On August 11th 1950, as the Korean War raged, seventy-one South Korean student soldiers held back North Korea's 766 Commando Brigade for eleven hours at the site of a girls' middle school, allowing South Korean troops led by Captain Kang (Kim Seung-woo), and other Allied forces, to engage in battle to hold a bridgehead near Nakdong river. Barely trained, and with the majority having no previous battle experience, the student soldiers' courage and sacrifice against the commandoes played a pivotal part in South Korea gaining a tactical advantage over the North, thereby influencing the entire outcome of the war...
Based on factual historical events, 71 - Into The Fire first introduces us to Oh Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyeon), the boy destined to become the leader of the student soldiers, in a battle prior to August 11th. His first experience of war, he is charged with delivering ammunition to some soldiers situated on a nearby rooftop, and soon finds himself in a situation for which he is utterly unprepared:
After delivering the ammo to the rooftop area, he and another South Korean soldier are confronted by one of the North Korean troops but, when attempting to fire his rifle (as his colleague is bayoneted) Jang-beom realises, to his horror, that it isn't even loaded. Desperately trying to put a bullet into his weapon before the South Korean soldier is killed, Jang-beom fails miserably in the task, and it is left to another soldier to finally shoot the North Korean foe. This early scene ably places the complete battle inexperience of Jang-beom firmly in viewers' minds and, as a result, when he is subsequently put in charge of the student soldier brigade, we are already fully aware of the imbalance of what these young boys face in attempting to hold back the highly trained, combat hardened, North Korean forces - even before the battle itself commences.
Subsequent to this scene, the narrative unfolds at a steady pace as we begin to learn more about Jang-beom and Captain Kang, and are gradually introduced to each of the other main players in turn - including Koo Gap-jo (Kwon Sang-woo), a loud and abrasive member of the student soldiers whose dislike of Jang-beom is obvious from their first encounter; and Commander Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won), the overly confident leader of the North Korean 766 Brigade - and, as the two opposing sides march ever onward towards their final, bloody confrontation, the student soldiers’ repeated failure in dealing with even minor skirmishes with North Korean scouting troops continually underlies the virtually impossible job that lies ahead of them.
From the outset of the film, the production values are exemplary (and, dare I say, explosive), rivalling what even Hollywood could have, and has, achieved in the portrayal of war scenes on screen. However, the high calibre of the visuals isn't all that 71 - Into The Fire has in common with Hollywood, and even though the overall story is genuinely interesting and engages throughout, there is more than one instance of predictability within scenes, flagging the outcome of several plot elements long before their eventual conclusion. The most obvious of these are the early animosity of student soldier Koo Gap-jo to Jang-beom - his constant attempts to undermine Jang-beom’s leadership and orders screaming of a later bonding, understanding, mutual trust and team work of the two; and the repeated contrasting of the methods of command of Jang-beom to those of Commander Park, with each increasingly discussing the other (and even entering into a direct dialogue, at one point), inevitably leading to an ultimate one-on-one fight between them.
That said, that man against man fight (predictable though its occurrence may be) certainly doesn't give up all its secrets before the fact, and the analogy of the two men's individual face off to that of the war of their two nations actually works fairly well, through to the final conclusion of the battle.
On an emotional level, the empathy derived from the student soldiers as a whole largely takes precedence over that of individuals, with Jang-beom's narrated letters to his mother being the most noticeable exception, but considering the film's subject matter and the resultant huge number of cast members, that's really rather to be expected, a shame though it may be.
John H. Lee's direction is accomplished throughout 71 - Into The Fire (you can read the Hangul Celluloid interview with John H. Lee here) and he clearly shows that he is equally comfortable and adept within the war genre as he is directing romance (John H. Lee is probably best known for 2004 romantic melodrama A Moment To Remember). He certainly doesn't shy away from showing the brutality of war and expertly accents the chaotic carnage which is part and parcel of any battle, especially one such as this with such inexperienced, almost would-be, soldiers.
It almost goes without saying that no South Korean film has an available budget that comes close to that of Western blockbusters, but 71 - Into The Fire still manages to largely stand its ground against the competition, and it must be said that its subject matter is, without doubt, a story that should be told.
Based on a true story, 71 - Into The Fire tells its tale with gusto throughout, using breathtaking visuals within epic battle scenes to show the chaos and carnage of war and the ultimate price it demands, albeit in a slightly predictable manner in places.
Cha Seung-Won, Kwon Sang-Woo, Choi Seung-Hyun, Kim Seung-Woo
The DVD edition reviewed here is the UK (Region 2) Cine Asia Collectors' Edition. The Film is presented as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present. The picture is absolutely exemplary and compliments the beautifully rich visuals perfectly.
All in all, this is yet another example of the superb quality of DVD releases which are now being released in the UK. For several years, UK film fans could expect liitle more than a trailer reel provided as the full extent of DVD special features, but with superb releases like '71 - Into The Fire' containing a plethora of DVD extras, Cine Asia are truly resetting the balance and providing a benchmark by which other distribution companies must measure themselves.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 and is easily equal to the superb image quality present. The musical score is also well balanced and noticeably nuanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature and all of the extensive extras (full details below).
• Director: John H. Lee
• Format: PAL, Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
• Subtitles: English
• Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
• Region: Region 2
• Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
• Number of discs: 2
• Classification: 15
• Distribution: Cine-Asia/Showbox Media Group
• Run Time: 116 minutes (approx.)
Audio : Korean 5.1 / Korean 2.0 • Audio Commentary by Bey Logan & Mike Leeder • English Subtitles • Trailer Gallery Special Features: • Men of Valour, Personal reflections on The Korean War (Cine Asia World Exclusive) • INTO THE FIRE - Making of Documentary • Behind the Scenes • Pre-Production • Production Design • Student Soldier Trainees from the Korean War • Poster - Making of • Premiere and Press Interview • Showcase