KOREA 2010 Directed by: Lee Jae-Han (John H. Lee) Written by: Jeong Tae-Won Produced by: Jeong Tae-Won Editing by: Steve M. Choe, Changju Kim Cast: Kwon Sang-Woo, T.O.P., Cha Seung-Won, Kim Seung-Woo, Park Jin-Hie, Kim Hye-Seong, Moon Jae-Won, Shin hyeon-Tak, Yun Seung-Hun, Tak Teu-In, Ki Se-Hyung, Shin Kyung-Sun, Kim Sung-Ryeong, David McInnis
It is interesting to see how a few outstanding movies influence so many of their epigones. Without going too much into the long history of war movies, it must be noted that there are probably only two major, contemporary works from the last two decades that until today define the way war looks and feels like on the big screen: FULL METAL JACKET and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
71: INTO THE FIRE is an aesthetically accomplished film, it has everything you can ask for: breathtaking battles scenes, beautiful moments of contemplation, intensive emotions conveyed in a way only film can; yet, it appears to me that it fails to create what I’d call a trademark image of war. Visually speaking, the Korean War looks exactly the way WWII looks like in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. That’s not such a bad thing as John H. Lee successfully creates a carbon copy of Spielberg’s aesthetics (as have many other movies before), but once the dust settles the film and its makers nevertheless battle against drowning in a sea of sameness, although the casual viewer most probably wouldn’t notice, or mind.
What we all should mind however is that 71: INTO THE FIRE does also copy most of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s opening sequence (and a few moments of FULL METAL JACKET), with our hero stumbling through the war zone, bullets and debris flying all around him, until, surprise, a big detonation cripples his sense of hearing and he loses orientation (only we don’t, we know exactly what Mr. Lee’s inspiration was). What looks like a fast-paced, gripping beginning at first glance is, if we are honest, not more than a very good remix of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s legendary first 30 minutes.
It is almost like Mr. Lee didn’t have an idea as how to draw the audience into his story in the first place and decided to do so through a purely effect-driven approach (further proof would be that nothing of what happens in the beginning is of any relevance for the film later, except for the main character gaining some credibility as “war veteran”). From then onwards, and that’s the good news, 71: INTO THE FIRE concentrates on its own subject, finds its own rhythm and with more time into the movie also finds its own identity. The (supposedly true) story revolves around 71 student soldiers who are left behind to protect an outpost against the approaching North Korean army, while the high command and remaining battalions have to defend the last beachhead against the enemy somewhere else.
With little supplies and largely alone, the group of students is having difficulties to work together, as leadership is questioned frequently, some never follow orders and, mostly for dramaturgic reasons, things go wrong that simply shouldn’t go wrong (just like in horror movies when we think who on god’s earth would be so stupid to do that). 71: INTO THE FIRE manages to create a great deal of internal and external conflict that mostly feels natural though, like a result of the circumstances the group is in. Very importantly, Mr. Lee keeps the momentum up until the end and shows great talent in pushing the limits, inevitably steering towards a grand finale that won’t let the audience down.
What I found most remarkable is that casting a well-known Korean pop singer for the lead role (a move that is clearly a marketing strategy, but should fail in terms of adding any quality to the film) actually pays off as T.O.P. (or Choi Seung-Hyun) does fit the role of Oh Jung-Bum very well and delivers a solid performance as introverted leader-by-chance, someone who’s fate is largely determined by circumstance, but who finally picks up the ball and plays it back hard.
Mr. Lee refrains from indulging in a conventional zero-to-hero scenario, creating an ambivalent character who hasn’t asked to lead, and struggles against opposing forcing within his own ranks (sometimes, 71: INTO THE FIRE gears a bit too much towards youth gang motifs for my taste), never being or becoming the untouchable idol or skilled fighter others admire, but instead an ordinary student living through the horrors of war like anyone else.
Most of the time Oh Jung-Bum’s character doesn’t have lengthy dialogue scenes, obviously to make T.O.P. look as good as possible on-screen, but it also, accidentally or not, shapes Oh’s character in a way that is very befitting and distances the movie from Hollywood’s methods of creating fan appeal and heroic glamour. Throughout the movie Oh remains one of them, but is gaining profile gradually making him a believable leader who is anything but superman, but that necessary bit better and more disciplined than the others to stand tall against the enemy.
The way 71: INTO THE FIRE depicts the war is not a plain glorification of the South, neither is it just eye-candy aiming at action movie fans: the conflict always has a face, and it is not easy to simply like or dislike the opponents, despite lack of insight into their motivations and reasons. 71: INTO THE FIRE barely scratches the surface of the historic events as the film is mostly driven by the here and now; I would argue that this increases the intensity of the conflict on the individual level, while the big picture (political, social or global implications) is largely left out. Watching 71: INTO THE FIRE with the expectation to learn something about the Korean War (or any war for that matter) would be a mistake, and will leave you disappointed no matter what, but the film is not as shallow as often stated if we take it for what it is: a good story about a group of people set during the last days of the Korean War.
While 71: INTO THE FIRE is not providing any insights into the actual conflict, it’s a fine drama and war movie with a lot of memorable moments, good acting and fierce action. 71: INTO THE FIRE is Mr. Lee’s best work to date and one of the better movies coming out of Korea this year, and arguably can claim a spot on any “best war movies” list out there, if just defined broad enough.
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