Jang Hoon's "The Front Line" has achieved much since its release in July. The war drama snatched up four awards from KAFC (Korean Association of Film Critics), another four from the Daejong Film Awards, two technical awards from the Blue Dragon Film Awards, had some 2,949,198 viewers watch it while on the circuit, and it was selected as South Korea's official submission to the Academy Awards. The film was also screened at a number of film festivals around the world but what is it about "The Front Line" that lets it stand tall among other, possibly more substantial and intimate, Korean War films?
Korean cinema has been infused with conflict films that have framed and re-framed "The Forgotten War". The Korean War has served as inexhaustible fodder for the industry as filmmakers continue to voice their perspective and ideologies on the conflict that tore a nation in two. More recent films like "Secret Reunion", "71-Into the Fire", "Poongsan", and "In Love and War" speaks to the range of films being produced on the topic. Comedies, tragedies, espionage, and the ideologically moot all have kept the ball rolling as a nation remembers, relives, and re-questions the events and aftermath of the war that drew a line in the bloody sand.
"The Front Line" takes place in the final days of the conflict when the armistice was being negotiated and signed. The bulk of the battling was over and just the political posturing and jostling for territory remained to defined the Korean DMZ. It is hear that Jang Hoon begins his story as Lieutenant Kang Eun-Pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is ordered to visit the Eastern front in order to investigate the possibility of a mole existing within the Korean 'Alligator Company'. Messages from North Korean soldiers are some how reaching their families back in the South and the suspicious death of the company's commander has flagged the company for an internal investigation. Kang Eun-Pyo reluctantly makes his way to Aerok Hills with the their new commander and a green boy ready to do his duty as a soldier. However before departing Kang is informed that his old friend Kim Soo-Hyuk (Go Soo) is actually alive and is now serving with 'Alligator Company' in the battle of attrition over the infamous hill.
The film highlights the impact of war on the individual as piece on the board acting out the will of higher powers. Pawns that act and don't think as they execute the commands of some omnipotent figure/ideal that is suppose to be driving their every thought and action. The ethics and justification of the war are challenged as the bloody battle for Aerok violently swings like a pendulum, with neither side able to secure the ground they are ordered to capture and defend. As each side makes their advance and then retreats, Aerok Hill becomes a graveyard of forgotten ideals and politics raised up to relevance by the men buried beneath. Eventually the blood that stains the slopes can no longer be identified as either North or South. All that is clear is that it is Korean blood that soaks the slopes.
"The Front Line" contains some excellent acting as the cast for the film is filled with believable and, most importantly, likeable characters. Character's like Yang Hyo-sam, played by Ko Chang-seok, added depth and distraction to the carnage and there is something about his demeanour (especially that smile) that nicely accents the tragedy of the conflict. Ryu Seung-ryong was another brilliant choice for the supporting cast as his stern and unyielding persona as a North Korean commander bridges the valley between the feared 'other' and the commonality the two sides share as blood brothers. The only woman in the film was Kim Ok-vin as the deadly sniper, infamously called "two seconds". An interesting inclusion that, while feeling a bit out of place, affixes an appropriate contradiction to the film through here mere presence. She is the object of love and hope as well as the death in the shadows, sparking hopes of the future with the ever-present sense of death she embodies.
Visually the film is captivating and dynamic. The terrain of battle is shown to be constantly in flux as North and South wash over the landscape. Canted angles mirror the films theme and as they ask one to question the nature of the scenes and the ideals within. Congested long shots intensify the soldiers charge as smoke, rain, dust, and fog blur not only the enemy but the reasons behind it all. The director also makes good use of depth of field with some choice moments drawing one's focus from foreground to background and vice versa. Cinematically it is a gripping spectacle that might seem repetitive at times, but its visual prowess can not be denied.
I have tried to discover to what degree the film is based on actual fact. I came across the battle of "Pork Chop Hill" which seems to contain largely the same account of events that can be seen in Jang's film. "Pork Chop Hill", however, included the American army battling the Chinese and North Korean's on hill of little or not strategic and tactical value just before the armistice was to be signed. But "The Front Line" holds back on including the America force in its frames. Besides at the negotiation table and the ill-time bombing of North and South Korean troops, the film minimises the impact of the USA in their war efforts and I would be very interested to know to what degree the film is rooted in fact.
Regardless of the film's historical accuracy, "The Front Line" was a heart-felt film that keeps the horrors of the past fresh in the minds of world. Perhaps this was a big factor as to why it was chosen to be South Korea's entry to the Academy Awards. Political factors might well have influenced that decision but even so "The Front Line" will no doubt stand on its own as an epic war drama that depicts the futility and emptiness of war.
-C.J. Wheeler (Chriscjw@gmail.com)
Below is taken from AsianMediaWiki as their editor Ki Mun transcribed/translated the Q&A session for "The Front Line" at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival on October 8, 2011. This page can be visted here.
Moderator - Hello, could the director introduce himself first?
Jang Hoon (director) - Hello, nice to meet you at the Busan International Film Festival. (talks to cast) Let's say hello to audience. All attention ... bow. I am Jang Hoon, the diector of "The Front Line". Thank you for the welcome and I will now pass the mic to the actors. Here is Lee David who played Nam Sung-Sik. He is the darling of "The Front Line".
Audience replies yes.
Lee David (actor) - Thank you. I am so happy to come to the Busan International Film Festival. Hope you enjoy.
Ko Chang-seok (actor) - Hi, I am Ko Chang-seok. Compared to the size of the other actor's faces, I look like I am standing 2 steps ahead of them, but I'm actually standing behind them. Thank you for watching the "The Front Line".
Go Soo (actor) - Hello, I am Go Soo who played Kim Soo-Hyuk in "The Front Line". Nice to meet you. This is my first time coming to the Busan International Film Festival. It is way better than I expected. I didn't expect so many people here. There's also a lot of cameras here. Please take good pictures of me. You have all watched the movie. After the movie was released, I went to the theaters to say hello for a good while. It's been a whlie since saying hi to you. Thank you.
Ryu Seung-soo (actor) - Hello, I am Ryu Seung-soo who played Oh Ki-Young in "The Front Line". There is a whole lot of people here taking pictures. I feel like we are greeting the audience when the movie was first released. The Busan International Film Festival is special and Lee David said to enjoy. So I will show you something for your enjoyment. Lee David come forward (Ryu Seung-soo walks forward and Lee David comes forward as well). Let's hear "The Front Line Serenade" (전선야곡). The song you sang in the movie.
Ryu Seung-soo (actor) - Ok, now sing a pop song.
Lee David (actor) - (pauses) I'll sing SECRET's "Secret Moonlight" (he sings the pop song).
Audience Question - Hello, I am a Busan resident who watched "The Front Line" seven times so far. Welcome to Busan. A common mistake made by a lot of war movies is that they get over emotional before the audience does. "The Front Line" doesn't make that mistake. One of the reasons why I like the movie so much is because of this. When I read the end credits I noticed the music director is Jang Young-Gyu. I know he is in charge of the music, but did you give any directions to him as the movie director? I also want to know why you chose the song "The Front Line Serenade" which appears throughout the movie?
Jang Hoon (director) - "The Front Line Serenade" was already in the scenario when I was asked to direct the movie. I then talked it over with our screen writer Park Sang-yeon and we concluded that "The Front Line Serenade" did fit the movie the most among historical songs. Sometimes music can make the movie emotional, but since we filmed a war that was still ongoing we worried if the song would make the movie feel too commercial. I talked with the staff and we set a tone to balance it out. We didn't use moving cameras to follow the characters or the grenades.
Audience Question - Question is for director Jang Hoon. I liked your previous films, but I loved "The Front Line". There's mostly favorable comments about the movie's anti-war message. I don't know whether you know it or not, but there's a fan made video called "The Adult version of Aerok Hills". Go Soo and Shin Ha-kyun are in love with each other and then Lee Je-hoon becomes involved in the relationship. The story ends with their downfall. The fan made video is comprised of still images from the movie. This could happen. In your movies, the charms of the male actors are amplified. I'm curious how you communicated with the male actors, who all seem to have different personalities, and give them direction on the shooting set? Also, I hope Lee Je-hoon wins all the best new actor prizes at the film awards. I think your going to join the army next year? I really want to take your place in the army instead of you (person speaking is a female). I love you totally!
Jang Hoon (director) - I didn't know about this adult version of Aerok Hills. So far I've made 3 films and they are all centered around male characters. I guess it's because of a comfort level and being familiar with that view point. When working with the actors they are all different and must be prodded in different ways. It really depends on the actor.
Audience Question - Who gave you the hardest time?
Audience Question - This question is for Go Soo. I think your character Kim Soo-Hyuk is quite complicated. I think the director created the character and you had to interpret the character. Were there any differences in opinions about him and did you have to make any compromises? Also, which scene was the most difficult to perform?
Go Soo (actor) - Thank you. When I read the original script I though Kim Soo-Hyuk had a lot of charisma. Very manly (audience laughs). I drank a lot of alcohol yesterday. I think if I stay in Busan longer I will become trashed. Yes, I thought Kim Soo-Hyuk had a macho persona, but as I talked more with director Jang Hoon I realized my character wasn't so macho. Kim Soo-Hyuk took care of his unit. Early in the filming, director Jang Hoon talked with me a lot about my character, but a month later he didn't say much to at all about him. I think we built a level of trust by then.
Ko Chang-seok (actor) - Yes, that is a kudzu root. The scene is before the battle scene. Kudzo root isn't for eating. I gave them the kudzu root to chew on and clog their ears with. After several takes the kudzu root became really short.
Audience Question - I have some questions for Go Soo. Me and my group stayed overnight in Centum City to come see you. I'm curious what grade you would give yourself for your performance? Also, were there any scenes you had difficulties with and if so which ones? Also, have you recorded the commentary for your character yet? Lastly, what's next on your schedule and when are you going back to Seoul?
Go Soo (actor) - Thank you. During the filming, the thing I thought about the most was having a close bond with the actors. We filmed the movie in rural areas for several months and I tried to do everything with the other actors. Then, in front of the camera, hopefully our camaraderie felt genuine? About grading myself. I'm content with my performance and I recommend the film to others that haven't watched it. We have not done the DVD commentary yet. When we do, I'll speak more and faster than now. About our schedule after this. We will have dinner together.
Audience Question - Where are you going to have dinner at?
Go Soo (actor) - I don't know where. There wasn't such a scene in the movie. I don't understand (smiles).
Audience Question - Question for director Jang Hoon. In the movie good and evil is mixed, like it's beyond good and evil. Also, in the movie Saint Wonhyo's skull water is mentioned several times. Why was that? There's still a historical wound in Korea, how did you decide to approach that? Last question is for Lee Je-hoon. After the movie have you experienced changes?
Jang Hoon (director) - The story of Saint Wonhyo was put in the movie because of Ryu Seung-soo's character. When we filmed "The Front Line", I didn't think about good and evil. I consider South Korea and North Korea to be the same and wanted to shoot the war as it is. I think war itself is evil and not the people fighting the war. The soldiers have no choice but to fight and fight for their survival. I wanted to show that in "The Front Line". Our country is still recovering from that period. The older generation went through a lot more pain, more than we can imagine. I think our generation has to find a way for peace. We have a lot of things to think about and sort out.
Lee Je-hoon (actor) - While shooting the movie, I was nervous and felt a lot of pressure. There were moments where I kind of shut myself away from the others. I was isolated, but the other actors helped me out a great deal. During the filming, I realized I could get energy and help by working together with the other actors. In the future, If I can talk and communicate more I will do so. The movie made me realize the benefits of that.
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