The Front Line
The Front Line (°íÁöÀü) also known as Battle of Highlands) is a 2011 South Korean war film set during the 1953 ceasefire between North and South Korea. It was selected as South Korea’s submission to the 84th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It also won four Grand Bell Awards including Best Film. This is the third film by director Jang Hun.
The war drama received 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.
In January 1953, Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun), from the C.I.C., a South Korean army division specializing in weeding out communists, is sent to join Alligator Company – a small troop of men assigned to occupy Aerok Hill, a strategic point on the Eastern Front. His covert mission is to investigate the mysterious death of their commander and to decipher how South Korean military is implicated in delivering letters from the North to their families in the South.
Eun-Pyo arrives at the front lines accompanied with Captain Jae-Oh, the new commanding officer of Alligator Company, and a raw recruit. Things quickly change upon arriving on the eastern front. The acting commander, Captain Young-Il is addicted to morphine, some of the men are wearing Northern uniforms to keep warm and refer to their fallen friends as ‘comrades,’ war orphans live among the soldiers, and Eun-Pyo’s old friend Kim Soohyeok is not only alive but has moved up in rank. He had also transformed from a scared and useless soldier to a ruthless killer and tactician. Also, the entire unit seems to be attempting to suppress their memories about something unspoken that happened in Po-Hang, earlier in the war.
It turns out that Jung-yoon is commanding the North Korean forces, and after the North has again retaken the hill the South take it back and Eun-Pyo joins them in battle. After the fighting is finished he sees the new recruit is drunk. As alcohol was not distributed to troops, his suspicion leads him to discover Soohyeok, Young-il, and a few other soldiers enjoying the contents of a secret communication box buried within the hills in a cave that acts as a mail system and gift exchange from one side to the other. It had originally been used to trade insults between the different sides, but evolved into exchanging letters and presents. The North would leave rice wine, and the South would leave American made cigarettes and chocolate. Seasons change as the winter turns to summer and the land continues to change sides. Secrets are held not only from Soo-hyeok but amongst the seasoned fighters on both sides. Near the end of the war,
Chinese troops are deployed in human wave tactics to attack the hill, and the North Koreans are positioned to cut off the retreat route of the South Koreans. In the following battle, Jae-Oh errs by committing his men to the front line despite the pleas of his lieutenants to fall back to a more defensible position. Eventually, the hill is overrun, and Jae-Oh is killed by Soo-Hyeok after refusing to retreat. Soo-Hyeok in turn is killed by a North Korean sniper nicknamed ‘two seconds’.
After the battle, news of an armistice agreement reaches both sides, and celebrations start. A group of North and South Korean soldiers encounter each other in a mountain valley, but after a tense early moment, send each other off with goodbyes. However, the armistice is not yet in effect, and there are 12 hours left. Both sides are told by their superiors to attack or defend the most strategically important pieces of land. As a result, there is a final climatic battle where Eun-pyo kills ‘two seconds’, who turns out to be a woman, and everyone on both sides is killed except for the North Korean commander Jung-yoon and Eun-Pyo. Eun-pyo finds Jung-yoon in the cave with the gift box. He asks him why exactly they are fighting. Jung-yoon replies that he knew at that time, but forgot the answer. They share a smoke, and Jung-yoon dies shortly after.
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 supposed 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 only woman in the film was Kim Ok-bin (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. Two scenes “two Seconds” tortures her targets are agonizing to behold, especially since they are preceded by warm encounters between the characters.
The futility of sacrifice is symbolized by the hill, which changed hands for some 30 times in 18 months. T he tacit bond between the two sides, reinforced by the frequent reminders that the communists still have and dearly miss families in the South is juxtaposed with battle scenes where there’s no room for mercy, even toward one’s own comrades. The rapid-fire editing and sharp, piercing sound effects make the carnage look swift and vicious, compounding horror with an element of surprise. The final offensive to take Aerok Hill again reflects Jang’s intention to downplay the visual fireworks of war in favor of expressing it as messy, senseless pandemonium. In the light of this, the Shin’s motivating speech on why their company is named “Alligator” – like baby alligators that have a low survival rate, they are the last men standing in a war that took 50,000 lives – resonates with tragic irony.
Production quality is first rate without being over-wrought.