The Frontline (2011)
Director Jang Hun’s Korean War tale stars Shin Ha-kyun, Ko Soo, Lee Je-hun and Kim Ok-vin.
The Frontline, one of Korea’s biggest blockbusters this year, depicts the bitter struggle between North and South to gain foothold of a hill at the tail-end of the 1950s civil war. Jang Hun’s (Rough Cut, Secret Reunion) even-handed direction and Park Sang-yeon’s traditional but finely-tuned screenplay instills the right measure of humanist anti-war sentiment and personal heroism, turning the fates of a small company of men confined to one hellish location into an expose of how impersonal military operations literally makes mountains out of molehills.
An overseas audience is likely to find the film a little long but it won the race against other Korean summer blockbusters, recording some two million admissions in 10 days. Foreign sales should be widespread, though not necessarily channeled through theatrical.
Given the large body of war films from Korea, The Frontline does not cover new terrain in either style or content, but Jang’s signature skill at depicting brotherhood and male rivalry finds expression in his mellow, intimate focus on characters’ traumatic pasts and vulnerabilities that avoids the blustering machismo and sentimentalism of such epics as Taegukki. The varied armed conflicts provide visceral spectacle befitting the film’s production scale, but are devised in the service of human drama that advances steadily toward a stirring finale.
In January 1953, Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun), from the C.I.C., a South Korean army division specializing in weeding out communists, is sent to join Alligator Company – a small troop of men assigned to occupy Aerok Hill, a strategic point on the Eastern Front. His covert mission is to investigate the mysterious death of their commander and to decipher how South Korean military is implicated in delivering letters from the North to their families in the South.
Kang arrives to find the company in low morale and the captain, Shin Il-young (Lee Je-hun) a morphine addict. He discovers that officers engage in exchanges of an illicit nature with their enemies. Reunion with college buddy Kim Su-hyeok (Ko Soo) only leads to disclosure of more unpleasant truths. As casualties rise, Kang’s attitude toward the war is radically altered. Just when peace seems imminent, the company is ordered to make a last ditch scramble for territory 12 hours before the official truce.
The futility of sacrifice is symbolized by the hill, which changed hands for some 30 times in 18 months. The tacit bond between the two sides, reinforced by the frequent reminders that the communists still have and dearly miss families in the South,is juxtaposed with battle scenes where there’s no room for mercy, even toward one’s own comrades. Two scenes in which a North Korean sniper nicknamed “2 Seconds” (Kim Ok-vin) tortures her targets are agonizing to behold, especially since they are preceded by warm encounters between the characters. The rapid-fire editing and sharp, piercing sound effects make the carnage look swift and vicious, compounding horror with an element of surprise.
The final offensive to take Aerok Hill again reflects Jang’s intention to downplay the visual fireworks of war in favor of expressing it as messy, senseless pandemonium. In the light of this, the Shin’s motivating speech on why their company is named “Alligator” – like baby alligators that have a low survival rate, they are the last men standing in a war that took 50,000 lives – resonates with tragic irony. It puts the protagonists in the same state of forlorn hope as the Japanese in Letters from Iwo Jima – redefining “heroism” as dignified acceptance of destiny.
The main characters come from a broad spectrum of rank, age and personal histories. Ko Soo is irresistible as Kim the cocky rule-breaker and master of expedience who eventually becomes the story’s moral center through his defiance of unreasonable authorities. Other officers, like Shin whose enemy is his own pain, and the greenhorn private with a choirboy voice start out looking like stock characters, but they do grow in humanity and moral stature through choices they make in crisis.