An assured and affecting dramatisation of war's repeating futility.
"War is hell."
This cliché, repeated several times in variant forms over the course of The Front Line, perfectly encapsulates the way that director Jang Hun and screenwriter Park Sang-yeon have married the universals of filmic convention to the particulars of their story.
It is 1953, and the Korean War is nearing its final active phase. As the Southern forces of Korea and the US negotiate an Armistice treaty with the North and China, military intelligence officer Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is sent to the 38th Parallel. Even if the front line there is constantly shifting, Kang is nonetheless following directions carefully mapped out in previous war movies.
Kang's mission – to locate a renegade 'mole' who appears to have gone native – is a scenario lifted from Apocalypse Now; Aerok Hill, the contested strategic point that Alligator Company and their Communist counterparts keep bloodily taking and retaking, is clearly modelled on Hamburger Hill (and the earlier, Korea-set but US-made Pork Chop Hill); the ruthless enemy sniper, ‘Two Seconds’ (Kim Ok-bin), appears to have been recruited from Full Metal Jacket, along with the soldier driven to murderous madness by his traumatic experiences...
A flashback to a high-casualty beach landing (at Pohang) also takes viewers right back to Saving Private Ryan, as does the slow, intimate stabbing of an enemy later in the film; even the Great War's famous 'Christmas Truce', as re-enacted in Joyeux Noel, is recalled here through scenes of fraternisation and fellowship between foes, culminating in a spontaneous outburst of collective singing from both sides of the aggressively political divide. This is before they return, reluctantly, to the more soldierly business of slaughtering each other wholesale.
The effect of all these raids on other, mostly non-Korean war movies is to situate Alligator Company's particular ordeal in a broader tradition of both story and history. Thus another entirely clichéd question in war epic – "when will this war end?" – here resonates with renewed despair in a film that endlessly echoes other films, while also focusing on a particular war that, though now largely inactive, has never been formally ended.
And a third such question – "why are we fighting?" – acquires special poignancy in the context of civil war, especially as we witness increasingly brutalised individuals on both sides engaged in violent conflict with themselves as much as with the 'enemy', even as we are privileged to see that they have far more common ground, even on the corpse-strewn Aerok Hill, to unite than divide them.
If The Front Line is an assured and affecting dramatisation of war's repeating futility, climaxing in a mutual massacre just hours before the officially scheduled cessation of armed combat will come into effect, it is also a tragic reminder of the countless numbers of soldiers who died in a nation's struggle to define its political, moral and geographical boundaries at inestimable human cost. Jang's filmmaking weapons may be utterly conventional, but that does not prevent them from delivering a high-impact payload.
Many of the scenes and set-pieces here are familiar, but there are relatively few films (Brotherhood, Welcome To Dongmakgol, 71: Into the Fire) that explore the Korean War from a Korean perspective. And, after all, by most accounts, war (Korean or otherwise) really is hell...