Today’s movie is about a war that tore one nation apart due to the meddling of foreign powers; a war that began just over sixty-four years ago and never actually ended. Yes, the Korean War…again.
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The movie takes place during the final months of the Korean War, although every month before that had seemed to be the final month. Truce talks have been going on for two years and everyone is getting tired of war, but the fighting has still continued. One point of contention is Aero-K or Aerok Hill. Get it? Itâ€™s â€œKoreaâ€ spelled backwards. I should probably mention that this movie is complete fiction. Anyways, whichever side controls that hill determines the line of demarcation between the North and the South, and the North took it from South Koreaâ€™s Alligator Company a couple days before the start of the movie.
Kang Eun-pyo has been transferred to the Investigation Unit and told to go to Aerok Hill. It is an assignment that he is reluctant to take due to what he sees as the overzealous persecution of supposed communists taking priority over purging pro-Japanese collaborators. However, it was either this or be accused of treason over these complaints. He is sent to Aerok Hill to investigate the delivery of a letter South Korean Military Postal System by a North Korean soldier to his mother in the South as well as the killing of the Captain of Alligator Company by a South Korean gun. It seems that there is a spy in Alligator Company, and Eun-pyo must go with the new Captain and a fresh recruit to find him. It also turns out that Kim Su-hyeok, Eun-pyoâ€™s friend from college whom he thought was missing in action after getting captured, is in Alligator Company.
Eun-pyo arrives at Alligator Companyâ€™s camp to find that discipline has halfway broken down. No one greets the new captain. The acting commander is a teenager who shoots up drugs and almost immediately questions the new captainâ€™s orders. A couple of war orphans wander around the camp with impunity. Some soldiers wear North Korean uniforms along with their own to keep warm. Most of the soldiers are cynical and disgruntled, and a few showing mild signs of PTSD. Kim Eu-hyeok has changed from the frightened boy that Eun-pyo remembered from their battalion days into a hardened and somewhat coldhearted fighter. And the death of the former captain is hardly the worst secret that Alligator Company is hiding.
Of course, what would one expect? They have been fighting for this hill month after month, losing men every time. They have taken it thirty times and lost it thirty times. Aside from American airstrikes, they are pretty much on their own (I am not actually sure how many are in Alligator Company as visuals seem to vary from a few dozen to nearly a hundred) and this little gang of three is pretty much all the reinforcement they have. All of them complain about the lack of development with the truce talks. Yet, the fact that this hill is so easy to take and so difficult to keep is probably the reason why the negotiations are stalling.
The new captain tries to wrangle this weary crew, but his is a bit of an overly ambitious moron, so things just get worse. He knows nothing about the history of the fighting here. He knows nothing about the conditions here. He knows nothing about â€œTwo Secondsâ€, the dreaded North Korean sniper. He knows nothing about the sheer impossibility of keeping the hill for more than a few days. And his nonsense could get them all killed. Eun-pyo finds himself on the front lines of the final battle in a war that still has not ended.
It is said that no war film can be an anti-war film. If that is true, this one still comes pretty close. Even at the very beginning, with the American foodstuffs and the Japanese-inspired Trot Music, the first lines of the film are from protesters calling for the reunification of Korea. That has got to mean something. The battle scenes are all relatively short, the longest being barely six minutes long. They get increasingly grim, brutal, frightening, and sad as the film progresses. The men are tough, but broken. They are not just snarky and cynical; they are bitter and tired. They had been fighting for this hill for who knows how long and had already taken the hill thirty times with nothing to show for it except for dead comrades. Defeat means nothing. Victory is fleeting and also means nothing. Their sacrifice means nothing. Their lives means nothing because everyone is long-since dead.
Perhaps some of you have watched Saving Private Ryan and thought that the idea of using eight guys to save one man is stupid. Others may have tried to accept that, but found that the whole bridge sequence at the end was ridiculous. Yet, the movie ultimately puts emotional stock in both of these missions. This movie never makes it seem as if there is any worth of any kind regarding the hill. It is one hill; not even a mountain. The two sides do not stay in one spot or slowly move inch by inch; they take the hill and lose the hill. There is one scene near the midway point of the movie that shows the passing of time with the South Koreans taking the hill, losing the hill, and then taking it back again. It is almost like seeing a game of King of the Mountain, except with much more blood and less mountain. No one at the hill cares about the hill; they just keep fighting because they have no choice but to keep fighting until the truce is signed by the ones in charge who care only about the hill. Like in movies like Saving Private Ryan or even 71 Into the Fire, the movie salutes the bravery of the soldiers and their ultimate commitment to their duty and each other. In this movie, however, that bravery and commitment is horribly wasted.
This movie was written by the same person behind Joint Security Area, and there are a few notable similarities in terms of the premise. The beginning of the movie is framed around the story of an outsider character being sent to an area of contention to solve a mystery, but the mystery itself gets solved about a third of the way into the story and becomes simply a means to tell a different story without having to establish it in the beginning. It is about the characters, who start out looking like stock characters and develop further as the story goes on. The antagonist is not really the North, but the system that perpetuates the war. There are, however, some major differences. In this movie, however, the fighting has been going on for a while, and the characters are much more open with airing grievances about the war. There are more characters involved, but the higher ups are almost completely unseen save for a few scenes. Most of the characters are long since disillusioned about the war, and they fight only because they have no other choice, in hopes that at least one of the group will survive. The movie focuses primarily on the South Korean side, though there are a few scenes that focus on the Northern side, mostly to show that they are going through the same nonsense as the Southerners are.
This movie has elements that seem reminiscent other war moves, and some might consider parts of the story clichÃ©d. There are a few twists that I saw coming from a mile away. There are a few subplots that seem melodramatic and ultimately unnecessary, and I kind of wondered how many of them were actually based on true stories from the war. Still, I think that The Front Line has its own identity, and some of the clichÃ©s are kind of subverted. The back and forth between which side has the hill gets normalized by the middle of the film, which gives the story a sense of futility to the point of absurdity, but also provides the foundation for one of the main storylines. There are no real heroes, only people who will risk their lives so that others might survive. The villains of the piece are not really that, and even outright treachery is treated as something that is sometimes necessary. There is no John Wayne or Kirk Douglas. There is no Martin Sheen or Charlie Sheen. There is no Tom Hanks or Damien Lewis. There are just two groups of people who would rather not fight, but continue to engage in acts of brutality against each other and die horribly in order to control something of minimal worth. But this movie is definitely worth checking out. Maybe not for Fourth of July Weekend, but soon. Maybe on the 27th of July, sixty-one years after the end of the fighting, though not the war.
Next Time: Pinjar (India: 2003, approx. 190 minutes)
Time After Next: The Bird People in China (Japan: 1998, approx. 120 minutes)