Film: The Front Line
UK Release date: Out now
Director: Hun Jang
Starring: Ko Su, Shin Ha Kyun, Seung-su Ryu, Chang-seok Ko, Kim-ok Bin
Running time: 128 mins
Country: South Korea
Reviewer: Adam Wing
War, what is it good for? Well, over-reaching sentiment and gritty action sequences for a start. The Front Line doesn’t attempt to think outside the box, but what it does do it does efficiently enough. Winner of Best Film at the 48th Daejong Film Awards, director Hun Jang (Secret Reunion) and author Park Sang Yeon (JSA) take us back on the battlefield of The Korean War. Popular actors Ko Su (White Night) and Shin Ha Kyun (Thirst) star as lieutenants on the front line, along with an impressive cast that includes Ryu Seung Ryong (Battlefield Heroes), Ko Chang Seok (Rough Cut) and lone actress Kim Ok Bin (Thirst), who more than holds her own as a North Korean sniper nicknamed ‘Two Seconds’. The Front Line was South Korea’s entry for the 84th Academy Awards, and even though it didn’t make the shortlist, it did pick up four Grand Bell Awards (the Korean equivalent of the American Academy Awards), and now it’s available for the first time in the U.K. courtesy of Cine Asia.
In the final battles of The Korean War, North and South Korean soldiers face a brutal deadlock on the Aerok Hills. Veteran intelligence officer, Kang Eun Pyo (Shin Ha Kyun), accepts an assignment to join the front line, with the task of uncovering treachery and collusion with enemy forces. The South Korean commander of the Alligator Company has been found dead, indicating that there may be a mole within the ranks. He arrives to find North and South battalions fighting over a small hill that changes hands almost everyday, and somewhat unexpectedly, an old friend he had long thought dead. Kim Soo Hyuk (Ko Su) isn’t the man Kang Eun Pyo remembers though; a battle-hardened soldier and fearless tactician has replaced the weakling he once knew. Suspicion, honour and sacrifice come under fire as the two men are forced to fight side by side in the name of freedom. What is it good for again?
Jang Hun and Park Sang Yeon stick to what they know best with The Front Line, delivering a thrilling mix of sentiment, touching drama and gripping action. It offers nothing new to the genre but what did you expect from a modern movie depiction of war? Think Band of Brothers crossed with Saving Private Ryan and you’re almost there. The action sequences are as loud and explosive as you might imagine, but never gratuitously so, and with the presence of ‘Two Seconds’ - a female sniper hunting down the Alligator Company one by one - Jang Hun is able to lock on to the much needed tension found lacking in larger battle scenes. We’ve all witnessed staggering spectacle in war movies before - gruelling battles between unrecognisable soldiers - but after a while they all start to look the same. It’s the drama that plays out in between the warfare that hits home hardest.
The relationship between Kang Eun Pyo and Kim Soo Hyuk is certainly worthy of merit. Ko Su in particular is the films biggest draw, lighting up the screen with a charismatic performance at times irresistible. Kim Soo Hyuk isn’t afraid to defy authorities, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep his men alive. By contrast, Shin Ha Kyun’s new arrival is a stickler for rules, and he’s not a fan of the man Kim Soo Hyuk has become. There’s nothing particularly surprising about the way their relationship develops, but much like the rest of the movie in general, strong performances prevent it from feeling mechanical. There’s a winning theme running through the heart of the picture, concerning a box of ‘goodies’ left buried in the trenches each time the hill is seized. These scenes are on hand to remind us that fundamentally we’re all the same, no matter which side of the fence we’re asked to defend. For the characters of the movie it acts as an unofficial ceasefire, the calm before the all too inevitable storm.
Most of the characters will already be familiar to you, it’s not like the makers of The Front Line are breaking down walls here. It’s an all too familiar line up of stock personas and traits, but credible performances prevent it from coming under too much fire. Animosity, confrontation and defiance created by a loaded back-story keep the story moving at all times, and as a result, The Front Line engages from start to finish. There are precious few original ideas floating about, but by the same token, Jang Hun and Park Sang Yeon should be applauded for resisting the urge to lay on the saturating sentiment too thickly - take note Taegukki. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely enough to go round, but the filmmakers don’t go about it in such an obvious and overbearing manner.
It rarely breaks new ground, but The Front Line impresses with high-ranking performances, engaging characters and rich, dramatic flourishes. The smaller moments outshine the bigger ones, making for a captivating whole, and we finally have an answer to that all-important question. What is war good for? Enthralling movies of course.