Jang Hun’s pulpy military thriller The Front Line is set during the waning days of the Korean War, as the commanders know they’re about to hammer out a truce, but the grunts in the field are still shooting at each other, under orders to seize as much territory as possible, for added leverage at the bargaining table. Shin Ha-Kyun plays a lieutenant sent to the Aerok Hills to file a report on a ragtag company where discipline is slack, and where an officer has recently turned up dead with a South Korean bullet in his brain, possibly at the hand of a rumored North Korean mole. When Shin arrives, he finds war orphans milling about, a baby-faced CO shooting up morphine, and soldiers wearing North Korean uniforms over their own to keep warm. In short, the lines between ally and enemy have long since been blurred, and these men are now fighting to survive long enough to see the peace they’ve been promised for years.
Though The Front Line won awards at home and is South Korea’s official Oscar candidate, it’s hardly a prestige picture. Jang and screenwriter Park Sang-Yeon (who also wrote the novel on which Park Chan-Wook’s 2000 hit Joint Security Area was based) are perfectly content to work in the language of war-movie clichés, reducing characters to types: the angel-faced kid, the pudgy joker, the embittered veteran, the ambitious careerist, and so on. And Jang’s command of the visual grammar of the old-fashioned combat sequence is in sync with Park’s corny dialogue and stock conflicts. The Front Line’s action sequences aren’t pitched as gritty you-are-there realism; they’re about sniper bullets zipping through the frosty air, and tracking shots that defy geometry to make it look as though soldiers are running up a perpendicular mountain.
But just because the script and direction of The Front Line are more over-the-top than the average awards-bait doesn’t mean the movie is a trifle. Jang and Park keep returning to a meaningful central image: a box buried in a trench in a plot of land that each side periodically re-takes. The men pass messages and share booze via the box, creating their own off-the-books cease-fire. The action in The Front Line is bloody and tense, but the movie also reduces war to its simplest terms, defining it in terms of the reluctant soldiers who know that only accidents of birth and location determined which side of the battlefield they inhabit.