"Do you know why you're losing? It's because you don't know what you're fighting for."
As the Korean War rages in its third year, Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) - a soldier in the CIC unit of the South Korean army dealing with suspected communist activity in the ranks - is sent to the Eastern Front to investigate a possible North Korean mole in the South's Alligator regiment at the front line. On his arrival, he finds a dishevelled, war-weary troop of soldiers, led by a young morphine-addicted officer, attempting to secure (and keep) possession of Aerok Hill, an area that has switched between North and South Korean control thirty times in the previous eighteen months.
Discovering that his old friend Su-hyuk (Ko Soo) is also one of Alligator regiment's soldiers, Eun-pyo tries to rekindle their friendship, but Su-hyuk's seeming heartlessness and readiness to disregard authority leaves Eun-pyo suspecting him as much as anyone else.
However, as the battle for Aerok Hill intensifies yet again, and Eun-pyo finally begins to understand the true state of affairs, his investigation is largely replaced with the question of whether he, or in fact any of Alligator regiment, will survive until the fighting finally ceases...
There is a flashback scene in The Front Line (one of several) that takes us back to an earlier confrontation between Eun-pyo, Su-hyuk and the commander of the North Korean forces at the front line. In it, the Northern commander asks our two heroes if they know why their side is losing and, when they fail to answer, claims the reason is that they don't know what they're fighting for. That piece of dialogue is referenced again at a much later stage in proceedings and, in fact, ultimately lies at the very heart of what The Front Line is trying to say. For here we have a war in which the two opposing sides were, not that long before, one nation - a long and vicious battle where sometimes even families were split by their location on either side of the line drawn, so bloodily, between North and South.
As such, Korean war cinema regularly (some might say necessarily) details almost friendly, if cautious, interactions between Northern and Southern soldiers and, in terms of these at least, The Front Line is no exception. Bringing with them a poignancy that underlines the fact that the individuals tasked with doing the actual fighting might actually be, or become, friends if it weren't for the conflict they find themselves in, these moments gently accent the very humanity that makes each soldier (from either side) who they are as an individual - the very thing that they are expected to ignore, deny or jettison for 'the greater good'. Why they are fighting is a question that every soldier must ask themselves at some point, and while the answer may seem straightforward (or even simple) from an outside point of view, from a personal perspective it's often far less black or white.
When Eun-pyo first arrives at the Eastern Front, he is a man certain of his ideological beliefs and is instantly shocked by the apparent cold-heartedness of Alligator troop, and especially of Hu-syuk. However, as the events unfolding around him begin to take a similar toll on him he gradually realised that he too must shut his feelings, emotions and empathy down if he is to save his sanity and make it through to the end of the war at all.
Of course, the fact that the Korean war never officially 'ended' (an armistice agreement brought an end to the fighting but a full peace treaty was never signed) serves to add an extra level of poignancy to any film about this 'Forgotten War' - as it is often described - and ultimately results in The Front Line not only having a topicality, in a sense (especially considering ongoing tensions between North and South that continue to the present day), but also a worthiness to it that certainly can't be found in any war film about a horse, Oscar nomination or not.
The script for The Front Line was written by Park Seon-yeon, who also wrote the book DMZ which formed the basis for Park Chan-wook's 2000 film JSA (Joint Security Area), and there are a couple of fairly obvious similarities between the two films - the investigation of a seemingly suspicious incident by an outside individual, and the almost 'bonding' interactions between Northern and Southern forces - but while The Front Line could only realistically ever dream of emulating Park Chan-wook's stunning film, it easily serves it's purpose, nonetheless.
It does have to be said that the characterisations in The Front Line are somewhat lacking in depth, the majority largely reduced to archetypal characters seen in a plethora of war films from around the globe - the veteran soldier repeatedly regaling tales of previous battles; the young fresh-faced boy thrown into battle when he should really still be at home with his mother; the incompetent officer in charge who couldn’t command his way out of a paper bag if he tried and whose decisions place the entire regiment in danger of losing not only the current battle and their lives but also the entire conflict, etc.. While this is, at least partly, offset by the striking visuals present in the war scenes (more on this in a moment), and though the various thematic points are successfully made nonetheless, characters a little more fleshed out (and a tinge less obvious) would have allowed for even greater viewer empathy and character investment.
Visually, The Front Line is everything you would expect from an award winning blockbuster of a war film such as this, and while imagery of mud-strewn, bloody and corpse-laden battles could never be described as beautiful, there is a noticeable sumptuousness to the visuals throughout the film, nonetheless. These scenes really step up to the mark and pull no punches whatsoever in doing so, and director Jang Hoon's efforts to maintain a human element to the narrative at all times deftly allow the ongoing tension to be further added to by the striking imagery present.
Shin Ha-kyun and Ko Soo (as Eun-pyo and Su-hyuk, respectively) both give accomplished performances throughout The Front Line - each of their portrayals easily invoking as much viewer empathy as the narrative will allow - and though the narrative depth given to each of their characters within the story could have been greater, they both still manage to successfully get the required themes across.
However, the one role that would have benefited from being expanded and fleshed out further is that of North Korean sniper, Two Seconds - played by Kim Ok-bin. For an actress such as her, who has previously shown an ability to give superbly nuanced, and even intoxicating, performances, the fact that her role here often consists of being little more than a distant face behind a gun is really rather a shame. I do realise that her character was only ever meant to be a supporting role but, even so, the fact that Two Seconds only interacts with other characters on a couple of occasions (with even these being brief), to my mind, just isn't enough.
The rest of the cast play largely supporting roles but each performs admirably.
Shin Ha-kyun, Ko Soo, Kim Ok-bin
Director: Jang Hoon
While it could be said that the characterisations in The Front Line would have benefitted from having more depth and being slightly less obvious, the film nonetheless remains a far more worthy cinematic offering than any war film about a horse, Oscar nomination or not.