Northern Limit Line is based on the true story of Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, a confrontation that occurred between North and South Korean forces on June 29th, 2002 in the disputed waters in the Yellow Sea.
In June 2002, South Koreans are united in World Cup fervour as the national team progresses further and further towards the final. Yet while the general public are rejoicing at the sporting event, the navy continue to patrol the maritime border near Yeonpyeong Island. Despite a few incidents involving North Korean fishermen, Captain Yoon Yeong-ha’s (Kim Moo-yeol (김무열) crew, comprised of Sergeant Han Sang-gook (Jin Goo (진구) and newbie medic Corporal Park Dong-hyeok (Lee Hyun-woo (이현우) amongst others, are in high spirits – until a boat from the North engages them in a surprise, brutal assault.
An unadulterated exercise in propaganda, Northern Limit Line deserves recognition for its crowdfunded origins and helmer Kim Hak-soon’s dedication to bring it to the big screen, yet precious little else. Shoddily written, poorly directed, and featuring some of the worst editing in recent memory, the war thriller is a poor testament to those who lost their lives in the conflict, with the only saving grace arriving in the form of the emotionally charged documentary footage tacked on in the film’s dying moments. Conservative Koreans however are likely to find much to enjoy.
Northern Limit Line is clearly a passion project for writer/director Kim Hak-soon, who spent seven years developing the project as well as generating roughly a third of the $6 million budget through crowdfunding, an impressive feat to be sure. It’s bizarre then that during that time frame the script wasn’t cultivated into a coherent whole, one that details and examines the complex political situation of the era alongside a humanist angle facilitated by the inter-personal relationships between the crew. Instead, Kim has opted to remove any shred of context from the narrative, simplifying events to a base ‘good South Korean vs. evil North Korean’ rhetoric that embarrassingly evokes memories of ’80s cinema. The Northerners are consistently represented grimacing, scowling, or with facial scarring to emphasise their villainy, whilst their darkened uniforms and blackened boats signify their macabre intentions; the Southerns meanwhile typically joke and play pranks, are faithful to their loved ones, and live a generally idealistic life. Such visual cues, removed from political context and intricacies, results in Northern Limit Line conforming to a mere piece of propaganda, the likes of which were similarly present in 2014 box office hit The Admiral, and are becoming an increasingly disturbing cinematic trend.
Scribe/helmer Kim has routinely stated that his desire to complete Northern Limit Line was due to lack of public awareness regarding the young men who lost their lives during the conflict. It’s a noble resolution, yet his endeavours ultimately fall short. Throughout the narrative the characterisation is more akin to a poor TV drama than film, as the lives of the officers are constructed employing melodramatic cliche after cliche specifically designed to force audiences to engage emotionally, yet the far-from-subtle manner utilised does just the opposite. Each member of the crew has threadbare development with resolutions consistently unanswered, however as they all feature occasional scenes caring for an impoverished loved one, audiences are expected to invest in their respective trajectories.
The myriad of superfluous protagonists compound this lack of engagement further, as random naval officers and civilians alike enter a scene, utter a few words of dialogue, and then exit without ever really stating their purpose. A female officer (performed by Cheon Min-hee (천민희) exemplifies this issue as she interacts with the central cast, yet adds no agency to the story other than to appear attractive.
The editing in Northern Limit Line is simply appalling. The film frequently jumps between the officers patrolling the Yellow Sea and the World Cup celebrations occurring in Seoul to confusing effect, and doesn’t have any baring on the story. If anything, director Kim seems to be implying that the Korean public are to blame for caring about a sporting event rather than the conflict that arises.
As Northern Limit Line enters the final act, the assault upon which the film is based arises. The battle is competently constructed and immersive, yet also overly long and disorientating due to the direction. Ironically it is after the battle scenes that the war film finds its saving grace – the real-life documentary footage of the fallen officers being laid to rest. It’s impossible not to be moved by such emotive scenes as the anguish expressed by bereaved families is palpable, while the interviews with survivors – which oddly appear during the end credits – are also deeply poignant tributes to their comrades.
Northern Limit Line is an unadulterated exercise in cinematic propaganda, one that construct a simplistic account of the terrible event by removing the complex political context of the era. Crudely written, poorly directed and horribly edited, the maritime war film’s only redeeming feature is the poignant real-life documentary footage that deeply touching. Northern Limit Line is one for hardcore nationalists only.