January 1953 and the Korean War has been dragging on for two and a half years. Negotiations for a peace treaty have broken down again over a minor quibble about where borders between the north and the south should be drawn yet again. Kang Eun-pyo, an intelligence officer in the South Korean army, in his frustration, lets off too much steam in public and finds himself in trouble. So begins The Front Line, directed by Hun Jang, South Korea’s nomination for the 84th Academy Awards.
Kang’s sympathetic commander, instead of having him court-martialled, sends him to the Eastern front, to Alligator Company, where there are rumours of subversive behaviour and where the Commanding Officer has died in suspicious circumstances. It will be Kang’s job to root out any mole who might be leaking information to the north.
One further surprise is to come “ Kang’s best friend from earlier in the war, Kim Soo-hyeok, is part of Alligator company, and despite the trip to the front lines and the hardship and danger it entails, especially in the bitter cold of January, Kang is looking forward to being reunited with his old friend. But when he arrives, after travelling with the new commanding officer and a raw young recruit, he finds a ragged company, and his friend much changed “ the years on the front line have made him hard and embittered.
Alligator Company is based at Aerok hill, a point that some official far away from the front line has decided is strategically important and which must be held by the South. Some official in the north has had the same idea, however. So each army takes it in turn to attack and capture the hill, then the other side counter attacks and takes it back, and so into what for the soldiers feels like infinity. The soldiers have lost count of how many times the hill has been won or lost, and have even taken to leaving bits and pieces in the foxholes beneath the hill to save them from carrying them back and forth.
The battles for Aerok hill are the perfect illustration of the futility of war, as the bodies pile up for no gain, and the soldiers forget why they ever started fighting in the first place. They just know that they must fight and try to keep themselves and their comrades alive. The strength of the film lies in its depiction of the tragedy of what the war makes these men do, and what it makes them become in order to survive “ as they are forced into taking actions that would be unconscionable in peacetime “ and they become capable of acts of astounding bravery and selflessness, but also horrific callousness. Sometimes the brave acts and the callous acts can’t be separated.
The battle scenes themselves follow the Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers template of frantic action, quick cuts and close up framing of the action in all its noisy, muddy, bloody horror, and they are done very effectively “ kept short and sharp rather than being allowed to drag on.
Due to its perhaps inevitable battle-downtime-battle-downtime structure, the action is rather episodic “ and this feeling is added to by the way various characters are brought to the fore in different segments of the film, in a way that suggests that strong as the movie is, it might have worked better as a mini-series. The characters themselves tend to be war movie archetypes, from the petrified new recruit, to the pompous commander whose men understand strategy far better than him. However, each of them are given enough quirks or unique traits to make them interesting enough company for the duration of the film.
Kang, as the one unused to the world of the front line, acts as the audience’s eyes and Shin Ha-Kyeon excels in this role, confused and saddened by all he sees, from the state of the bedraggled camp and his old friend’s soul, to the brutal finale of the last battle.