Sweat is pouring down this young soldier’s face. In his first battle, he is already called to play hero. As he is huddled into a corner with an unloaded rifle, he sees his fellow soldier struggling; fighting hand-to-hand against an enemy armed with a bayonet. All he has to do is load one shot. His nerves kick in. He fumbles the bullet and reaches for another to load as the enemy bayonet inches closer to killing his comrade. There’s a gasp; it’s too late, the bayonet sinks into his friend. For young Jang-beom (played by Choi Seung-hyeon), this moment is one of the most horrifying introductions to war.
In the movie 71 Into the Fire, the film follows the story of Jang-beom and 70 other student-soldiers during the Korean War, which broke out three weeks before on June 25th, 1950. The situation was getting dire for South Korean president Syngman Rhee, as the powerful North Korean war machine pushed deep into his country. The South started to recruit anyone that could hold a rifle, even students. Pushed back into the southernmost part of Korea – Busan – these newly recruited former students, alongside the remnants of the South Korean army and the United Nations, would make their final stand.
Yet, there is only one problem: desperate for any available manpower, all soldiers were ordered to defend the Nakdong River; their last hope. The top Korean commander Kang Seok-dae (played by Kim Seung-woo) named the shell-shocked Jang-beom as acting leader of these students, the youthful kid who just witnessed his first battle days ago. This further magnified the dire straits the South is in. These freshly recruited students would have to hold a strategic point – Pohang Girls Middle School – against any and all invaders. Alone.
Jang-beom’s rival commander, the experienced war-veteran Park Moo-rang (played by Cha Seung-woo), threatens to siege the undermanned high school. When fights break out among the student-soldiers, supplies are wasted, the training regimen falls apart and Jang-beom’s leadership among the middle school students begins to be questioned. Contrast this to the well-drilled North Korean army that have been through many battles and armed with T-34 tanks and it seems too apparent how this ensuing battle will end for these 71 ragtag students. The students slowly realize the immediate danger and overwhelming odds around them; they knew they would have to make their stand against the North Korean military. What would happen to them? How would these students play a part in the Korean War? Did reinforcements come in time to save them?
One of the main, yet subtle, themes in the movie is how the two opposing commanders play not just Jang-beom’s superiors, but also his father figures as well. They are also two of the more interesting characters that are developed during the movie.
The South Korean commander Kang was the sympathetic leader to Jang-beom and the 71 students. He knew that these baby-faced boys were unwillingly drafted into the army and wanted no part of this. Yet, he realized that although Jang-beom broke down in his first battle, Kang saw his raw potential as a leader. He saw some of the same qualities he saw in himself: stern, subtle, respectful, and leading.
North Korean commander Park was portrayed as a fearless and arrogant leader, showing no concern for bullets, grenades, and tanks when in battle. Unlike many of the leaders on both sides of the conflict, he shows that being merciful is a way to win over the enemy. When his superior forces surround Jang-beom’s position at Pohang Middle School, he gives a lifeline, saying if they surrendered without a fight then no one would be harmed.
The battle cinematography is, in short, amazing. The environment really brings you into the battlefield. Streets, countryside, and cities are all shown, as both sides bitterly struggle to hold onto strategic locations. Arms blasted off, corpses flying and blood split are also shown in detail, although perhaps not to the extent of the classic Korean war film Taegukgi.
Speaking of Taegukgi, any Korean war movie that comes out will inevitably be compared to this classic 2004 film. And while Taegukgi centers around the two brothers and their struggles with the Korean War as the backdrop, 71 Into the Fire centers around the 71 student-soldiers and dire situation of the South Korean forces. While the former can be over-dramatic and tear jerking at times, 71 Into the Fire shows the dangerous situation the Pohang brigade is in without being overly sappy. While Taegukgi creates an emotional attachment with many of the characters, the cast in 71 Into the Fire are not as personally developed, focusing instead on the group as a whole instead.
Yet, the Pohang battle is part of a much larger Busan campaign during the Korean War. Just as the Battle of Antietam is considered the turning point of the American Civil War, the defensive hold at Busan campaign is known as the focal point in the Korean War. If the city of Busan and its outer lying areas fell, South Korea would be no more.
The cast features a mix of both veteran movie actors and newcomers. Any fan of Korean pop (K-pop) will instantly recognize the lead actor Choi Seung-hyeon. He is better known as T.O.P., the Pop and hip-hop artist of the boy-band Big Bang. Many fans and movie skeptics alike – including myself – were worried that Choi could not make the transition from singing to acting. But for those critics, put your fears aside; Choi was one of the best actors in the film. Playing a shell-shocked Jang-beom that just wants to see his mother again, Choi portrays the young man that is silent, yet grows into a true leader towards the end of the movie.
Jang-beom ‘s rival in the movie, the thuggish Kap-su, is played by veteran actor Kwon Sang-woo. Known for starring in memorable dramas like Stairway to Heaven, and having a chiseled six-pack, he continues to play the bad boy. The South Korean commander of the Pohang region, the cunning and caring Kang Seok-dae, is played by another film veteram: Kim Seung-woo. Rounding out the main cast is his counterpart, the tactful and sometimes over-confident North Korean commander, Park Moo-rang, who is played by Cha Seung-won.
71 Into the Fire is not without its flaws. The acting ranges from bad to great, as all the cast has differing ranges of experience. Some parts of the movie in the middle felt a bit random and pieced-together oddly, which can leave the viewer wondering how the previous scene related to the current one. It felt like the director could have made a much smoother transition to these misplaced scenes.
The believability of how the student soldiers go from raw recruits to competent fighters in the end is also questionable – it’s my biggest gripe with the movie. Throughout the film these former students go through only one training session, where they’re required to hit a bell gong as a target. As expected, none of them are able to hit the target, yet after this one training session and a skirmish a day later, these raw-recruits become a decent fighting group. In fact, if these 71 went into battle against a more trained, well-drilled group, they should have been goners within the first hour of the film.
In the real account of the battle, these 71 brave soldiers sacrificed themselves, creating their own “Alamo” last stand. Their defense played a crucial part in stalling the North Korean advance by 11 hours. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say this: expect some creative license leeway and Hollywood effects, ala Michael Bay.
With all these flaws being said, this movie is still worth watching. For Korean film enthusiasts, the film is quite a surprise and ends up being an entertaining and engaging film about the Korean War. And, for T.O.P fans, it can’t get any better for you: Choi does a great job in his first acting role.
Jangta is a former Korean movie writer for various Korean media sites. Like the fine folks of Japan Cinema, he loves Asian cinema. He used to live in Japan for 7 years, avidly watching any Asian film he can get his hands on. As a proud affiliate of Japan Cinema, he is honored to be writing for such a great movie review site. Please check out more of his work at www.greenteagraffiti.com. And if you have any comments for him, please comment on the Japan Cinema comments section or email him at: email@example.com.