In terms of major conflicts involving the United States, the Korean War has sort of gotten the short end of the cinematic stick with American audiences. Most people can easily rattle off their favorite movies dealing with World War II, the Vietnam War or the U.S. Civil War, but when it comes to the Korean War the options are comparatively more limited. Off the top of my head, there’s M*A*S*H, the original Manchurian Candidate, and Don Draper suffering one of the most famous cases of identity theft. (I realize Mad Men is a TV show, so forgive me for reaching.)
The Front Line — a fine, Korean-produced drama — attempts to present the final days (and hours) of the war on both an epic and personal level, and mostly succeeds.
Lieutenant of the Defense Security Command Kang Eun-Pyo (Shin Ha-Kyun) is sent to the front lines at the war’s Eastern border to investigate the death of Alligator Company’s commanding officer. Alligator Company is stationed at the strategically-important Aerok Hill and is the only unit to have survived a particularly brutal battle in Pohang. The company’s commanding officer was killed by a bullet from his own side, and Kang is tasked with unearthing the truth. Complicating matters is the re-appearance of Kim Soo-Hyuk (Ko Soo), a friend of Kang’s who was presumed dead and is now a member of Alligator Company.
To be honest, I was pretty worried after the first 15-20 minutes. Most of it was due to my own ignorance — it took me much longer than it should have to be sure that Kang and his men were South Korean since the movie doesn’t bother with a history lesson to let you know what’s going on in the war — but the lone English-speaking actor in the movie was painfully bad. Would his awful line readings be a sign of things to come? (And would I even notice, since none of the dialogue would be in English?) Fortunately, the lieutenant’s A Soldier’s Story-esque investigation merely serves as an entry point to a wholly universal and engrossing war story.
Director Jang Hun unleashes an unflinching style — the battle scenes are shot with both immediacy and flair, and are fairly spectacular — while also effectively mining humor out of dire circumstances. (Though the Alligator Company is the reason the term “rag-tag” was invented, I’m thinking more of absurd way Aerok Hill constantly changes hands between South Korean and North Korean forces.) The story is presented in an almost episodic way — a surprising connection with the North Korean enemy, an exciting sniper fight (is there any other kind?) and a flashback to Pohang are practically separate vignettes — but each segment is fully-formed, engaging and ties together nicely with the others, resulting in maximum impact. The movie sometimes gets a bit heavy-handed with its philosophizing (more than once, characters wonder aloud why they’re fighting), but the impressive cast helps keep things grounded.
Shin is rock solid as Lt. Kang (his face is the movie’s barometer for the toll war takes on a person), but Ko is remarkable and displays a great amount of star power as Kim, who has acquired an unnerving aptitude for killing due to his extended time on the front lines. Both friends are given equal weight, especially when you consider that Kim’s biggest conflict isn’t with the North Koreans — it’s with the war itself. Meanwhile, Lee Je-Hoon does powerful work as a young soldier who numbs himself to deal with a past trauma, but still can’t fully suppress the tragic glimmers of hope he feels.
The Front Line is very specifically about the Korean War, but its main themes — the question of why we fight; the way the conflict drags on and is perpetually “one week away” from being over — are still relevant today to almost everyone in the world.
The Front Line is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 24 mbps. Although the director seems to favor a slightly (intentionally) overexposed look that brings an extra brightness to the picture, the movie looks consistently fantastic. The sharpness on the actors is spot on, the dark/indoor scenes are well-lit and look terrific, but the real “wow” moments come from the battle scenes. The outdoor stuff overall looks brilliantly textured and sumptuous (you’ll want to stick your tongue out to catch the snow as it falls), but the fight sequences really stand out by showing every bit of mud, dust and blood there is to be seen without sacrificing clarity. Even the battle that takes place at night is a stunner.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Korean track is at its best when it’s immersing you in battle. The speakers predictably bring the boom for gunfire and explosions, but there’s also an impressive amount of nuance in these well-balanced sequences. The dialogue is clear and audible throughout — even during the chaotic fire fights — which would’ve been perfect if I spoke Korean. I could’ve used a little more in the way of ambient/natural noise in the outdoor, non-battle scenes. There is also a Korean Dolby Digital Stereo track.
Except for the U.S. trailer, all of the special features are presented in standard definition.
Making Of: (3:42) I was slightly confused by this mini-doc, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s in Korean (with English subtitles). Most of the short running time is devoted to the challenges of shooting on the hill and the methods employed by the director, but none of the cast and crew were identified when they spoke. You can obviously pick out most of the actors, but good luck figuring out who the crew is.
Highlights: (21:45) If the mini-doc was slightly confusing, then this special feature is downright baffling. Offering no introduction, it appears to be an awkwardly stitched together, 22-minute recap of the movie’s first half. There’s no new footage — it’s just scenes from the movie pieced together for no apparent reason. On top of that, some of the subtitled dialogue is somewhat different from the subtitled dialogue in the feature film. This one is rated H for “Huh?!”
Trailers: The U.S. (1:51 in HD) and original (2:08) trailers are both included for your viewing pleasure.
This Korean production isn’t perfect, but it absolutely deserves an audience in the United States (and the rest of the world). On top of that, it’s a worthy addition to the relatively undermanned “Korean War film” genre. Despite a lackluster start, the movie kicks into gear once Kang meets up with Alligator Company, and The Front Line becomes an exciting, funny, affecting film. The Blu-ray looks and sounds so good, you should absolutely overlook the weird, disappointing special features.