Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Front Line

When Band of Brothers was released on HBO over a decade ago, it taught a very important lesson about what makes a war story a truly memorable one to tell. It’s not the large scale bombings, epic battle scenes or the excessive gore. No, what really makes for a lasting story about the horrors of war is showing us the human side. Telling stories about comradery, brotherhood, and the horrors of war through the eyes of average people whose position any one of us could have found ourselves in if we were born in a different generation. The Front Line does just this; it doesn’t tell a story about the Korean War itself, it tells a story about a group of men stuck within it.

Shin ha-Kyun stars as Kang Eun-pyo, a South Korean communications officer who as the film opens is patiently waiting for a leave home from the war, which as this point is still going strong despite the fact that the two sides are in the midst of peace negotiations. His potential ticket home would be short lived when he expresses his opinions about the treatment of North Korean civilian prisoners in front of the wrong ears, and is punished by being sent back to the front line. However his assignment does come with a hidden agenda, his investigation skills are to be put to good use. First off the commanding officer of the company he will be sent to was recently killed in action, by a South Korean weapon. Not only that, but there is suspicion that there may be a spy in the company leaking information to and from the North.

The company he has been sent to was nicknamed by the American Military the “Alligator Company”, for reasons I will not say in this review, you will have to see for yourself. They have been fighting for control over the Aerok Hills, a specific strategic point which is very important to both sides. So important that it had at this point already been captured and lost to the North at least 30 times, and there was no sign of either side backing down. As Kang arrives to his post he immediately realizes he is not being placed with ordinary soldiers, these men have been through a devastating hardship and both their physical and mental states are growing less and less stable. To his surprise the company also happens to include Kim Soo-hyeok (played by Soo Go), a dear friend he had thought lost to the war a long time ago, a friend that when he last saw him was a cowardly soldier being dragged away by the North. Now he has shown a great deal of grown both in ranks, and mental strength. So he thinks.

From this point on there is very little that can be said about this films incredibly well told and always  developing plot that will not go on to spoil some very big and effective surprises, so I will leave it be and let the viewer enjoy for themselves.

The Front Line is only one of a few Korean military dramas I have managed to watch over the years, of course when anyone thinks of Korean War films, the absolutely brilliant Tae Guk Gi immediately comes to mind. As deservedly so, that is one of my absolute favorite Korean films, and war films in general. However I must admit that The Front Line does give Tae Guk Gi a fairly good run. It defiantly finds its strides in developing a great deal of the actual company men, and not just out two leads. Tae Guk Gi  focused on a few of the hero’s comrades, but not nearly to the same extent. Including the two lead characters, there are at least 6 or 7 characters in this film that are really well developed and almost immediately find a place in the story, which as I said before is really about a company as a whole. Lee Je-hoon especially shines as the man who was temporarily put in charge of the company when its commander was killed. He is perhaps the one who will eventually carry one of the most interesting stories as when we first meet him its reviled that he is addicted to morphine, but why?

The real stars however, are the two stars themselves (of course). Shin Ha-kyun is brilliant; he just steps in and owns his role. And for good reason I will go into shortly, he stands out as the best actor in the film. I have always been a big fan of Shin Ha-kyun since first seeing him in Save the Green Planet, and since then he has never failed to impress me in every role he has placed himself in, regardless of the quality of the film.  Soo Go  stands tall as well; he plays a much more complicated character and does so very well.  In fact the acting for the most part was quite good all around, usually. This film does at times suffer from a few very awkward moments of excessive drama. There are some scenes that should have been far more impactful, but the characters take their dramatic beats a few steps too far and the crying especially is just far too overdone. Not always though, there are a few very subtle moments, but like I hinted at earlier it is Shin Ha-kyun manages to keep a level cap on how dramatic his acting will be and for that reason his scenes are far more effective. Sometimes a few well placed tears can be much more effective then sudden screaming and crying.

The Front Line was directed by Hun Jang, which marks only his third directed film. Before this there was 2008’s Rough Cut (which was written by Kim Ki-duk) and 2010’s Secret Reunion, and excellent spy thriller starring (my favorite) Song Kang Ho. He was also an assistant director on Kim KI-duks wonderful The Bow. So he may not have a lot on his resume, but this is defiantly a case of quality over quantity.

Beyond the incredible story telling, and focus on character development, as a war film itself The Front Line doesn’t manage to do too much we haven’t seen before in terms of action. However it’s really nice to get to see The Korean war from the perspectives of the Koreans themselves, and to again compare to Band of Brothers, The Front Line does what I absolutely love any War film to do, it depicts the opposing soldier as people, not evil enemies, or the “bad guys”. It shows what all War stories need to, that the men and women fighting on the lines are no different on either side. They are people just the same, and they are doing no different than anyone else, fighting for their country. And the film itself makes it perfectly clear that both sides are not even sure why they are fighting, they are just doing their duties as soldiers.  By showing from this perspective it makes a very pivotal moment near the end of the film incredibly impactful. In fact when this moment occurred I as a viewer felt angry. I was literally upset at what was going on, not upset at the film itself of course, but I was genuinely upset at what was happening on screen. A feeling I can honestly say does not happen very often, and its feelings like this that can always allow a film to leave a lasting effect.

-Jeff Wildman


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