The soldiers fight to reclaim the hill

The Front Line (고지전) – ★★★☆☆

The Front Line (고지전)

The Front Line (고지전)

After years of intense fighting, the armies of the north and south have reached a stalemate along the 38th parallel. As the representatives of each country meet at Panmunjom to thrash out a treaty, there is one area where the war hasn’t ended; a solitary hill, which changes hands daily as each side pushes to extend their side of the border. This is the context within The Front Line (고지전), a stark and bleak narrative about the insanity of war, the stupidity of those in charge, and the lack of value that life has during conflict.

Kang Eun-pyo (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is an officer with a rather comfortable job helping his seniors at Panmunjom. Frustrated with the lack of progress made, Eun-pyo openly criticises how inept his superiors are from both countries. Unfortunately his negative comments are overheard by a high-ranking official, and Eun-pyo is demoted to serve back on the front line. However, he has another task; a letter from the north was intercepted as it made its way through the southern postal system. Eun-pyo must find the mole at the camp, and uncover why the front line’s recently deceased general was killed by his own gun. Complicating matters further, Eun-pyo’s friend Kim Soo-hyeok (Ko Soo (고수) fights there, despite his status as ‘Missing In Action.’

Kang Eun-pyo (right) interrogates his friend Kim Soo-hyeok (left)

Kang Eun-pyo (right) interrogates his friend Kim Soo-hyeok (left)

What follows is a classic case of ‘whodunit’ as Eun-pyo must find the culprit before it’s too late, yet he must also fulfill his military duties as a soldier and fight alongside the very group he is investigating, to reclaim the hill once and for all. Director Jang Hoon (장훈) and cinematographer Kim Woo-Hyung (김우형) must be congratulated for their amazing visual prowess as the battle scenes are incredible to behold. The beautiful but deadly vertical landscape is awash with mud, bodies and blood, but still the soldiers press on through trenches and jagged rocks. The sepia and washed out filters, combined with the hand-held camera movement places audiences in the center of the hike-and-fight confrontations, and drain any sense of hope and promise from the narrative. The techniques in which Jang Hoon films the hill connotes an unforgiving behemoth that can never be conquered, a barren wasteland build on the bodies of those who tried. Combined with the way the protagonists refer to it with personality traits, the hill becomes not only an insurmountable obstacle but also a discernible character in its own right.

The soldiers fight to reclaim the hill

The soldiers fight to reclaim the hill

The camaraderie between the soldiers is pivotal in The Front Line. Despite flaws, including morphine addiction and mental instability, the soldiers stick together as they have bonded through the horrors of warfare. When military leaders attempt to give orders, which are often ludicrous, the men tend to either ignore or refuse to follow them as they are keenly aware of the ramifications. In a country and institution so heavily reliant on obedience to superiors, the generals easily become figures of ridicule and stupidity. It is this camaraderie that makes Eun-pyo’s task so difficult, as his objectivity begins to waver as he is inaugurated into the brotherhood and the loyalty it provides. Even when representing the northern soldiers, director Jang Hoon shows the bonds between them as equally strong, yet are slightly different as senior officers such as Oh Gi-yeong (오기영) (Ryoo Seung-soo (류승수) are also involved, connoting perhaps the ideological differences. It is ultimately respect and survival instinct that enforces the ties between the soldiers, traits that the superior officers are connoted as lacking.

Camaraderie is a central theme within 'The Front Line'

Camaraderie is a central theme within ‘The Front Line’

Yet, despite the beautiful cinematography and powerful notions of camaraderie, The Front Line is not without faults. The crux of the story – the insanity of fighting for a hill – becomes almost redundant under the weight of other convoluted narrative threads. This serves to lessen the intensity and futility of the situation(s) throughout the film, although in the final moments the impending sense of doom and the horror of war is thankfully revisited and enforced to poignant effect. The various narrative tangents also undermine Eun-pyo’s mission, the results of which are far from original and explored to greater effect in films such as JSA – Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA). It’s a shame given the potential of the premise, for what could have been a powerful debate on the futility of war has resulted in a merely quite interesting one. However, The Front Line is certainly worth watching for the sumptuous art direction and heart-wrenching finale, and serves as another poignant reminder that ‘The Forgotten War’ is nothing of the sort.

★★★☆☆

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Brotherhood [Taegukgi] (태극기 휘날리며) – ★★★★★

Brotherhood [Taegukgi]

Brotherhood/Taegukgi

When Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, the style in which war battle scenes were filmed was forever changed. The intensity that accompanied the hand-held, debris-hitting-the-camera, point-of-view shot served to (almost) place audiences within the action and offered a more thrilling, and more compelling, viewing experience. This ‘raw’ method of filming battle sequences is arguably why the film received such universal praise, and why so many war films since have attempted to emulate the formula.

Brotherhood [Taegukgi] (태극기 휘날리며) employs the same techniques in depicting the Korean War, yet the structure is markedly different and all the better for it. While Spielberg unloaded the horrors of war in the opening 20 minutes (consequently resulting in the rest of the film to be rather dull by comparison), director Kang Je-gyu (강제규) wisely uses the style sparingly at first before building to a brutal finale.

Brotherhood tells the story of two brothers, Jin Tae (Jang Dong Gun, 장동건) and Jin Seok (Won Bin, 원빈) who live a modest existence in central Seoul, 1950. Jin Tae, the eldest brother, is a street-smart shoe-shiner with ambitions to open his own shoe store. His younger 18 year old brother Jin Seok is a dedicated student, who carries the burden of the hopes of all the family. Jin Tae is soon to be married to Young Shin (Lee Eun Joo, 이은주), who co-owns a noodle restaurant with her future mother-in-law. The lifestyle of the makeshift family is humble but happy, and the cinematography is incredibly detailed in reinforcing the differences between the rich and poor, the city and country. When war inevitably breaks out, Jin Tae leads the family to the midland city of Daegu in an attempt to avoid the battle.

Brotherhood battle scene

An incredible battle sequence in Brotherhood

Traditionally, war films present an ‘us vs. them’ framework in order to inspire patriotism and align the viewer with the central protagonist(s). Brotherhood refrains from such a simplistic dichotomy, as when the family reaches Daegu, Jin Tae and Jin Seok are forced into drafting for the military; when Jin Tae protests that his sibling has a heart condition, he is beaten for defiance. On the frontline, the enemy is berated by the South Korean soldiers for being ‘Communist’, but the definition, and the ideology, is lost beneath the torrent of inhumane behaviour by both sides. When the northern forces murder villagers, the south brutally dispatches them with flamethrowers; while the southern forces execute everyone who had signed up for Communist rallies, the north hangs women outside cities as a warning. The ‘enemy’ becomes interchangeable to the point where the enemy doesn’t exist, only who wronged who last, and how gravely.

Jin Tae and Jin Seok are forced into the military draft

Jin Tae and Jin Seok are forced into the military draft

At the front line, it becomes apparent that Jin Seok’s health condition is serious. As such, Jin Tae volunteers for every risky mission that arises in the hope of earning a medal, and thus the influence to be able to send his younger brother home. Faults with the plan quickly become clear, as Jin Tae becomes increasingly adept at his missions and begins to lose his compassion, while Jin Seok begs his older brother to stop and retain his humanity. The relationship is reminiscent of Sgt. Barnes and Sgt. Elias in Platoon (1986), however the duality represented in Brotherhood is intensified as the brothers fight for each other in their own unique way. Even more compelling is how Jin Tae begins to lose himself in the accolades and cheers of his fellow soldiers until atrocities become second nature, forcing Jin Seok to reject his brother and his noble intentions.

As the American soldiers land in Incheon, and the South Korean forces push north toward China, the brothers are locked in the emotional battle with each, the appalling situations they are pitted against, and history as the Chinese forces will inevitably counterattack.  The acting by both leads is superb. Jang Dong Gun is incredible in his portrayal of shoe-shine boy turned psychotic soldier, and the rage in his eyes is genuinely terrifying. When he encounters the barbarity of war, his facial expressions of sorrow and anger convey more than words ever could. As the younger intellectual brother, Won Bin is equally tremendous as he continually gives an intense emotional performance whether suffering from health problems or fighting for his brothers conscience.

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

Equally as profound is the musical score, which adds tangible  intensity to the film. The incredible battle sequences, the tender emotional moments, and even the silences are all given extra poignancy thanks to the score, and the haunting orchestral soundtrack stays long after the final credits.

Critics of Brotherhood often cite that certain scenes and scenarios are rendered melodramatic, and detracted from the authenticity of the viewing experience. However, it’s this emotional intensity that makes Brotherhood such an incredible film. While war films traditionally tend to focus on the lack of humanity and portray ever-increasing scenes of violence – or ‘war pornography’ – Brotherhood veers away from that trend to focus on the emotional bonds between family, and emerges stronger for it.

★★★★★

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