REVIEW: Genre-bound War Picture The Front Line Still Offers a Few Startling Moments

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South Korea’s 2012 contender for a foreign language Oscar feels more like a war movie than a movie about the Korean war, right up until its pitilessly bleak final frames. Though the American presence in that war is peripheral to its story, Hollywood clichés pervade The Front Line, from its slate and sepia tones to its stock company of characters and dialogue that translates macho posturing into present-day slang. And yet the movie has its startling moments, moments with the spark of specificity and the bitter clarity of perspective. Those stabs of the unexpected culminate in an ending that refuses to raise even the mildest or most melancholy flag of redemption.

Is it worse for history to downplay a war as pivotal as this one or for the culture to overlook it entirely? Roughly based on true events, the film gives a grunt’s eye view of a conflict that some feel has been forgotten in popular retellings of the 20th century, despite the efforts of Don Draper and co. Perhaps this under-representation drove director Jang Hun to go for broke in telling the story of the end of the Korean civil war in 1953.

The genre poaching begins with the flimsy hook of a mole investigation: An officer named Kang Eun-Pyo (Shin Ha-Kyun) is sent to the front to explore the apparent assassination of the famed Alligator Company’s commander. There he finds a group of men poised on the border of insanity, and among them an old friend name Kim Soo-Hyuk (Ko Soo). Since Kang last saw him Kim has been transformed from a frightened naïf into a soulless killer -- the ruthless soldier who’s too cool to die, too hot to live. A rivalry seethes between the two friends about who has seen the worst of the war. Through their philosophical divide -- for Kang there are only orders, for Kim there is nothing left to obey -- the film explores the worth of a single life in a balance too steep for anyone to bear.

Hun takes pains to emphasize the futility of the war; again and again the men ask why they are fighting. That question might seem a little curious to anyone who has paid even the most fragmented attention to the plight of North Korea over the last sixty years. Every inch withheld from Kim Il Sung and his heirs is an inch free from despotic rule and decades of mass starvation. But The Front Line focuses on the muddled, desperate view from the ground, and the absurdist terms on which war is actually fought. The bulk of the film is set in the Aerok Hills, mountainous territory on the embattled Eastern border. North and South exchange possession of one particular hill so many times that they begin leaving notes and gifts for each other in a bunkered cubbyhole. Hun is careful not to demonize the North Korean fighters, spreading the stereotypes out evenly: The Reds get the grizzled leader with the bitchin' facial scar and the legendary sniper who turns out to be a foxy woman.

The battle scenes, like most shot in the wake of Saving Private Ryan, feel derivative when they're not quoting that film directly. A sequence recounting a frenzied insurrection during a failed amphibious landing is horrific on its own terms, however, as is the depiction of an overwhelming assault led by the Chinese. But The Front Line, at almost two and a half hours, develops its own case of battle fatigue. By the time the “one last job” trope is deployed in the wake of an armistice, the point has been made bloodily and well that war is same everywhere -- appalling -- and everyone sounds the same screaming for their mother. We don’t know what they’re fighting for any better than they do, and the dialogue is too thick with treacle for archetype to clarify into character.

What ultimately makes the film compelling is the extent to which it uses the shared language of cinema to telegraph the caustic feelings of a people toward their own history. The Front Line was a smash in South Korea, which is more remarkable given the absolute nihilism of its finale. What secrets lay in that response? Are they just tougher than we are, with clearer memories? Was it not worth it, after all? Though the movie's coda is not enough to lift the film out of its genre-bound shackles, in finally rejecting formula it feels defiant in more ways than one.

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