The Sound On Sight Debate on Korea’s ‘The Front Line’

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The Front Line

Directed by Hun Jang

Written by Sang-yeon Park

2011, South Korea, imdb

*****

South Korea’s official entry to this year’s Academy Awards The Front Line is being released on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 27th. We thought that we would ask two of our staff to watch the film and argue their way through it on Twitter. Defending The Front Line is Edgar Chaput, who writes our weekly Shaw Brothers Saturday column. Attacking The Front Line is Michael Ryan, who rather to his own surprise became our go-to-reviewer for Korean films during last year’s Fantasia Film Festival and a dab hand at writing about himself in the third person. Their original debate has been slightly edited and reordered to improve grammar and flow.

*****

MikeMichael: The Front Line is about a Korean counter-spy, Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) in the dying days of the Korean War sent to the eastern front to find a communist mole. He gets tangled up in Alligator company and involved in their Sissyphean struggle – swapping Aerok Hill back and forth with the North forces. The hill will help determine where exactly the demarcation line between South and North Korea will be drawn. As a result of its strategic importance, it has swapped hands more than 40 times. Kang arrives at the unit with its new Captain, the previous Captain having been killed in action with his own gun. Kang quickly discovers that the unit’s second in command is a morphine addict and the third in command is his old friend Kim Soo-hyeok (Go Soo) who he hasn’t seen since the start of the war three years earlier.

EdgarEdgar: The Front Line is directed by Hun Jang.

 

 

Mike

Who previously directed Rough Cut – an excellent film about the difference between “real” and “film real”. Also a bit long.

 

Edgar

I didn’t see that, but to be honest, based on The Front Line, I’ll check it out for sure. I did very much like the two leads in this film. For a war movie where characters usually look grim, I thought they had charisma.

What are your thoughts on the two leads?

Mike

Oh I liked them. The acting was uniformly excellent. And very much rose above the script. On the page they were clichés. The Front Line is technically excellent – the acting and cinematography is first rate, but the film is too long and ultimately hollow with nothing new to add to the war genre.

EdgarWell, ‘new’ is not always what a film must strive for. So long as it does well what it set out to do, it can succeed.

 

MikeIf you are going to take 2 hours to tell me a 90 minute story you better at least have something new to say. (I should also confess complain that the film put me too sleep twice before I was able to watch it all the way through.) I think part of my disappointment is that my experience with Korean cinema is that they are masters of emotional whiplash and you would think that in a war film there would be plenty of opportunities to go from humour to horror, from peace to violence in the wink of an eye, but there were really only had a couple moments like that – the first sniper sequence and the cave finale.

Edgar

I think where The Front Line finds strength is in the moments where chaos reigns and how that chaos messes with the soldiers. Its characters fight in the Aerok hills, but they are struggling with the horrors of a previous combat mission in Po-Hang early in the war. The entire behavioral trajectory of people like Soo-hyeok and the bloke hooked on morphine, Captain Shin Il-Young (Je-hoon Lee), is a result of that.

MikeThey undo all the good of that story by telling us all the morphine addict Captain had to do was cry – to feel something. Admittedly, the finale does make up for that but I still call bullshit on the crying scene

EdgarIt’s a question of buildup. He was the cause (or one of the causes) for the atrocity the platoon went through. I’m no soldier, but I think we know that soldiers can be affected in many ways by combat. The choice to ‘not feel’ is pertinent. It’s also important to recognize that this is a civil war of sorts. I think that the ‘numbing’ effect for that character speaks volumes

MikeI understand the morphine metaphor and it works. What doesn’t work is implying that crying will make it all better.

 

EdgarHe mowed down his own colleagues in previous combat! That has to come back in some form, in narrative I guess. In fairness, the morphine kid is not a principle character. More of a side character.

MikeExcept that he is one of the last three characters left in the film! If he’s not a principle character why is he there?

 

EdgarRight. And the film seems to write him out of the story until he returns to save the two protagonists when it looks like the Chinese human wave attack will get them.

Mike

Sure but that reflects the confusion that the film has. Il-young is a peripheral character until the last 30 minutes then BAM! from that point onwards it’s like the film is about him. Stronger if he and Kim Soo-hyeok were the same character.

Edgar

I can see your point. Maybe he should have been killed in the sniper scene instead of our suspected commie Kim Soo-hyeok?

 

MikeI think the bigger problem that this points to is that The Front Line is trying to tell two different stories and they don’t mesh. The first is the mole hunt/officer murder and the second is the Alligator company and its horrific last twelve hours, when they are told that the armistice has been signed, but doesn’t take effect for twelve hours – so they have to make one last all-out assault to take back Aerok Hill.

EdgarThe horrific last twelve hours make up only twenty minutes or so, but in that respect, it is telling of how bonkers that war was. The movie does an adequate job at depicting the wild behaviour of the soldiers, like when they shoot the captain. And I do really like how the film puts an emphasis on how close the two sides are. They have traded the hill back and forth so many times that the soldiers start leaving gifts behind, trading rice wine from the North for chocolate from the South by way of the mostly unseen Americans.

MikeRight and the mole that Kang Eun-pyo is hunting is just the soldiers trading favours. The Northern soldiers sending letters to their family in the South.

Two Seconds

Edgar

If there is something I didn’t get, it was what the female enemy sniper Cha Tae-kyeong (Ok-bin Kim) was doing in the movie…

 

Mike

I guess the point is how the North will use anyone in the war, and the Southern soldiers are not initially equipped to deal with a female soldier, but that story was told better in Shiri. (Admittedly, Shiri is set in modern times and it is a female spy not a female soldier, but the larger point applies.)

EdgarI didn’t see that film. I just thought her arc was weird. Everybody has a modicum of humanity but she’s just a killing beast, nick-named “Two Seconds” by the soldiers of Alligator company because she kills from so far away that they hear her shot – two seconds after they get hit.

Mike

I think all the soldiers had a divide between war time and not-war time. With her it was just more pronounced, especially because she runs into members of Alligator company when she is not acting as a sniper and they don’t recognize her as an enemy combatant.

Here’s a bigger issue. Let me give you a list of films:

1998 The Quiet Family

1999 Shiri

2000 The Foul King, Joint Security Area

2001 My Sassy Girl

2002 Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

2003 Oldboy, Memories of Murder

2004 3-Iron

2006 The Host, The City of Violence

2008 The Chaser

2009 Thirst

2010 Poetry, The Housemaid

EdgarI can see that you are obsessed with Song Kang-ho. Alright…What comes next?

 

MikeSong Kang-ho is not just the best actor in South Korea, He is one of the best actors in the world, period. It is an international tragedy that none of his films have been nominated for a Best Foreign film Oscar and instead we get this list of nominated films:

1995 301,302

2000 Chunhyang

2002 Oasis

2003 Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

2004 Taegukgi

2005 Welcome to Dongakgol

2006 The King and the Clown

2007 Secret Sunshine

2008 Crossing

2009 Mother

2010 A Barefoot Dream

2011 The Front Line

Edgar

South Korean cinema is bountiful with excellent filmmakers, I’m not sure what listing off Oscar nominees proves, no offence meant. I think we both know why something like The Front Line would be a candidate and not, say, Thirst. This is an argument more than a few like to use and I have a hard time buying into it entirely. It’s very close to concluding that The Front Line is even worse now because it had a shot at an Oscar while something we all love didn’t. Let’s stick to The Front Line as it is.

MikeOK. I guess part of my irritation with The Front Line is that it doesn’t really take risks. It’s a very safe film. It touches on all the war film clichés and buries the lead – those last twelve hellish hours.

EdgarOn that point, specifically, I can agree with you. War films have been done to death, no pun intended. It’s at the stage where finding genuinely new material must be tough

MikeYes, and that was what was most frustrating. A really good female sniper and the “the war will end in 12 hours good luck” were both stories that were new to me, but the film made them after-thoughts rather than the lead.

Edgar

I liked how those final twelve hours were the final blow that emphasized how retarded that war was. They’re brothers! If ever there was a war that would earn ‘dumbest war’ medal, the Korean war would be a serious candidate. I didn’t read up to know if that was historical fact or not. Just imagine: ‘Oh wait, don’t go home yet, we have twelve hours left!’ “WTF!?! Are you shitting me?!?” The emotional swing the characters have during that sequence is pretty great too.

MikeI couldn’t find anything online to prove or disprove it, but M.A.S.H. has brainwashed me to believe it. I will admit to loving the Alligator speech even if the wrong guy was giving it.

Edgar

Oh, I can agree on that too. That character felt like a super productive grunt, not a true speechifying leader.

 

Mike

Speaking of M.A.S.H. do you think the dancing transvestite during the party sequence was a deliberate shout out to Klinger?

Edgar

I don’t know, but that would be pretty clever. It didn’t even cross my mind!

 

MikeI know you have a background in Hong Kong cinema hence Shaw Brothers Saturday = how about Korean cinema?

 

Edgar

‘Background’ is too high a compliment, but I’ll take it. My knowledge of Korean cinema is limited to output from the last 20 years.

Mike

I think the last 20 years is a pretty good sample. I start with The Quiet Family and work forward from there.

 

Edgar

See, I’ve never heard of that. I’m still much the novice when it comes to Korean cinema. Peppermint Candy is a gem.

 

Mike

Interesting. Never seen Peppermint Candy. It looks like The Big Chill only with actual depth rather than a bunch of Yuppie whining.

EdgarZING!
Aerok Hill

EdgarI’ll never argue that The Front Line is a perfect film, but I do think it constructs a solid enough arc concerned with haunted soldiers. The trajectory from the film’s backstory to how it bleeds into their current behaviour is well done overall. Also, the Korean war setting gives the film some extra heft, just by the nature of that conflict.

MikeSince I am editing this together, I will take the opportunity to storm the hill last. I thought the film tried to tell too many stories and this left the film bloated and too long. It also dragged the film’s focus away from the really interesting stories that it had to tell.

 

Have you watched The Front Line? Are you a member of Team Michael or Team Edgar? Let us know which of our critics got this film right!

1 Comment
  1. Bill Mesce says

    I don’t know if it adds anything to the debate, but from what I can tell from the reviews, the exchange here between Edgar and Michael, and the trailers (I have no access to the film where I live), in many ways THE FRONT LINE seems a South Korean version of PORK CHOP HILL. The thematic parallels are quite striking.

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