American examination of the foreign conflict, this is a Korean flick with Korean actors, with an overwhelming sense of authenticity and a lack of Hollywood bias. Although The Front Line is visibly inspired by modern war movies in terms of its visual approach and narrative structure, there are enough unique twists and new details to make it worthwhile, not to mention it tells an important story about “The Forgotten War.” It’s a powerful anti-war film from director Hun Jang packed with visceral combat sequences and thoughtful insights, and it contains some interesting observations about the roles that China and America played in the conflict.

The Front Line is set in the waning days of the Korean War, as the north and the south continue to attempt negotiations to end the hostilities and mutually agree on a border. Intelligence officer Eun-pyo Kang (Ha-kyun Shin) is sent to the front lines in order to investigate the recent death of a field lieutenant from Alligator Company, as there are fears that a spy is amongst them. Kang heads to Aerok Hills, a strategic location which keeps changing hands amid all the fighting. Within Alligator Company is one of Kang’s former comrades, Soo-hyuk Kim (Soo Go), whom he had long thought dead. To Kang’s shock, Kim has become a fearless commander, relinquishing his humanity to become a ruthless leader lacking a moral compass. As it turns out, the situation at Aerok Hills is far more complicated than Kang could have imagined, confounding Kang as he also has to deal with the ever-present threat of the North Korean soldiers.

Although North Korea is prevalent in the media at the present, it’s doubtful that many Westerners actually know much about Korea’s long history, or indeed much about the Korean War. The Front Line is a bit hard to follow at times as some facets of the war aren’t sufficiently explained, not to mention the structure is confusing, with a few flashbacks that are inadequately clarified. But once the main story kicks in, the film soars. What’s especially notable about The Front Line is the way it underscores the futility of war, and highlights that everyday soldiers have no animosity for their enemies outside of what they’re told to do. Aerok Hills changes hands so much that South Korean soldiers dig a small hole for storing chocolates, matches and cigarettes. The other side find said hole, and take the items but leave other things, including rice wine and letters to home that they hope their enemies will post. Later, once the ceasefire is signed and the war is over, a troupe of soldiers are bathing themselves, and their enemies pass by. But they don’t open fire on each other, prompting a North Korean officer to comment “I guess it’s really over.” Furthermore, I’m not sure how accurate the climax is, but it’s heart-wrenching to watch, as it sums up the irrationality of war in a potent fashion. The messages are familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less impactful.

It’s inarguable that Korea has emerged as a moviemaking force to be reckoned with over the past decade or so, and The Front Line is another superlative demonstration of the country’s abilities. The flick was produced on a rather modest budget, but you’d never know it; it has the appearance of a $100 million blockbuster, with large-scale battle scenes and spot-on production values. The reason for this is pretty clear – Koreans don’t work for exorbitant sums, nor are they driven by ego, hence the majority of the funding goes towards sets, costumes and locations. The Front Line is a breathtaking cinematic experience, with riveting battle sequences assembled with top-notch skill in every department. The immersive sound design makes you feel in the thick of the action, the film pulls no punches when it comes to gore, and the special effects are seamless, resulting in some of the finest combat scenes in recent memory. Moody lighting design also adds visual interest; one of the battles is lit by sporadic flares. Fortunately, outside of the big battle scenes, director Hun Jang shows a great filmmaking eye. If there’s anything to nit-pick, it’s that The Front Line was shot digitally on Red Epic cameras when a grainy 35mm aesthetic (like Saving Private Ryan) would have been more effective.

While the characters at the centre of the film are stereotypes, the actors imbue their roles with enough depth to make them believable. The dialogue between the soldiers is unusually strong, and the script shows a proclivity for philosophical discussions, exploring the effects of war on a man’s soul. The Front Line is well balanced between character interaction and large-scale battle scenes, emphasising that this is a war drama as opposed to an exploitative action film. It’s a fine line to walk, and Jang nails it. However, the acting from the English-speaking American soldiers is utterly horrendous; stiff, wooden and unbelievable. At least said performers are only present in one scene, though.

The Front Line is not perfect – its opening scenes are clunky and unfocused, it’s overlong at almost two hours, and it devolves into some needless melodrama in its third act – but it’s a breathtaking motion picture, and its minor flaws are not enough to undo the movie’s endless strengths. War buffs owe it to themselves to seek this one out; it’s easily on a par with the wildly acclaimed The Brotherhood of War.

7.8/10

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