As far as unique voices in cinema go, in my opinion the South Koreans are right behind the Japanese in their ability to blend the disturbing with the sentimental. There are countless examples of this in films hailing from south of the Demilitarized Zone, and I'll immediately suggest Park Chan-Wook for those of you interested to look up. But even conventional cinema there is fresh and exhilerating and deserves to be seen outside cineplexes in Seoul or Busan. Military thrillers, especially, seem to strike a chord there, in part due to the heightened tensions between the North and South since the ceasefire, but some of the best examples of the military drama hail from South Korean directors. Hell, even Park Chan-Wook's first major film, JSA, chronicles military intrigue and sly political discourse. And of course there's always the military procedurals disguised as horror films like GP506 (already reviewed here) and R-Point.
71 Into the Fire follows in the footsteps of other military thrillers from South Korea, namely Assembly, which I love dearly, even taking consideration of it's almost nostalgic view of communism in that country. Tae Guk Gi is another excellent movie unfairly cited as a less spectacular riff of Saving Private Ryan, albeit chronicling an entirely different war, and from a perspective westerners have no grounds to be critical of.
The 71 in the title here refers to the student soldiers, who were about all that remained late in the Korean war not already drafted or volunteered, all eager to oust communism from the South and sadly all that stood between the North's push past the Nakdong River on the way to Busan for total dominance. In real life, the student soldiers held their ground for 11 hours during a relentless siege by the North bent on crushing them beneath their jackboots, and played a key part in the ultimate outcome of the war, giving the rest of the proper army time to resupply and await the Allied force's arrival in Busan. This is the plight the movie focuses on, and it does so almost poetically.
Initially we're introduced to Oh Jung-Bum (played by Korean pop star T.O.P.) helping remove the injured from the field and running munitions between platoons. He's young and looks wartorn and weary, and exposed to his first serious glance at battle since being on the line, where his whole squad is killed as he stands there dumbfounded and scared to the point he can't even bring himself to draw his own weapon. We see him tended in the hospital, and the camera lingers on his face fetishistically showing us the lines that have made their way onto it due to malnutrition and the constant din of battle. Or so I imagined. Eventually we follow him to the battalion's station at Pohang Girls Middle School, where several more truckloads of student soldiers are delivered to the front. Put in charge of the entire squad of 71 student soldiers, he splits them into two platoons and from there deals with several confrontations with the newcomers questioning why he was placed in command, something he's unsure of himself.
Kwon Sang-Woo plays Ku Kap-jo, Oh Jung-Bum's primary rival within the ranks of the student soldiers. Guilty of murder, he arrives with two other thugs detoured there rather than prison wanting to do their share to fight the communists and hoping for a pardon for their actions. They're rowdy, argumentative, and show no respect for the experience of Oh Jung-Bum's time in the military. We're introduced to other characters within their ranks as well: a mousy boy with glasses that is giddy with talk of science and math and wants to learn to operate the radio, two young brothers trying to watch out for each other, and several others that are just as memorable. Watching how they interact and seeing the responsibility placed upon Oh Jung-Bum's shoulders fully take effect is done exceptionally, and manages to avoid much of the melodrama I've come to expect in South Korean films. We begin to root for all of them despite their differences and quarrels with each other, and like them dread the impending assault sure to come from the North.
And when it does, it's explosive and relentlessly led by Cha Seung-Won's character of Park Mu-Rang. His villain is multi-faceted, coveting a respect and pity for the people of the south, believing they've been duped into democracy by a corrupt America. A blight he personally wishes to rid all of Korea of and effortlessly pushes southward until crossing the Nakdong to get to Pohang on his way to Busan. We see him tormented relentlessly by his own propaganda officer, questioning his refusal to join the rest of the North's forces at Nakdong where they had been ordered to go. After several skirmishes with the student soldiers, he goes so far as to offer asylum should they choose to surrender to his battalion. He doesn't get a lot of dialog, but he's nonetheless complex and a joy to watch act on the screen. Of course, he's also a veteran and one of the most versatile actors working in cinema in South Korea.
I can't write this without at least talking a bit about the battle scenes, here easily rivaling the likes of the western Saving Private Ryan and made for only 10 million American dollars, it's amazing for me to see what the eastern countries are capable of on a limited budget. Having far less drama than Assembly or the also incredible Tae Guk Gi, 71 Into the Fire rarely lets up with it's non-stop pace, and when it does it's specifically to build up a fair amount of tension before letting loose again, and boy does it work. You'll feel like you're right there as you watch these kids fight, amidst the grit and shrapnel, and it manages to retain that impressive vantage through the duration. I was glued to my seat from the moment it started and my eyes didn't leave the screen once. It's intense and visceral, and more than most films manage regardless the action, honest. A feat far more impressive I think.
It's one of those rare gems. There's a lot of hype behind this flick right now and with good reason. It's an excellent exercise in drama and action and comes from a perspective that I have yet to consider tired or jaded by Hollywood politics. Some folks may be put off by the sub-titles or by the fact that it details a foreign history we're mostly unfamiliar with, but those are all reasons that enhanced my enjoyment of the film. It's truthful, and while it may take some liberties with the story on which it's based, it's still a perfectly acceptable account of a conflict that could have just as easily been forgotten. Natural performances and outstanding cinematography, as well as a tight script and great chemistry among the cast are even more reasons that this begs to be seen. I'm already contemplating seeing it a second time this week, as I'm certain its lifespan in American theaters is to be shortlived. A shame since it's just so damn sincere and compelling and just impressive a feat as more lauded western films like the aforementioned Saving Private, a bloated and self-serving spectacle and less a movie than what you get with 71 Into the Fire. Really, find it and see it.