The Front Line – Jang Hun (2012)

In America, we’re not all that used to films about the Korean War. There were some films in the 50s and 60s, like The Bridges at Toko-ri and The Steel Helmet, and of courseM*A*S*H as both a film and a long-running television show in the 70s and 80s, but for some reason it never hooked on with the Hollywood machine in the same way that World War II or Vietnam did. For some families, like mine, the Korean War is the only war that was fought in by relatives, so a gap exists between the horror stories you got to hear after a few too many sips of Jameson, and the movies you got to watch late at night with the sound down low.

Naturally, what we lack in focus on the Korean War is more than made up for by South Korea’s own film industry, and these films seem more relevant than ever because of the tensions since Kim Jong-il’s death. Though the recent shoving match seems to be over Yeonpyeong Island, towards the end of the Korean War, it was all about hills and borders: who got what and where when the cease fire was signed. As we see in director Jang Hoon’s new film The Front Line, everything seems to ride on the claim of a small, strategic hill on the front called Aerok Hill, one that changes hands between North and South so frequently that the generals at the negotiation table can’t even keep track of it.

When mail from a North Korean soldier to his family in the South is found, Kang (Shin Ha-kyun), a counterintelligence officer in trouble for badmouthing Japanese loyalists in the South’s high command, is sent to the front undercover to discover if there is a mole in the unit or not. What he finds is a unit in disarray, one being led by junior officers (like his friend Soo-hyeok (Ko Soo)) because of the high kill rate in the dangerous region, filled with the usual war film suspects that cover all of the emotional bases who have bonded tightly over the course of the war, sharing stories and songs and life and death moments. The problem is that there isn’t anything terribly original here. It’s a complaint that isn’t specific to this film, and of course it’s a story that’s 60 years old now, but The Front Line suffers some because of it.

Maybe that’s because there isn’t anything original left in war to cover. No matter the war, it’s all the same themes, the same actions, the same conclusions. It’s the nature of life. Go there, do this, he’s gonna die, so is he, so are you. Maybe there have just been too many war films in general, especially by those who have never experienced war (which I also have not). But The Front Line seems to be assembled almost entirely from bits and pieces of other war movies: a little bit of Saving Private Ryan, some Full Metal Jacket, a dash of Jouex Noel, a pinch of Taegukgi. They’re all in there, and even a dollop of Braveheart, in the way the two sides meet on the battlefield, shooting and hacking away at each other until the camera lens is streaked with spilled blood. In Pork Chop Hill, too, there is a hill that needs to be captured and defended, though it is a real hill, based on a real battle, while in The Front Line, it is a fictional, symbolic hill called Aerok being battled over as the cease fire is being negotiated. Look at “Aerok” in a mirror and you’ll see its “Korea” being fought over in a backwards way, a rather blunt little easter egg that one would hope has lost some of its subtlety in translation.

Still, it gets you. Or it got me anyway, with its brotherhood, its jokes, its desperation, its juxtaposition of humanity with inhumanity and sparing dips into melodrama. Even if it is something of a rehash, it all still works because of the load carried by the actors in smaller roles who pepper the film with a measure of believability. Lee Je-hoon, for instance, who played Il-young, the stoic young commanding officer with a morphine addiction to numb the pain, and Ko Chang-seok who played Yang, the seasoned veteran who fought against the Japanese and lived to tell (and tell and tell and tell). It’s the quiet moments spent inside tents and spider holes sipping rice wine and hazing the rookie they’ve taken under their wing (Lee Da-Wit) that give the film its meaning and ultimately its heart.


The Day He Arrives – Hong Sang-soo (2011)

If there is a director who has essayed the uncomfortable randomness of meeting someone on the street — or the soju sit downs that so often follow it — better than Hong Sang-soo, I’ve never seen it. In The Day He Arrives, he’s boiled the film down almost entirely to that: walking, talking and drinking. But in not blazing a new stylistic path, he has almost redefined himself in the way Kim Ki-duk did with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring, stripping away everything that wasn’t at the very core of his idea, even the color. The Day He Arrives is a lean film, running at just 78 minutes, and shot in black and white, the fat trimmed off entirely. It is a whiskey-and-soju-soaked play on the ideas of déjà vu, coincidence, human contradiction, and the way we often live our lives at two different extremes.

Not to break with the familiar territory theme, Hong has set his story in a world populated by filmmakers, or at least the filmmaking adjacent. Seong-joon (Yoo Joon-sang) is a once-successful director who used to be based in Seoul but now teaches in Daegu. He’s made four films, but has run out of creative steam since. Likely a middling talent, he seems to now only be known by fellow filmmakers and critics. Luckily — or unluckily — for him, he is surrounded by filmmakers, actors, and film school professors. He is back in Seoul to meet up with his old friend, Yeong-ho (Kim Sang-joong), but more likely it’s to see an old girlfriend, Kyeong-jin (Kim Bo-kyeong), with whom he is still obsessed. After suitably embarrassing himself in her presence, he goes on drinking with his film friends who mention his work in passing, but never in depth. He nods appreciatively, but would like to talk about anything but, especially with Joong-won (Kim Ee-seong), the leading man of Seong-joon’s first film, who was replaced at the request of the producer in his second film and has since fallen on hard luck. More than having been replaced, it seems to be the act of cowardice that Seong-joon had his assistant call Joong-won to tell him that he’d been replaced instead of doing it himself that looms like a sulpher cloud over their drinking excursion. Seong-joon squirms and evades, eventually escaping outside to smoke, hoping the bar hostess (also played by Kim Bo-kyeong) will join him. She does, but she also doesn’t.

What I mean by that is that the film seems to fall back on itself throughout, repeating scenes of street meetings and drinking sessions, while simultaneously striding forward: repeated scenes seem to take place in consecutive days, but there is never a true marker, and everything is ever-so-slightly different to the point that you’re never actually sure of the film’s timeline. By the end, even Seong-joon can’t remember how many days he’s been in Seoul for or how many days he has left.

In that fog of the time-space continuum, Hong allows his characters to muse on in rambles about whether or not reality has a special force behind it, or whether the brain is trained by our own insecurities to create a through-line for life out of the random threads of passing time. It’s a question that could be readily overheard in any college dorm room (especially the ones with the funny smell wafting from under the door), but that may be part of the joke. The thing about Hong’s films is that, though they seem to be heavy dramas, it is okay to laugh at them, especially the characters. More often than not, it seems that Hong is torturing his characters for our benefit. They are often selfish and pathetic, people who once had promise in life, but did not fulfill it, especially the men. They are past the point of redemption with their habits or the ways they’ve hurt their friends and lovers, but there is a tongue-in-cheek element to his films. Hong never explicitly winks at us with his camera, but he sometimes gives us the hint of a barely contained laugh as they flounder or a forehead slap when they wound. He does seem to care for his characters, even – or especially – the unlikable ones, but still creates an environment for them that is harsh, in which they lash out in ways that they don’t seem to be in control of, especially here in the scene where Seong-joon visits his old girlfriend and embarrasses himself. He seems to be drawn to her apartment by a magnet set by Hong and doesn’t know what he’s doing there, or why he’s suddenly crying. This scene happens early on in the film though, where it would happen at the end of most films. But in Hong’s world, that’s a much better place to start than end, if only because it leads straight to the whiskey.

Happy Ero Christmas – Lee Geon-dong (2003)

There are certain types of people in the world who tend to over-sentimentalize the holidays, especially Christmas. Based on the dozen or so movies he’s made, you’d have to expect that Cha Tae-hyun would be one of them — or at least his characters are. So it’s entirely fitting then that that’s exactly what happens in Happy Ero Christmas, a romantic comedy set in a small spa town as Christmas approaches.

Cha plays Seong Byung-ki, a well-meaning but hapless young cop that gets no respect from anyone in town, not even his fellow officers. Byung-ki grew up in this small town, which is seemingly run by gangsters, and they’ve been giving him a rough go of it since he was a a child. He’s been dead set on cleaning out the gangsters ever since one of them, Bang Suk-doo, threw him into a scalding hot bath when he was too small to fight back. But given his low position in the police force and the clout of the gangs, he’s unable to do so. He spends most of his time trying to get the attention of Min-kyeong (Kim Seon-ah), the shy, loney bowling alley clerk who doesn’t seem to have any interest in him. Byung-ki initially tries to downplay his interest in Christmas, but is unable to when he discovers that it is also Min-kyeong’s birthday.

Suk-doo himself, who has grown to become boss of one of the warring gangs, is just recently out of prison and extremely lonely when we meet him. Instead of running his business with the iron fist normally required of such a profession, he whiles away his days watching Shunji Iwai’s snowy, sentimental Love Letter, wistfully hoping he could find a girl like that one day too. His underlings, faced with a rival gang moving in on their territory — headquarted in “the Sexy Palace” — don’t understand his new outlook, which seems to forbid the violence they crave. He just doesn’t want any of them to spend Christmas in prison like he did.

Naturally, when Suk-doo finds a girl to fall in love with, it’s Min-kyeong, who he only notices when she accidentally spits on his head. It’s fate, he says, because it would have been too difficult to spit on his head if she were really trying. Min-kyeong, for her part, is afraid of Suk-soo at first because of his gangster ways, but softens her stance on him somewhat when he reveals his gentle side to her, lavishing her with gifts and flowers. Byung-ki becomes desperate to keep her out of trouble when he finds out about Suk-doo’s full court press on her, and installs a police box in front of her house, vowing to never be more than three minutes away from her should she be in trouble and need him, but his still bubbling rage over Suk-doo dumping him into the hot spa as a child turns him into the monster that she ends up despising.

Happy Ero Christmas was directed by Lee Geon-dong, one of the many Korean directors that, as far as I can tell, has only directed one film. It’s not hard to figure why. The film is truly a mess, a funny-violent Korean slapstick put together in the same style of an ensemble piece like Love Actually, but without the technical efficiency or slickness of Richard Curtis. The comedy is often glacially-paced, and many of the story strands are only peripherally connected to the main story of Byung-ki and Suk-doo’s rivalry. Of these, there is one brilliantly funny sequence during the 18th Annual Mrs. Spa pageant, but verbalizing the joke would only ruin it.

The movie is flawed, but not fatally so. It stays afloat through the flaws because of chemistry between Cha Tae-hyun and Park Yeong-gyoo, who are great foils for each other. In fact, much of what you feel about this film will lay squarely with how you feel about Cha Tae-hyun. Like a lot of Westerners, my first experience with South Korean film was seeing Cha deal with a drunk, passed out Jun Ji-hyun on a subway platform in My Sassy Girl, and Cha plays basically the same role here. That’s the persona he has cultivated since My Sassy Girl, playing the sweet, if a bit goofy, nice guy. Despite being nice guys, his characters are prone to bouts of righteous indignation, and even violence, though he usually ends up taking the brunt of it himself. He takes it so well, constantly popping up with an undefeated smile through the pain, that I find it hard to believe anyone could not like him. He’s not quite as endearing in Happy Ero Christmas as he was in My Sassy Girl or even Speedy Scandal, but he’s got just enough charm here to make it work anyway.