Review: The Front Line


There are only two films about war that have brought me to the verge of tears. The first is more the implication of war, and that would be Stephen Spielberg’s incredible Schindler’s List. The second is a war film more in the vein of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and that would be The Front Line. In foreign war films, the smaller budgets generally mean the action is a bit underwhelming. The soldiers themselves are what make those films worth watching. Watching battle scenes is all well and good, but it quickly becomes monotonous, even if the individual situations change.

Fortunately, The Front Line succeeds as both a realistic portrayal of war (I assume) and as a character drama. It was so good, in fact, that I had to retroactively change my vote for Best Foreign Film in our upcoming awards. I can see why South Korea chose The Front Line to be their entry for the Oscars.

The Front Line (Gojijeon)
Director: Jang Hun
Release Date: Jan 20, 2012 (Limited)
Country: South Korea

I do not know if the events of The Front Line are an accurate representation of the final days leading to the end of the Korean War. There are scenes in the film that seem too convenient. The characters talk about a sniper known as “Two Seconds,” someone stands out in the open, and is immediately shot (by the sniper). Those are the moments that seem unrealistic. They remind the viewer that it is a film and not a documentary. However, even in those staged situations, the actions and reactions of the characters come across as very natural. Fortunately, the realism of the characters keeps The Front Line from feeling fake or forced.

There is one oddity I have noticed in several South Korean films, though. For whatever reason, English speakers never sound natural. It was true in Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area 10 years ago, and it’s true here. Fortunately, the English dialogue is minimal (and relegated only to the opening scene). I would like to know what’s going on here, though. 

The Front Line Two Seconds

The comparisons with JSA do not stop there, because there is a significant subplot regarding the “sharing” of goods between some North and South Korean soldiers. This sort of exchange is certainly less direct than in Chan-wook’s film (which is very good, so see it if you haven’t), but it’s very reminiscent of it. I should note that The Front Line‘s main actor (Shin Ha-kyun) also plays a major role in JSA. Make of that what you will.

I mentioned earlier that I thought the war scenes were very impressive, and that I was kind of surprised. I feel like there is no type of film that is as much of a logistical nightmare as a war film. I can’t even imagine the work that must go into setting up dozens (if not hundreds) of explosions, hundreds of actors, gallons of blood and gore, and whatever else the action needs. So it didn’t really surprise me when none of the deaths in Downfall really looked all that legitimate. That problem does not exist in The Front Line. Sure, there were a few times where it wasn’t quite clear how a soldier was killed, but maybe I just missed them. War is chaotic, and you’re not going to notice every single squib. Given the immense bodycount though, it’s incredibly impressive how well Jang Hun and company pulled it off.

The Front Line Shin Ha-kyun

I also said that I was on the verge of tears. I did not cry, but my eyes were watering a bit during one of the more emotional moments. None of the characters are perfect, not by a long shot, and the complexity of the characters is what makes everything fit together. There’s the officer who was forced to shoot down some of his own men in order to save others, the defector from North Korea who had won a badge from an interim government in 1941, the 17-year-old kid who sings songs for the soldiers to raise morale. Even when they say generic things like, “War is hell,” it takes on an entirely different meaning given their situations. These characters make The Front Line into something that goes well beyond something that even most dramas can accomplish. It was kind of shocking to me, but when things got tough, even my cold, black heart was touched a little bit.

The Front Line is an excellent film. It may not be the best film about war I have ever seen, but I can’t think of a recent one that has done it better. It may not be the best Korean film I have ever seen either, but that says almost nothing about its quality. You probably know nothing about the Korean War and will go in just as blindly as I did. You may hate the idea of war and refuse to see it on principle. That would be a mistake. You don’t need to be horrified by images of war. Everyone has seen enough of it to know that it’s hell. But The Front Line does something different. These soldiers have done horrible things. Their actions, whether justified or not, do not make them sympathetic characters.

This isn’t a patriotic movie which ends with some kind of victory, moral or otherwise. It is something far deeper and far more affecting. Even when the situations are clearly staged, the characters remain honest and grounded. Even the best looking war movie is only as good as its characters, and The Front Line has those in spades.

Flixist Editor's Choice Banner The Front Line 2011 Jang Hun