Set mostly amid the 1953 Korean War ceasefire negotiations, The Front Line (고지전) stars Shin Ha-kyun as First Lieutenant Kang from Military Intelligence. Kang is sent to the Front Line to investigate the suspicious death of a Captain and to intercept any North Korean mail that is being sent through the Southern Postal Service. When Kang arrives at the front he discovers a comrade he though was long dead is in fact alive and well. Lieutenant Kim (Go Soo) is found serving in the same regiment as Kang is forced to investigate and finds life on the Front Line even harsher than he imagined. In the midst of his investigation the war is still raging on as both sides attempt to capture an important hilltop.
South Korea has produced many excellent War Movies over the last decade or so but despite some great scenes and cinematography I wasn’t able to fully get on board with this one. That being said there is a lot to like about the film and it won four Grand Bell Awards in 2011 including Best Film. I found that throughout the film I was interested in the story but not the characters.
There were many facets to the story what with the peace negotiations going on in the background, the senseless killing, a subplot about an incident in 1950, substance abuse, suspicion, the tracking of a sniper and the never ending battle off attrition over a hilltop. It can never be argued that there isn’t enough going on. The problem I had was that for the most part the character seemed to be written with just as much going on but it didn’t translate that way on screen. The actors rarely came into the foreground and their stories weren’t as interesting as the bigger picture. Unlike Brotherhood (still the high watermark for the genre in my view) the film tries to focus on both the big picture and the individual stories and gets muddled somewhere in between. Brotherhood’s tale of two bothers on opposite sides of the conflict picks one small area and goes with it whereas at times The Front Line feels like it’s trying to take on too much.
Even though the film bites off more than it can chew there are some really interesting avenues that it explores. The overarching theme is of senseless waste. The film’s closing battle only goes to highlight this. The fact that the War is separating one nation and even individual families is also touched upon and clandestine cooperation is something that comes up again and again, although this topic is better dealt with in Joint Security Area. Another theme or question that is asked is what is the point in fighting? As the two armies go back and forth over the same piece of land amid ever mounting casualties, both sides question their role and the reasons for fighting. A problem with the script is one overly obvious twist which can be spotted about twenty minutes in and isn’t revealed until the final third. As I spent most of the film waiting for it to happen, it spoiled the rest of the film a little bit.
There is a large cast of actors, most of whom are fine but no one really excels. Other than fight, look suspicious or angry there is little room for them to shine. Go Soo probably has the best role and is good but much like a real war; the actors are often just pawns for the Director to play about with. Thirst delightful Kim Ok-bin makes an appearance and is pretty good but only has a small role, pivotal though it may be. What I really liked was the cinematography and overall action. The battles scenes were handled very well although I’ve seen them done better in the likes of 71: Into the Fire and Letters from Iwo Jima. I never felt as much a part of the proceedings as in those films or say Saving Private Ryan which still stands up well today. The scale and organisation was impressive though and I loved the scene which showed a sort of time lapse over a portion of the much fought over hill. It really showed the advance and retreat nature of the battle. I wasn’t familiar with Director Jang Hun’s work before but I’d happily watch more of his films.
Overall The Front Line is a decent film which often tries to take on too much but features many portions of great story. It’s unfortunate that the whole doesn’t quite match the individual parts though. The cinematography is great and the battle scenes well handled but there are other films which do the job better.