Cinema for the Seoul: The Front Line (2011, dir. Jang Hun)

The Korean Cultural society’s “Jang Hun Plus One” film series opened to a packed theater and a literal bang from the war film The Front Line, a period piece about the end of the Korean War.  One of this year’s biggest Korean blockbusters, director Jang Hun’s The Front Line follows a band of soldiers who are faced with the futility of battle, and are forced to fight even when it becomes obvious there can be no survival.

Intelligence officer Eun-Pyo (played by Shin Ha-kyun of Save the Green Planet and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance)  is assigned to the eastern front on allegations that a member of the South Korean army assassinated an officer and has been serving as a spy for the North. There, he not only finds a rag-tag group of soldiers who upend his notions about the invincible “Alligator Company” he was sent to investigate, but also discovers his old friend, Kim Soo-hyeok (Soo Go of Haunters), who he believed dead.  Kim Soo-hyeok has instead transformed from a timid private into a ruthless officer. After some brief catching up, the storyline descends into a downward spiral of death and suffering over the capture of Aerok Hill, a strategic point in the peace negotiations between the north and south, that ends in the climactic death of nearly everyone.

While a fun film to watch, Front Line seemed to fall short of its intended poignancy due to what I perceived as an attempt to make the film as hard-hitting and meaningful as possible. I will admit that I may have formed this sentiment when before the film began, one of the programmers of the series announced that Front Line was Korea’s submission to the Academy Awards.  Despite that I may have been looking for it, this doesn’t change the fact that too many moments were over-dramatised and over-written to the point where I was focusing more on the construction of the scene than the actual narrative (I kept picturing said scenes as being the perfect 5-10 second clip they air when announcing the nominations for Best “Whatever”).

Yet the major issue with Front Line was that it gave the impression that it didn’t know what it wanted to be. While many Korean films (that I’ve seen) can be extremely contrived, the over-characterization and outlandish situations usually work really well for them. Take a look at almost any Korean rom-com, one minute you’re laughing at the absurdity of whatever scenario the character has gotten themselves into, the next, you’ve been manipulated into tears. If you saw last year’s Hello Ghost, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Front Line, however, has all the trimming of a historical narrative which, on the outside at least, gives off the vibe that it is at least trying to be accurate. And to give the film credit, it does start off this way. Yet somewhere towards the middle pieces started to fall off.

Character’s personal vices, which seemed set to be tantamount to the plot, were instead used as devices to deliver pointless, corny one liners after being largely ignored. Mysterious characters appear in the film, who instead of being mercurial anti-heroes turn out to be confusing and one-dimensional, and more suited to a late night anime on cartoon network than a Korean war film. For example, “two seconds” the mysterious North Korean sniper who is built up as this terrifying badass demon is characterized only by their ability to shoot someone. And that’s about it.

The film isn’t exactly bad; it’s just too simple, too long, and too contrived. The photography is fantastic. As Jang Hun films are, the production value is top notch. The acting isn’t bad either, if only the material had been a little less silly. I won’t tell you not to see The Front Line, but if you’ve only got time for one two hour long Korean war epic, I’d recommend spending that time with the very similarly themed Welcome to Dongmakgol instead. It even has the same lead actor.

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