We all know that war is hell, or at least we know that from the films we’ve seen. Perhaps the gold standard in the graphic, on-the-ground, prestigious battle picture is Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Few have dared to replicate the formula and even fewer have succeeded, particularly since World War II has been depicted hundreds of times, to varying degrees of success. (My own personal favourite being Clint Eastwood’s elegant, understated but emotionally lacerating Letters from Iwo Jima.)
Jang Hun’s 2011 answer to the war film genre is The Front Line, a thoughtful epic on the Korean War, something heretofore covered in Western culture only via M*A*S*H. If you’ve ever seen the seminal film and TV series, you’ll understand that the depiction of the War was the equivalent of Colonel Klink and Hogan’s Heroes to WWII. Seeing Jang’s ambitious film will rapidly dispel any preconceptions you might have about this particular war. Not shying away from the grimness of the battlefield, this is a bloody, visceral picture that takes you directly to the front lines like in Saving Private Ryan and Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement. It’s not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, as there are some rather gruesome sights here.
The film follows a small troop assigned to the front lines of battle and into enemy territory. Although the concept of a “front line” is depicted in an abstract way, in warfare it is clearly marked and in the case of the Korean War, it would help establish the dividing line between the North and the South (a line that still stands today). A South Korean Lieutenant is sent to investigate the murder of a commanding officer who was found with a Southern-issued bullet in his body, and meets an old friend with questionable and perhaps shifting alliances. The entire scene turns strange as he discovers that North Korean POW uniforms, warmer than those from the South, are used to keep warm and also used to intercept enemy territory. The film takes a look back into what happens as they investigate the murder as the enemy draws closer and the war drags on with no end in sight.
A word must be said on the quality of the film presented at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Unfortunately, due to undisclosed reasons, The Front Line is presented in digital format and the copy does not have the crispness one would associate with 35mm or even an HD or Blu-Ray quality. Although the film is perfectly subtitled and the sound recording rivals that of the biggest, loudest Hollywood blockbuster, the copy presented here will not be acceptable to some. There were a few walkouts on the film at the beginning when this was announced. Those who did stay, however, saw an uncompromising vision of war and the toll it takes on its participants.
Character development is the film’s true weak point, as the sprawling company is not shown in civilian life and it is difficult to distinguish one person’s defining traits from another. Ultimately, the effect is one of anonymity and somewhat alienating. Ultimately, the high bar in this kind of war film was set by Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima. The Front Line, despite its admirable qualities and high technical production values, doesn’t quite meet or cross that bar. This film was submitted as the official South Korean entry for next year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it will be facing stiff competition to receive a nomination.
The Front Line plays at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 9:30 pm at Empire Granville Cinema, having already played two packed screenings in the first days of VIFF.