DVD Review: The Front Line (Go-ji-jeon )

The Front Line comes to the UK on a wave of critical and staggering commercial success in its native South Korea. It was the winner of ‘Best Film’ at the country’s prestigious Grand Bell Awards and subsequently entered as South Korea’s submission to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film. That it did not make the shortlist is unsurprising.

The third film by director Jang Hun, it’s set in the 1953 ceasefire of the Korean War when negotiations and new treaties are written and re-written daily to determine the future divide of North and South Korea. The key battle, it seems, lies on the Eastern front in Aerok Hill where the power shifts so frantically the negotiators themselves are often unaware who owns it.
We follow First Lieutenant Kan Eun-Pyo (Shin Ha-Kyun) as he is sent there to investigate the mysterious death of the commanding officer, shot with a fellow Southern bullet, and sniff out a possible mole. He is joined on his journey by the pig-headed replacing commander Captain Jae-Oh as well as a young soldier, new to battle and so introducing the first of the two stock war film characters. We meet the others who make up Alligator Company when the Captain and lieutenant arrive to a scene more reminiscent of M*A*S*H than the one they were expecting; fights over cigarettes, children running around and wearing the enemies uniform (because it’s cold). This rambling group of ‘comrades’ include of the joker – a portly, older soldier originally from the North but defected many years ago whose tales about fighting Japan are forgiven due his popularity, a residing Captain whose battle scars manifest in his addiction to morphine, and the war-weary Kim Soo-hyeok (Go Soo), sapped by war and numbed by combat, “I’m not human anymore, not after three years in Hell”. This familiar group becomes our gateway into the conflict and their unique role in the war, stuck on this hill two years into a supposed ceasefire that has already taken 500,000 lives where the territory is lost and won repeatedly. There’s an opportunity for the film to explore an odd little sub-culture of this war, an experience uncommon among other soldiers and is touched upon at times with the two sides exchanging first insults then gifts and letters to be delivered via a hidden crate. Sadly, The Front Line often veers towards cliché and you get the feeling you may’ve seen something like this before. In one scene we learn a past tragedy in Po-Hang that the group are unwilling to tell the new arrival, “Tell me what happened in Po-Hang” “I don’t want to talk about what happened” to be fair, he doesn’t tell him but we are given a handy flashback showing that fateful day (it’s bad, the now unstable platoon member shot several of his own men under the panic battle inflicts). There are also multiple gun stand-offs between characters, a soldier delivering his…final…slowly…let out…words in the arms of a tearful colleague and a soldier getting shot in slow motion, in the rain.
The futility of war is unquestionably a valid topic but when its is verbally repeated as much as it is here, mainly by Kim Soo-hyeok but often by others too, the potency is lost. A more effective technique is employed by Hun to good effect which involves no speech at all. In a held long shot we see a time lapse scene of soldiers fighting, dying and retreating as night falls only to repeat it all again and again highlighting the frightening routine of battle and saved from any clunky dialogue.
The over-riding feeling is one of disappointment when watching The Front Line, it’s an effective war film with a tight plot and an interesting element in ‘two seconds’, an enemy sniper so called because the body falls then two seconds later you hear the shot, coming across like the chasing pack in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ‘Who are those guys?’ but the film never looks too far from the genre’s blueprint without adding much new to it.

Rating: 2.5/5

Reviewer: Matthew Walsh
Stars: Ha-kyun Shin, Soo Go,Seung-su Ryu
Director:Hun Jang
DVD/ BD Release: 27th February (UK)

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