Today: July 20, 2024

The Front Line

It is early 1953 and the Korean War has already dragged on for the best part of three years.

It is early 1953 and the Korean War has
already dragged on for the best part of three years.
As the two sides edge towards an uneasy
cease-fire, final battles are being fought which seem – to the negotiators –
crucial in determining relations of power. The Aerok hills, a series of hills
in the eastern part of the front line is one such bargaining chip, and is the
location of Hun Jang’s captivating
film, The Front Line.

Kang Eunpyo (Shin Ha-kyun), a South Korean army
intelligence officer, is sent to the Eastern front to investigate a number of
suspicious occurrences, including the death of a commander, who was shot by a
South Korean weapon. Out in the snowy wilderness of eastern Korea, he meets his
old comrade Kim Suyeok (Go Soo),
whom he had fought with earlier in the war and had thought was dead. Ko Soo has
risen to become an officer, and is now second in command under morphine-addict,
and painfully young, Shin Ilyeong (Lee
Je-hoon
). These three are surrounded by the usual
cast of war characters: the frightened new recruit Nam Seongsik (Lee David), the joker, Yang Hyosam (Ko Chang-seok), and the scar-faced
commander of the opposing forces.

Given the
emotion that still surrounds the Korean War, it would have been easy for Hun
Jang to rely on nationalism and anti-North Korean sentiment. He avoids this
beautifully, and instead opts for a touching exploration of the absurdities of
war. We learn, for example
that Aerok Hills has changed hands some 30 times during the course of the war,
so regularly that soldiers have established a gift box in one of the trenches,
where North Korean soldiers leave rice wine and cigarettes in the hope that a
South Korean soldier will send their letters to family members in the south. The
South Korean soldiers leave matches in return, knowing they are in short supply
north of the border. This relationship persists despite neither side knowing
who they are dealing with, and moreover, despite the fact they continue to
shoot at each other on the battle field every day.

Eunpyo does
uncover a number of irregularities in the camp, but he slowly comes to
understand the extremes that war can drive you to. When it is announced that a
ceasefire will come into force 12 hours in the future, both sides decide to
fight one final all-out battle, and everyone must try to last for just one more
day.

The balance in
this film is its greatest success. We move from quite stunning battle scenes to
camp life with enough regularity to both keep you interested, and highlight the
absurdity of the situation. We have the slightly surreal humour that underlies
most good war films as well as the shocking inhumanity that war demands. It is
– at 128 minutes – slightly long and at times somewhat overly sentimental, but
overall this is a sympathetic and stylist portrayal of the deep bonds, but also
deep wounds that war can bring.

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