Korea had a bad 20th century. First Japan occupied the country, then Allied forces occupied it, then a war ripped it in half, then North Korea became a dictatorship, then South Korea experienced a coup followed by a decade of military rule, followed by another decade of martial law, followed by the assassination of the president, another coup, another military regime, and, finally, in 1987, a return to constitutional government. So when Korea produces a movie about its history like the Korean War movie The Front Line, which opens in the U.S. this week, it tends not to be an inspirational story with choruses on the soundtrack and shafts of golden sunlight illuminating award-winning actors intoning words meant to stir men’s souls (see: Amistad, Patton, Glory). Instead, The Front Line is a film so bleak, cynical, and anti-authoritarian that it makes Oliver Stone look like Ron Howard. And get this: Koreans flocked to cinemas and made The Front Line one of last summer’s biggest hits.
Under South Korea’s military dictatorship, war movies were expected to be patriotic pep rallies—dissent was not tolerated. Director Lee Man-Hee was arrested in 1965 for making a movie that portrayed communists sympathetically. That same year, director Yu Hyeon-Mok spoke out on Man-Hee’s behalf and found himself sentenced to over a year in prison for including six seconds of nudity in his own experimental film. Restrictions on content started loosening in the ’80s, but it wasn’t until 1995, when a court ruling forced the government to dismantle its censorship board, that the gloves came off and Korean directors and producers went after the official version of history—and present-day politics—with a vengeance.
The first haymakers to jolt the body politic were the one-two punch of Shiri (1999) and Joint Security Area (2000). Both movies were massive blockbusters, launching Korea’s current cinematic renaissance and changing the careers of their directors and stars. Shiri (directed by Kang Je-Gyu) follows Korean Central Intelligence agents looking for North Korean spies working in the South. Joint Security Area (directed by Park Chan-Wook) depicts an investigation of a murder on the DMZ between North and South Korea. Both set in the present, the two movies shared a groundbreaking point of view: that North Koreans and South Koreans share a common humanity and that the conflict between the two counties has been imposed by politicians. In the ’60s and ’70s, this would have gotten their directors arrested. Now, it opened the floodgates.
As North and South Korea circled the issue of reunification over the last 30 years, South Korean movies were already preparing for it, questioning the myth of the evil North and the virtuous South. Movies like Double Agent (2002) and Peppermint Candy (1999) exposed the torture and persecution of suspected communists by South Korea’s intelligence agencies. The President’s Last Bang (2005), a black comedy, depicted the 1979 assassination of President Park by the director of the Korean CIA. The popcorn-muncher Silmido (2003) ripped the lid off a secret government program that trained a commando squad of convicted criminals to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong-il in 1968. After three years, the program was scuttled, and the commandos were slated for indefinite detention (or extermination), at which point they escaped from their island training facility, hijacked a bus, and died in a massive firefight with police in downtown Seoul. The entire incident had been hushed up until the film dramatized it.
In the U.S., Oliver Stone will occasionally question the official version of American history with a JFK or a Platoon, but in Korea, mainstream directors regularly set out to make revisionist histories or genre films about historical atrocities. A Little Pond (2009) saw an all-star cast re-enact the covered-up 1950 massacre of Korean refugees by the American army. May 18 (2007) was a big-budget depiction of the Gwanju Massacre of 1980, in which the military put down a student protest, murdering 200 civilians in the process. The Road Taken (2003) portrayed the plight of Kim Sun-Myung, the world’s longest-serving political prisoner, who spent 43 years in a South Korean prison for being a communist sympathizer. Big-budget star vehicles don’t hold a monopoly on the field, however. Even a low-budget documentary like Grandmother’s Flower (2007), the director’s loving tribute to his grandmother, becomes a searing indictment of the conflict between left-wing and right-wing members of a village that culminated in torture, murder, and anti-communist purges.
In The Front Line, director Jung Han is committed to grinding any notions of battlefield heroism into the dirt. Han’s previous two films revolved around frenemies on opposite sides of the law or politics, which prepared him to make a movie about the two greatest frenemies of all time, North and South Korea. The set-up is similar to the one in Joint Security Area, with Lt. Kang (Shin Ha-Kyun) dispatched to the front lines of the Korean War to investigate the murder of Alligator Company’s commanding officer and accusations of communist collaboration. Within 20 minutes of his arrival, Kang solves the mystery but finds himself trapped by Alligator Company’s pointless mission: occupying Aerok Mountain, a small hill that has been taken, lost, and retaken 30 times in 18 months. Their lives have a kind of Groundhog Day repetition to them, only with more blood and mud.
In Korean War movies, dying for your country is typically the result of bad orders, command-decision mistakes, or an institutionalized death wish. Battlefield promotions are more often the result of fragging officers, or insane commanders killing themselves, than of a superior dying in the line of duty. Court marshals and investigations, like the one at the heart of The Front Line, are a last ditch attempt to maintain the illusion of ideological purity in a war that has lost its meaning. In most Korean movies, the war between North and South has no viable strategy and no valid mission objectives; the country cannot be unified and all decisions are pointless. The commanders want to pretend they’re winning an unwinnable war. The men on the ground just want to make it home alive.
The Front Line traffics in a cynicism that makes Saving Private Ryan look like propaganda, and even some of Hollywood’s more jaded takes on Vietnam seem upbeat by comparison. It ends with a plot twist so evil that no American studio would contemplate it for a moment. As the movie draws to a close, there are no questions about the morality of the war these men have fought. “We’ve killed too many,” one of the most heroic South Korean characters says. “We should all be in hell.” It ends with an homage to the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing, perfectly summing up the relationship between North and South: Two men who don’t trust each other sit in the dark, sharing a bottle of booze and waiting until one of them is ordered to kill the other.