Jang Hun’s The Front Line is a story about the brutal pointlessness of the last two years of the Korean War. The story follows a military intelligence officer (Shin Ha-Kyun) sent to the front lines in the eastern part of the peninsula where the two sides are fighting over and over again for the same pointless hill. There he runs into an old college friend (Ko Soo) he thought had died when captured by the North early in the war (it’s unclear why he doesn’t die). At this point though, Ko is a hard man who has no patience for idiot higher officers. Ko and Alligator Company survived horrible things in 1950 that included killing their comrades to get away in the bad early days and they are having trouble dealing with this and the mounting death that will probably get them all at some point. This brushes up against Shin’s by the books ways, but the more Shin is up in the mountains, the more he understands, even if he never approves. The soldiers on both sides start leaving presents for each other in the same underground shelter they use to survive the bombings and invasions, showing us their commonalities. But none of this matters for the leaders (and foreign armies) who are all far away (except one Chinese invasion). But the real pointlessness comes at the end. When the peace treaty is finally signed in the summer of 1953, there is 12 hours before it takes effect, so both sides order an all out fight to take that mountain once again. This leads to a predictable and overdone and overdramatic conclusion.
At this point, showing the brutality of war through post-Saving Private Ryan detail isn’t all that revelatory and neither is the plot really. I’m interested in how this played in South Korea given the ever-present possibility of the North going berserk and restarting the war, but when I was there in the mid-90s, not too many people held any negative feelings toward the North and I understand it’s even less today. So I guess the war had to be fought on one level, but the soldiers of the North and South have much in common, as do soldiers everywhere. They share the same experiences, hope to survive to see their families, and have gone through hell. The movie also falls into some pretty cheap sentimentality and stock characters (such as the silent sharpshooter, this time a woman). The child who has lost her arm is pretty manipulative and thus not very moving.
If that all sounds rather blase and uninspiring, well, it kind of is since there’s not too much else to this film. It’s decent but not necessary.