Towards the end of the Korean War an uneasy ceasefire is ordered, but out on the Eastern front line of the Aerok Hills fierce fighting continues. A race to capture a strategic point to determine a new border between the two Koreas is the ultimate prize. A bullet is then found in the body of dead company commander of the South Korean army. The bullet that killed the company commander belongs to the South Korean army. Lieutenant of the Defense Security Command Kang Eun-Pyo is ordered to go out into the Eastern front line and investigate the murder. When Kang Eun-Pyo arrives in the Aerok Hills he is surprised to find his old friend Kim Soo-Hyeok commanding troops in the Aerok Hills. Soldiers wear North Korean uniforms inside due to the cold weather, a 20-year-old leads troops as a captain and the reappearance of his old friend Kim Soo-Hyeok. The countdown to the ceasefire begins as the lives of countless soldiers fall to the wayside.
While the controversial issue of a divided Korea has been explored in past films, director Jang Hun’s The Front Line develops a devastating portrait of the mental and physical afflictions that war has on the individuals within it. While films such as Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area and Kang Je-Gyu’s Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War may have provided a more intimate look into the conflict that exists between a North and South Korea, The Front Line attempts to narrow this view and focus extensively on a single conflict rather than encompassing the entire framework of the war. With a host of interesting characters, frantic battle sequences, and a rather authentic outlook into the follies of war, the film is impressive for offering a surface view into the mental anguish that soldiers on the front line face, but it’s also a film marred with moments of contrived melodrama that stop the film from reaching its full potential as an articulate look at the Korean War.
Perhaps one of the biggest strengths of The Front Line is that it tackles the issue of war itself as an unnecessary phenomenon within humanity. These elements of the film’s plot truly provide some emotional and philosophical leverage to its premise, but sadly these moments are caught far and between the exceeding displays of mayhem and carnage. In many respects, the two elements should go hand-in-hand, but The Front Line unfortunately decides to focus primarily on the brutality of war rather than the reasons—or lack thereof—for it. Many of the film’s characters appear as superficial caricatures that are unnecessarily integrated simply to have viewers sympathize with their plight. Whether this stems from the young, timid recruit who hasn’t experience the frightening nature of combat, to the borderline psychopath who has seen more than his fair share of death, the characters—while certainly presented in an authentic fashion—are not very original in their foundation. This hurts the film in many ways, simply because it dehumanizes what should be a very human situation, where lives are on the line and the fate of battle is always constant.
Maybe this is the underlying beauty of the film, that war in itself is a pointless endeavor that humans participate in. But The Front Line just becomes hindered by its own weight, overwrought with an abundance of overly dramatic moments as it nears its conclusion that do little to have us sympathize with the outcome of these rather shallow characters. And while the devastating nature of war is prevalent throughout the film, director Jang Hun seems rather complacent in bludgeoning the viewer over the head with its message. While the visceral nature of the film’s battle sequences are a sight to view, The Front Line is both an rousing experience showcasing the grisly nature of the Korean War—one of the most brutal conflicts in the last century—but is also a film that overreaches in its attempt to enlighten the severity of that conflict. Still, those looking for a rather gripping albeit melodramatic look into the savage nature of war, The Front Line is a film that should fulfill that desire with considerable ease.