It was a war that seemed never to end. Despite assurances given by army superiors that that reconciliation was just a couple of weeks away, those assurances had been given years ago and yet the war goes on. These soldiers are battling an enemy who are, in many ways, fellow countrymen, in order to gain dominance of the battle scarred Aerok hill, an area that could perhaps define the border between what is fast becoming two separate nations. The land has been conquered then lost by both sides too many times to count. The main focus of The Front Line is Alligator Company, a South Korean band whose members are battle weary but dedicated. And on that hill on which so many lives have been lost, inside a secret makeshift bunker these soldiers form an unlikely distance friendship with their foe via objects left inside a box, buried in the sand. With each new conquest of the land, the swig of rice wine from a buried bottle left for them by their enemy becomes not only a brief reminder of normality, but also an understanding, at least in part, that their enemy is human too. But the battle between the north and south is escalating and the war for this particular company of soldiers comprises nothing but hour after hour of conflict although a couple of seconds can be all that is needed to be on the receiving end of a sniper’s bullet.
There is, perhaps, an inevitability that any genre movie will have some form of relationship to its predecessors and there are indeed many war movie and media links in The Front Line. These range from the thematic similarities of brotherly bonds found within such films as Assembly (Ji jie hao, 2007) or Band of Brothers (2001) some plot strands and characterisation of Full Metal Jacket (1987), as well as comparisons with other films much closer to home which address the heartfelt issues of national disintegration and loss particular to the Korean war, such as Brotherhood (Taegukgi, 2004) and Joint Security Area (2000). Although The Front Line depicts the kind of graphic warfare we have become accustomed to in cinema, notably since Saving Private Ryan (1998), its clear characterisation gives a sense of both the absurd and untranslatable horrors of war mixed with personal losses and conflicts.
Although the film focuses on a very small part of the war, the scale of the filming is epic in scope, indeed some of the strongest aspects of the film lie in the way that the scenery and atmosphere give context to the battles. The landscape and climate are as much characters within the story as any of the soldiers, with rain, snowfall and mist playing their part in altering the outcome of the combat while the natural beauty of the hillside and surrounding forests is all but destroyed by the futile encounters. Even the planes sweeping overhead become negligent mockeries of birds.
A box office success, The Front Line was also the South Korean submission for the best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars. It might initially seem an unlikely choice but the engaging plot, characterisation and attempts to break down the conflict to give a very human perspective, particularly as it gives the outlook from both sides, makes for compelling viewing.
Recommended as a very human, if savage and sporadically moving, war film.