Monday, May 21, 2012

DVDebut: Jang Hun's THE FRONT LINE -- Korea's choice for Foreign-Language Oscar

Making its USA east coast debut this past January as the opening attraction of the Korean Cultural Service's 2012 film series, this knock-out of a war movie is not to be missed by anyone interested in war films, anti-war films (of which it is one of the best) and especially the war that separated Korea into two countries back in the early 1950s. THE FRONT LINE -- directed by Jang Hun and written by Park Sang-yeon -- opened briefly in New York for a (very) limited theatrical run during the week of its KCS debut and then arrived on DVD last month, which is the format in which TrustMovies has finally caught up with it. The film, South Korea's submission for last year's Best Foreign Language Film, though it did not even make the short list, most definitely, in the words of another Oscar winner, "shoulda been a contender."

The filmmaker, shown at left, serves up a good and gritty mix of well-drawn characters against a vast, horrific canvas of war. Full of incident and filmed spectacularly well, the movie works equally as adrenaline rush and a quiet, consideration of how this war "worked," from headquarters downward. A North Korean spy is suspected of infiltrating the South's front line, and so a certain Lieutenant Kang (Shin Ha-kyun, below, left) is sent there to ferret out whatever information he can via his old friend, Lieutenant Kim (Ko Soo, below, right), who is also at the front.

The USA is seen here only as airplanes that fly over the hills and bomb them, after which the soldiers from the south scramble up and down those hills trying to kill the soldiers of the north. As one of these men explains, they take the hill, lose it, take it again, lose it again, and on and on without end. This has resulted in certain soldiers from one army burying a little treasure (food, liquor, chocolates, whatever) to have when they return to that hill, as they know they must. The other army finds this, leaves it own nasty "message," but then, eventually, the two are actually "communicating" -- even, in fact, gifting -- each other.

It's this thread of the "buried treasure" more than any other -- it also, by the by, explains the "spy" situation -- that carries the film along, providing much of its irony and sentiment. It becomes almost iconic to the the situation of this particular war -- equal parts humorous and heart-breaking. The director excels at creating genuine sentiment, especially in one scene involving two children, an old injury and a question of "healing." Instead of milking this for undue tears, the director and writer use it to unveil more fully the clashing character of the lieutenants.

The film grows into something both spectacular and hideous, complete with a surprising sniper, who is picking off the platoon all too easily. The climax, it turns out, is not that. No: There's something far worse in store, and by the time the credits roll, all the deadly absurdity, the shocking waste of this entire situation is brought home about as well as I've seen it done.

The Front Line, 133 minutes, from Wellgo USA Entertainments, is available now, for sale or rental, on DVD only -- no Blu-ray -- but I must say that the transfer is pretty much impeccable. Those of us with Blu-ray should not mind at all watching a DVD of this quality.

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