71 Into the Fire (2010)
‘The day that courage came of age’

Synopsis: Young Deok, 1950. The North Korean People’s Army is on the verge of overwhelming the South. Drafted as a student soldier in the 3rd Infantry Division, Oh Jang-beom survives an attack on the town and flees without personally firing a shot. While regiments are diverted to the Nakdong River, a major defence barrier shielding the cities of Daegu and Pusan from invading forces, Jang-beom is left behind in Pohang with seventy untrained student soldiers. Demoralised and shell-shocked, they make their last stand against an advancing heavy artillery force, led by the ruthless Park Moo-rang . . .

“Lead them with heart; if your sincerity gets through they will all follow.”

So says the grizzled veteran Captain Kang (Kim Seung-woo) to his reluctant student charge in a pivotal sequence in 71 Into the Fire, Lee Jae-han’s lavish dramatisation of the siege at Pohang Girls’ Middle School in the opening stages of the Korean War. It’s advice we expect the film’s makers to also honour. One of the challenges in launching a combat film on this scale is not the staging of practical effects to engender the illusion of combat conditions, but the creation of plausible human characters. Think of Denzel Washington’s Private Tripp struggling to find redemption with his own regiment (and surrogate family) towards the end of Edward Zwick’s masterful Glory (1989, U.S.), or Tom Hanks’ simple backward glances to ensure that his tearful breakdown midway through Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998, U.S.) remains a private moment. The former example is perhaps the more apt, for Washington’s interaction and open conflict with the inexperienced young men in his own unit lends the film its terrible and finally upsetting momentum; but the Spielberg
example is equally forceful, the harrowing impact on Hanks’ character of the shock of war eloquently communicated through small gestures and silences. Both films, to borrow the commendable sentiment of 71 Into the Fire, lead us the audience with sincerity.

Regarded in South Korea as a defiant and patriotic stand against communism by the nations’ youth (the fallen soldiers are commemorated in the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul), the siege at Pohang probably won’t be familiar to western audiences: an ad hoc regiment of seventy-one student soldiers fended off an eleven-hour assault by several regiments of the North Korean People’s Army, heroically stalling their advance with dwindling munitions, no military support and barely any combat experience. Though it was just one incident in an expansive build up to the Battle of Pusan Perimeter (which involved the British land army and United States Air, Army and Navy forces), the Pohang siege deserves and in some respects demands attention, both as a tale of spectacular war heroism and as a profound symbol of personal sacrifice. To date, director Lee Jae-han (known internationally as John H. Lee) has produced a mixed bag of short film projects and music videos, making the crossover to feature film production with two high-gloss Korean melodramas. In 2004, he delivered the unabashedly romantic fading-lover yarn A Moment to Remember, followed in 2009 by the missed-opportunities desire-as-memory melodrama Sayonara Itsuka. For this, his third genre piece, Lee sticks with melodrama but demonstrates an adolescent understanding of the ambiguities and emotional suffering of war.

Opening with a slow-motion shot that tracks through devastated streets in the war-torn Young Deok region and filmed in obligatorily Rowellesque tones, Lee’s highly fanciful combat picture owes more to the output of global commercials companies such as The Institute and R.S.A. Films than it does to domestic productions like Brotherhood (Taegukgi, Kang Je-gyu, 2004) or the pre-war The Taebaek Mountains (Taebaek Sanmaek, Im Kwon-taek, 1994). As befits his roots as a director primarily of music videos, Lee makes a determined effort to use every grad filter on the globe, instilling proceedings with the gloss of an antiquated Tony Scott film and going out of his way to homage the 360 degree wrap-around shot which Michael Bay personally killed off over fifteen years ago. The effects-laden battle in Young Deok, for instance, which is for the most part covered using fluid steadicam (and dressed up with exploding fireballs which send already dead men flying about like projectile dolls), gradually gives way to saturated panoramic views of the countryside, and endless lines of flags connoting mindless conformity are set against darkening but otherwise lovingly photographed skies. So content is Lee with the cleverness of his design that potentially wrenching moments fall flat and whole story threads are lost. Choi Seung-hyeon’s (a.k.a., T.O.P.) purse-lipped student captain Jang-beom and Kwon Sang-woo’s captious gang leader Gap-jo (as written by Laurents and Sondheim evidently) come to blows on the eve of war, but their Disneyfied high-school rivalry never takes; Park Jin-hee’s sullen nurse drifts into Jang-beom’s orbit when he shows up in hospital, but any serendipitous connection between the pair is forgotten, later to be replaced by shimmering, angelic images of his mother (Kim Seong-ryeong in a thankless cameo); indeed, the letters Jang-beom intends for his mother have no real payoff here; only Cha Seung-won comes close to carrying the film — his unapologetically sinister turn as a commander of the People’s Army a welcome antidote to the designer-sulk styled into much of Choi’s performance — yet when he inexplicably shows mercy to his student opponents, expecting compliance in return, all the signs indicate that the struggling screenwriters have given up and are padding the narrative.

Saving grace: commander Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won) in Lee Jae-han’s 71 Into The Fire (2010)

With the bulk of the action so shamelessly validated on Bruckheimerian terms, it’s tempting to accept this all as wanton adolescent tosh, but significantly the effort is made to commemorate the real conflict on which the film is based. Executive producer Chung Tae-won was keen to maintain a level of historical veracity and reportedly intervened as pro bono writer once it became clear that Lee himself (being “from a different generation”) had little grasp of the war he was fetishising. Despite Chung’s involvement, the film fails to give us an accurate sense of what the real event must have been like and avoids serious criticism in any way. In one striking example, the detonation of a bridge over the Nakdong river calls to mind the atrocities at Waegwan and Tuksong-dong (according to A.P. writers, whose articles were published originally in the Korea Herald, U.S. forces blasted the bridges in both locations on August 3rd 1950 killing hundreds of South Korean refugees as they attempted to cross), but forgoing any serious look at real or allegorical events Lee keeps his sobbing refugee women and children at a distance and instead directs Kang walking calmly away from a Transformers-size explosion. Meanwhile, the depictions of South Korean nationalists as spiritual victors and North Korean communists as faceless cannon fodder is at best troublesome, at worst asinine. We’re meant to infer from the machine-gunning of one South Korean student soldier, adorned in white and elegantly cut down as he charges headlong into an ambush, that war only punishes the virtuous and the innocent. From this we anticipate that our placid hero will question the masochistic damage of the war, or re-examine his own critical stance towards a North Korea which sends young men just like himself repeatedly into battle, but there’s a distinct unwillingness here to explore even simple emotional truths. The South Korean students share the same language as their aggressors and in some instances the same characteristics (here, mothers are central to the fatherless boys’ lives on both sides of the divide), but Lee takes so much pleasure in pitting teens and their high-tech weaponry against villains that even these melancholic admissions are lost. With scant regard for message films like J.S.A. (Park Chan-wook, 2000) and Secret Reunion (Jang Hoon, 2010), Lee has grisly fun mowing down wave upon wave of communist baddies. Whatever the intentions of its makers (it was released in Korea prior to June 25th, the formal date which in 2010 marked the 60th anniversary of the People’s Army launching its attack along the 38th Parallel), 71 Into the Fire is a throwback to the ignominious days of the 1980s. Though this may be a minor film for the director (who goes on to update John Woo’s legendary The Killer) and your archetypal mess-around for Korean teens and western dilettantes, it never makes good on its promise, or its sentiment, and lowers the standard for Korean blockbusters. More importantly than even this, it makes things worse for those filmmakers in Korea who choose not to operate on Hollywood’s terms.

Disc: For its part, Cine-Asia (D.V.D. distributor of the Showbox Media Group) have turned out a handsome two-disc edition here. No artwork arrived with the review disc but the menu design seems consistent with the advertising in Korea, and navigation isn’t hampered at all by the characteristically jittery effects worked into the menu architecture (a tremor rocks the toolbar whenever there’s an offscreen explosion). Thankfully, Pohang survivors Kim Man-gyu and Son Joo-hyung, whose personal testimonies are only barely glimpsed over the film’s credits, are given a voice in the voxpop interview “Student Soldier Trainees From the Korean War” (conducted in the grounds of the real Pohang middle school no less). It’s fascinating to hear both Kim’s reasons for volunteering (he was just 17) and his memory of the familial conflict this inevitably provoked (the film avoids any such moral equivocation), but alas the interview is a short affair, and lacking their detailed input in a studious documentary format it’s difficult to get an idea of how the siege may have played out that day. The Cine-Asia special production “Men of Valour, Personal Reflections on the Korean War” is an affectionate portmanteau short of unusual interest, presenting the accounts of five servicemen who joined the war effort: Byong Yu, Chang Young Won, Solomon J. Jamerson, Andrew Beavers, and Seiji Koshimizu. The subtitles are fine (and in some featurettes even a bit sneaky).

By comparison, the conventional point-and-shoot featurettes (“Into the Fire Making of Documentary,” “Behind the Scenes,” “Pre-Production” and “Production Design”) provide less insight and character than most audiences deserve. For fine arts people the “Poster Making of” capsule looks intriguing on paper, but the featurette begins and ends with the on-set publicity shoot (you won’t see what third-party designers do with those images, for instance, once they’ve been outsourced). Meanwhile, H.K. cinema expert Bey Logan and H.K.-based film producer Mike Leeder’s commentary intersperses personal anecdotes with production notes and your usual ho-hum drippy platitudes, the kind of extra for existent fans only.

11 March, 2011
This review was originally published by New Korean Cinema.


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