Although it doesn’t offer a new chapter for the war-is-hell playbook, “The Front Line” is a solid if overlong chronicle of a South Korean unit slogging it out near the 38th parallel during the 1950-53 conflict. Engaging auds emotionally with strong characters and bittersweet scenes of enemies fraternizing from a distance, South Korea’s foreign-language Oscar submission has become one of the year’s biggest domestic hits, with 2.95 million admissions since its July 20 release, and won the top prize at the national Golden Bell awards. Offshore theatrical exposure appears unlikely, but the pic’s high-quality action footage bodes well for ancillary.
Setting is January 1953, two years after armistice negotiations commenced. Assigned to investigate the possible murder of an officer by one of his own men and flush out a suspected communist mole, army intelligence officer Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is dispatched to Alligator Unit, which is now under the command of morphine-addicted Shin Il-yeong (Lee Je-hoon).
A ragged squad that lacks discipline and has taken to wearing enemy uniforms to keep warm, Alligator includes burly joker Yang Hyo-sam (Ko Chang-seok), petrified teenager Nam Sung-sik (David Lee) and Kim Su-hyeok (Ko Soo), an old friend of Kang’s whose outspoken comments about army brass mark him as the potential traitor.
The senselessness of war is symbolized by Alligator Unit’s mission to capture Aerok Hill, a small peak on the 38th parallel that’s changed hands with monotonous regularity since hostilities commenced. Endlessly occupying then retreating from the same piece of land, Alligator and a like-minded group of North Koreans have established a hidden mailbox on Aerok Hill where gifts are exchanged and letters from Northern soldiers to loved ones in the South are collected and delivered without any sense of wrongdoing.
These connections between writers and readers of the letters form a solid emotional core, but the tension surrounding Kang’s putative mission soon fizzles, and the pic’s message about the horror of it all becomes labored after yet another assault on Aerok Hill. Supplying partial compensation, suspense-wise, are sudden appearances by a deadly North Korean sniper played by the film’s sole female cast member, Kim Ok-vin.
Credit scripter Park Sang-yeon and helmer Jang Hoon for not indulging in any saber rattling. Given more than just token screen time, North Korean characters including disfigured commander Oh Gi-yeong (Ryu Seung-soo) come across as being just as tired of the fighting as their South Korean counterparts.
Thesping is fine, with no macho posturing in sight. Shin is charismatic as the officer whose sense of duty is thrown off balance by the stark reality he encounters at Aerok Hill, and Lee Je-hoon is memorable as the young commander who has gone to hell and back in the line of duty.
Visuals by d.p. Kim Woo-hyung subtly shift from gritty in battle sequences to clean but never glossy in quieter moments. The rest of the technical package is topnotch.