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January 19, 2012

The Front Line

front line poster.jpg

jang Hun - 2011
Well Go USA

The Front Line was Korea's entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the forthcoming Oscars. That it was the chosen film was clearly based on the assumption that this would be a film that would appeal to Academy voters. If box office was the determining factor, that film would be Sunny. Had critical consensus been a factor, Korea might been represented by The Day He Arrives which was acclaimed by one Korean group of critics. Another critics group has cited The Front Line for several awards. What has yet to be fully explored by English language writers about film is the impact Saving Private Ryan has had on the Korean film industry. In the past few years, it seems like there is at least one film about the Korean War, in part taking advantage of some of the political openness allowed in the Korean film industry. One of the best known examples is Tae Guk Gi from 2004, which has had the benefit of DVD distribution from Sony Pictures. Parts of The Front Line take from Spielberg's template, especially in its depiction of battle. But there is more to the film than a bit of visual similarities.

Much of the credit for this film should go to writer Park Sang-yeon. His novel. DMZ was the basis for the film, J.S.A. by Park Chan-wook in 2000. J.S.A was about a group of soldiers, on both sides of border diving North and South Korea, who temporarily have a truce of their own, secretly meeting on a friendly basis. That story is enclosed as part of a mystery investigated by an international, politically neutral team. Somewhat similarly, The Front Line begins with an officer who believes he is ready leave military service, sent to a battle zone to investigate the death of a captain, and the possibility of a "mole" who is facilitating communications between soldiers and their families on both sides of the war.

Front Line 2.jpg

Not everything is as it appears or is assumed. The narrative jumps from present to past in explaining the relationship of some characters to each other, as well as their motivations. While most of the story is from the point of view of the South Korean soldiers, parts of the film show the soldiers from North Korea. Especially as Hollywood films about the Korean War cast Koreans as marginal to their own war, a film like The Front Line is instructive about how the conflict was viewed by its own people. The main part of the film takes place during the prolonged talks during the last two years of the war, where political point making by the negotiators translated into pointless military actions in the field. The story evolves from its mystery setup to that of how soldiers survive both physically and mentally. Parts of this story involve wrong headed commanding officers, an elusive North Korean sniper, death by "friendly fire", and enemy combatants who find some common ground away from battle. Most of all, The Front Line is about the waste of war.

I had written about Jang Hun's debut film, Rough Cut, a couple of years ago. Aside from the opportunity to work on a big budget film, there are some thematic similarities that could well have attracted Jang to this project. The film is initially about a man sent to uncover the truth about questionable events related to an army platoon. The film ends in a literal fog of war. Knowing that most of the main characters will die does nothing to abate the tension of the final battle in the film, a battle participants on both sides know is entirely pointless in the final twelve hours before the truce in enforced.

front line 3.jpg

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 19, 2012 08:18 AM