South Korean director Jang Hoon followed up his 2010 hit Secret Reunion (a fun spy-vs-spy thriller that sold 5.5 million tickets, coming in second for that year’s box office) with this, his third feature: a gigantic war film set during the 1953 ceasefire at the end of the Korean War.
Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun, who’s donned warpaint before in JSA and Welcome to Dongmakgol) and Kim Soo-hyeok (Go Soo) were soldiers together early in the war. Outgunned, they found themselves captured by North Korean soldiers and dragged before a charismatic North Korean general (Ryoo Seung-ryong, War of the Arrows), who told them that the war will be over in a week and that they’ll be needed to rebuild the country once it’s all over. He released most of the prisoners, including Kang — but poor, frightened Kim he kept, dragging him away from the others for reasons unclear.
We fast-forward a couple of years and peace negotiations are in train, mired in a seemingly endless back-and-forth over where precisely the line between the two Koreas will be drawn. As this goes on, the fighting on the front lines continues, like some blood-soaked game of musical chairs… both sides want to be holding all the strategically valuable territory when treaties are signed and the music finally stops.
Kang is now an opinionated counter-intelligence officer whose politically-unwise outburst earns him a transfer to the eastern front. There, fighting still continues for a patch of ground named Aerok Hill, a patch that has been taken and lost by both sides dozens of times over the last two years. His reassignment is not wholly a punishment, as Kang has an intelligence job to do: finding out why the commander of his company was killed by a bullet from a Southern officer’s gun, and locating a North Korean mole who has been writing letters through the South’s military postal system. Waiting for him amongst the men of Alligator Company is his old friend, Kim Soo-hyeok.
There are a bunch of obvious influences in The Front Line; the men of Alligator Company are a motley crew of stock characters from war movies past, from the baby-faced soldier who’s just arrived and knows the words to Seoul’s hot new songs, to the easy-going veteran with a fondness for old war stories.
What set the film apart from a traditional Big War Movie, though, is the way that the filmmakers have grafted a mystery to their narrative. Kang’s investigation continues after he arrives at Aerok Hill, and his progress as he digs away at the problems of the captain’s death and the letter-writing mole serve as a welcome counterpoint to the depiction of warfare at its most senseless. The slowly depleting band of soldiers taking and re-taking the hill stands as a fairly bleak metaphor for the redrawing of lines on a map happening behind the scenes, and the point is well-made but not belabored.
The writing and acting is good for the most part, though there is the occasional wild melodramatic swerve that shakes things up a bit. Both leads acquit themselves well, and Lee Je-hoon (Ki-tae from Bleak Night) gives a quietly intense performance as the acting commander who’s seen too much. The film looks every inch an epic: Madman’s box art sells the film on the stats (“45,000 bullets fired, 14,000 actors, 150 stunt people, 24,000 explosions”) and the filmmakers have certainly put serious work into portraying the carnage up close. I’m by no means an authority on cinematic depictions of warfare, nor on the Korean War itself, so I can’t speak to its technical or historical accuracy, but it’s certainly a competently told, fascinating story.
The Front Line is an engaging film that draws you in with an old-fashioned detective puzzle, and then patiently unspools a powerfully anti-war message.