Jang Hun's take-that-hill war film "The Front Line" arrives with the designation of being South Korea's Oscar submission for foreign-language film. But Jang's sentimental bruiser already has won his country's version of the Oscar, taking four Grand Bell awards, including best picture in October. It was a huge commercial success too, proving that Korean awards voters aren't exactly snobs when it comes to art.
One of those awards came for cinematography, which, for American audiences, may be the most striking thing about this overly long war film, which teeters in tone from absurd to sentimental. Jang capably delivers a number of visually arresting battle scenes, grimly detailing the last battle of the Korean War, a brutal skirmish over a series of hills that accounted for 75% of the war's death toll.
Most of the casualties came while the sides were slowly negotiating an armistice, a bitter fact that the film seizes upon as it follows the tired, crazed members of the South Korean Alligator Unit. They're wearing North Korean army uniforms over their own to keep warm and have a 20-year-old captain (Lee Je-hoon) leading the way as they gird themselves for one more attempt to recapture the same small knoll on the 38th parallel, a hill they've won and lost so many times that the act of battle has turned into tedium.
Jang and screenwriter Park Sang-yeon recognize the situation's senselessness but can't resist ramping up the melodrama and celebrating the heroism of the battle-fatigued soldiers. These contradictory impulses, combined with the film's undercooked characters, make "The Front Line" a war movie not quite worth engaging.
"The Front Line." MPAA rating: R for war violence. In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. At CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles; AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park; AMC Rolling Hills 20, Torrance.