War is hell. Yes, yes, we know, we’ve seen it in movies so many times that it’s tattooed on our eyelids even before we walk into the theater. Hun Jang’s film tells us once again anyway, in BOLD letters and bolder dramatic gestures. One distinctive thing about the film, though, is its setting, which is near the seemingly endless end of the Korean War amid the negotiations for a truce between North and South Korea. The Aerok Hill is one of the only places where a cease fire hasn’t yet been ordered.
A mystery surrounding the death of a South Korean commander leads Shin Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) to be sent out to the frontline to investigate, where he reunites with an old friend, Kim Suhyeok (Ko Soo). He also finds that the state of the soldiers in the company is at a breaking point, or already over it. They’ve been on pins and needles for months, perhaps years.
The fight for this hill is like a game of tennis—one side captures it, then the other side takes it away, sometimes within the same day(!) This we see in one of the better moments of the film in a fixed-shot that acts as a montage dissolving between one side conquering the hill and then the other side coming back. The fighting goes as more men die in the bloody trenches. While Eyn-pyo doesn’t lose complete sight of his mission, the soldiers in this platoon, and the tough, fragile state of their commanding officer become much more important.
If you are looking for some solid war combat and violence, Jang certainly doesn’t skimp on making the battles bloody and forceful in how they’re staged, with a lot of sweeping camera movements and soldiers in agony covered in their guts. The actor Ko Soo makes for a commanding presence, charismatic one beat, cynical the next, and then vulnerable once his character has to confront some of the hell he’s come across. (Shin Ha-kyun often gives the bewildered ‘I don’t believe it!’ look of the outsider looking upon the horrid state of the frontline). And just when the film seems to go on too long, it delivers a cruel ironic and captivating.
But it’s the presentation overall that sinks the film. Jang loves himself some clichés, from the characters sitting around laughing one moment and then crying the next as the youngest of the platoon sings a song, to the character who wanders just a wee bit too far into clear sight and is shot by a sniper from far off. (It might have been shocking had not 10 other war films done it, and done it better and with less of the traditional crosscutting). And of course the music has to swell and tell the audience how to feel.
Maybe I’ve just seen this before, and better, from South Korea, such as in Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War or Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the director and his writer take what is already a very tense story with such high stakes and make it too overblown for its own good. Yet individual performances standout, like another actor who plays the bearded veteran of WW II, the comic relief and voice of reason, a conventional character that works due to the acting. But the melodrama is so overwhelming, and the message beat over our heads so much, that it’s hard to take anything in so we can figure out things for ourselves.