ContactSales: Showbox, Seoul (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: South Korea, 20 Jul 2011.
Presented by Showbox/Mediaplex (SK). Produced by TPS (SK). Executive producer: Yu Jeong-hun. Producers: Lee Woo-jeong, Kim Hyeon-cheol.
Script: Park Sang-yeon. Photography: Kim Woo-hyeong. Editing: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-beom. Music: Jang Yeong-gyu, Dalparan. Production design: Ryu Seong-heui. Costumes: Jo Sang-gyeong. Sound: Jeong Gwang-ho. Action: Hong Eui-jeong. Special effects: Jeong Do-wan. Visual effects: Jeong Seong-jin, Heo Dong-hyeok (Digital Idea).
Cast: Shin Ha-gyun (First Lieutenant Gang Eun-pyo), Goh Su (First Lieutenant Kim Su-hyeok), Lee Je-hun (Captain Shin Il-yeong, the young squad leader), Ryu Seung-su (Oh Gi-yeong), Goh Chang-seok (Master-Sergeant Yang Hyo-sam), Kim Ok-bin (Cha Tae-gyeong, the sniper), Ryu Seung-ryong (Hyeon Jeong-yun, the North Korean commander), David Lee (Nam Seong-shik, the young private), Seo Jun-yeol (tobacco soldier), Choi Min (anti-aircraft army officer), Jo Min-ho (2P radio soldier), Kim Rok-gyeong (reservist soldier), Han Seong-yong (squad leader), Ha Su-ho (Third Platoon member), Yun Min-soo (Alligator Company staff sergeant), Jo Jin-woong (Yu Jae-ho), Park Yeong-seo (Hwang Seon-cheol), Jeong In-gi, Woo Seung-min, Jang In-ho, Ha Seong-cheol.
The Front Line 고지전
2011, colour, 1.85:1, 133 mins
Directed by Jang Hoon (장훈)
By Derek Elley
Wed, 27 July 2011, 22:50 PM (HKT)
Well-written and directed Korean War-is-hell movie is over-long but involvingly played. Specialised business outside South Korea, but with ancillary potential.
Panmunjeom, central Korea, January 1953. During US-brokered negotiations between the North and South, First Lieutenant Gang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-gyun), an officer in military intelligence, is assigned to the eastern front to investigate suspicious events in Alligator Unit, where company captain Yu appears to have been shot in the head by one of his own men and from which a letter from a Northern soldier to his mother in the South has been traced as having been sent. Gang's superiors suspect there may be a Communist mole in the squad. Also, Gang's college friend Kim Su-hyeok (Goh Su), whom he thought was dead, is now in Alligator Unit. (In June 1950 the two had been separated when Kim, a weakling private, had been treated as wounded by North Korean forces after a battle at Euijeongbu.) Arriving at Camp Cayman and Aero-K Hill, Gang finds Kim, now promoted to first lieutenant, to be a toughened, charismatic soldier, though in the present circumstances there's the suspicion that he was "turned" by the North during his time in captivity. The squad is highly unconventional: its leader is a 17-year-old morphine addict, Shin Il-yeong (Lee Je-hun); soldiers wear extra North Korean uniforms because of the cold; war orphans hang around the camp; one soldier, Master-Sergeant Yang Hyo-sam (Goh Chang-seok), is originally from the North, and another is schizophrenic. In the hilly, war-torn landscape, both sides fight back and forth over the same small patch of ground, even leaving basic provisions, gifts and letters in an underground dugout that functions like a neutral dropbox. Gradually, as Gang fights alongside the squad, he comes to understand many of the mysteries and the truth of the company captain's death. But that summer, as the war continues in stalemate and truce negotiations over a fixed border line come closer to being realised, North Korean sniper Cha Tae-gyeong (Kim Ok-bin) — nicknamed Two Seconds by the South Koreans — changes the whole dynamics between the two sides around Aero-K Hill. And the North Korean side is now led by Hyeon Jeong-yun (Ryu Seung-ryong), who had originally defeated Gang and Kim at Euijeongbu.
Written by PARK Sang-yeon 박상연, who penned the original novel on which DMZ drama Joint Security Area 공동경비구역 ＪＳＡ (2000) was based, and directed by KIM Ki-duk 김기덕 | 金基德 alumnus JANG Hoon 장훈, The Front Line 고지전 (2011) is a grittily shot Korean War movie that goes on way too long but is full of interesting characters, political points that resonate in the present day, and battle scenes that complement the human drama rather than — as in the flashily empty Taegukgi 태극기 휘날리며 (2003) — simply show nationalistic heroics or how clever the director is with a big budget. In his previous two features, Jang has dealt with alpha-male head-butting (Rough Cut 영화는 영화다 (2008)) and North-South personal relationships (Secret Reunion 의형제 (2010)), and the strengths of both of those flawed movies can be seen in his latest film, with its tough but believable male relationships and very neutral take on a period when political tensions between Communists and anti-Communists were at fever pitch. (Though this stance is at odds with South Korea's current government line, it does not seem to be affecting — as with Secret Reunion — the film's box office reception.)
For the soldiers fighting over a small, bomb-blasted hill that regularly changes hands back and forth, in a war that they've repeatedly been told will only last a few months, the senseless fighting is not so much about political victory as about getting through it and re-starting their lives. As everything from South Korean chocolate to stronger North Korean booze change hands via a dugout that functions as a neutral dropbox, it's not seen by them as "collaboration"; and forwarding a letter to relatives is not seen as being a traitor. Park's excellent dialogue has a rough-and-ready irony and believability that has scored emotional points with South Korean audiences, and much of that also transmits to non-Koreans thanks to the wide-ranging, non-heroic performances.
SHIN Ha-gyun 신하균 | 申河均 (the kidnapper in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance 복수는 나의 것 (2002)) is especially good as the military intelligence officer assigned to solve the mysteries in the remote squad, balancing a sense of duty against his basically undogmatic principles (hinted at in an early scene). As his weedy college friend-turned-tough soldier, GO Su 고수 | 高洙 shows surprising spine compared with previous pretty-boy roles, and LEE Je-hun 이제훈 | 李濟勲 (the school bully in Bleak Night 파수꾼 (2010)) is especially charismatic as a young, drug-addicted squad leader. More mature characterisation is provided by comic GO Chang-seok 고창석 as a northerner on the South's side and by RYU Seung-ryong 류승룡 | 柳成龍 as a battle-scarred North Korean commander. As the only actress in the cast, a barely recognisable KIM Ok-bin 김옥빈 | 金玉彬 (Dasepo Naughty Girls 다세포 소녀 (2006), Thirst 박쥐 (2009)) holds her own as a deadly North Korean sniper.
The main problem with the movie, especially for western viewers, is that its theme and execution are nothing new: dozens of films, set in conflicts from WW1 to WW2 (All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, King and Country, Flags of Our Fathers), have shown the pointlessness of war, scrapping over scraps of land — and The Front Line brings nothing new to the table here, as well as repeating its message again and again. In addition, the film's early promise of combining the war genre with a murder mystery effectively goes nowhere.
In this respect, the film rates only 5/10, but the combination of Park's intelligent writing, Jang's focused direction, KIM Wu-hyeong 김우형's multi-textured photography, and the ensemble of the performances earns it a couple of extra points. The Korean title means Highlands Battle.