Towards the end of the Korean War, high up on Aerok Hill, soldiers continue their fierce fighting in an ultimate battle for an insignificant piece of land. In a strategic move to determine the new border between the two Koreas, North and South both sacrifice millions of lives. Hun Jang’s The Front Line (2011) is a poetically painful drama about the destroyed humanity and tortured souls of those in war, in a land which hope has long deserted and the few moments of empty happiness mean everything.
When a bullet from a South Korean army pistol is found in the body of the South Korean captain and a mole is thought to be among the soldiers, First Lieutenant of the Military Intelligence Department (CIC) is sent to the Eastern front line to uncover the truth. But what Lieutenant Kang will discover on Aerok Hill is far beyond his expectations – from a comrade he thought long dead, through disorder among the South Korean soldiers, to a painful understanding of how close war is to hell. And when the dust settles, the ultimate question about the meaning of this war lingers in the air as a burden beyond bearing.
On the front line, where Aerok Hill changes hands every day, soldiers are stripped of their sanity and pushed to the boundaries of reason, tortured by their painful memories and only able to find a cure for their desperation in the killing of others – in the hope that this will bring armistice sooner.
‘The war will be over next week’ is the phrase that has echoed in the air for over two years, yet the battle can see no end. All that is left of the front line is a place, built out of the bodies of soldiers, fallen in battle; a place, where men are forced to grow up too fast and die before they reach manhood; a place, where death is faster than hope and salvation comes always two seconds too late.
Despite the director’s haste to set the scene and explain the context in the first ten minutes feels rushed and might confuse the audience with the many important details, The Front Line then absorbs a much slower pace and builds heaviness in the heart of the viewer. Through various small narratives, personal storylines and odd characters, Jang creates an inexplicable connection and sympathy towards those victims of war. There is only one ultimate moral of the story – soldiers are merely people, brought together by their mutual suffering and their hopeless desire to return home. In the land of war, age has no meaning, hope has no place, and death does not differentiate between North and South.
In one last battle on Aerok Hill, the Northern and Southern soldiers share one mutual longing – to survive the only thing that separates death and freedom. The Front Line’s ultimate drama lies in those last moments of dying hope, when the end is so close, yet so painfully out of reach, and only a handful would walk those last few steps into the rising sun as free men.