Judge Daryl Loomis thought this was a flea prevention film.
The last battle of the Korean War.
The story a war movie is inherently slanted toward is the viewpoint of the people telling it. There are cases, like Letters from Iwo Jima, that attempt to tell another's perspective, but that the exception and it is filtered through the teller's brains nonetheless. It can be eye-opening, then, to watch foreign war films, just to get their take on events that we already have notions about. This is especially true in the case of The Front Line, which tells of the final moments of the Korean War, likely the least discussed war (at least that America had involvement in) of the 20th Century, from the South Korean perspective.
Facts of the Case
Early in the war between North and South Korea, Kang Eun-pyo (Ha-kyun Shin, Thirst) and Kim Soo-hyeok (Soo Go, Into the White Night) were close compatriots, but when they were separated, Eun-Pyo took Soo-heyok for dead. Much time passes and Eun-pyo is called to investigate evidence of friendly fire death during operations to wrest a hill from the North. When he arrives, he finds Soo-hyeok there as commander, addicted to morphine, and fostering a suspicious relationship with the people they're supposed to be fighting. As a cease fire nears, aggression increases, though, and they have to put their differences to rest and fight at the other's side so they all can go home.
War is never pretty, but The Front Line does one of the better jobs I've seen at displaying the ugliness. It isn't as outwardly violent as many other recent war films (though it's violent enough), but director Hun Jang (Secret Reunion) doesn't shy away from showing the disturbing aftermath of the battles. Heroism is a highly relative thing in what, to the Koreans, was as much a civil war as it was a fight about Communism, for or against. Jang certainly includes the influences of American and Chinese forces on the conflict, but they are presented in more or less subtle ways in favor of the effect the war had on the individuals fighting in the trenches.
These relationships are not just between fighting brothers, but amongst the two sides of the conflict, as well. In one of the more interesting dramatic points of the movie, we find out that, because the hill changed hands so often and the soldiers didn't want to lug everything out of the bunker every time they lost it, they built a little hole under a mat as a stash place for chocolate, matches, and other small things. After the other side found it, they wound up filling taking the items, but filling the hole with other things, including letters to family back home. There is a kind of camaraderie built between the two sides that exists even while they're shooting to kill at one another. I don't know if any of this really happened, but in the craziness of battle, I can totally see it and the way Jang presents it is compelling and affecting.
Its tone and the realism of the battle scenes will inevitably draw comparisons to Band of Brothers, which is probably valid. The shooting and drab color scheme look similar, and fans of the mini-series will instantly find it familiar, but there's considerably less heroic talk and a lot more honest human fear at play. There's less dramatic tension written into the plot, but the film is basically two ridiculously bloody battles, how much more drama could one want? Jung makes it work really well, both in the way he constructed the film and in the way the actors are presented. They aren't all the faceless, hard to identify kids that often appear in even the best American war films; instead, Jung gives them personalities, hopes, and fears that go deeper than the similarities of their uniforms.
The very end of the film, unfortunately, brings the story down a little. Jung might go a little too far with the characters, bringing some of them to the level of heavy melodrama, especially in one of the very final scenes. Moreover, there are an inordinate number of false finishes to the movie, many places where it could have reasonably ended, making an already long movie drag more than it should. It doesn't bring it down even close to far enough for me to think poorly on the movie, but those issues still exist.
Well Go USA delivers a technically superb Blu-ray for The Front Line. The 1.85:1/1080p high definition transfer is absolutely excellent from top to bottom. Shot on the Red One camera, the detail is impressively crisp with great clarity and nearly perfect colors. It's hard to see how the film could look better. The sound, too, is impressive, with fantastic surround effects in the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Gunshots, especially during the sniper scenes, are placed in appropriately disorienting places in the soundscape and the dialog is never hard to hear, even during the heat of battle. Unfortunately, the only extras are a three minute making-of featurette that shows nothing and a collection of film highlights, which I guess are valuable for people who want to talk about what happened in the film without actually watching the thing. Given the historical nature of the film, some background on the reality of the battle would have been nice, as would any number of things not included here. The film looks and sounds great, though, so disappointing extras should not dissuade you from this release.
The Front Line may get a little bit melodramatic by the end, but it's a fantastic film and a valuable look at a side of the Korean War that we don't often get to see. It's an excellent, if imperfect, film with a gorgeous Blu-ray that fans of Korean cinema and war film fans in general will certainly want to watch.
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