With his low-budget directorial debut, "Rough Cut" (2008), filmmaker Jang Hoon engraved his name in the minds of moviegoers and critics alike. His second project, "Secret Reunion" (2010), which deals with the friendship between a North Korean spy and a South Korean counterspy, drew 5.5 million and proved he was immune to the sophomore slump.
Now, the 36-year-old filmmaker has returned with the blockbuster war movie "The Front Line". The film, which was released on Wednesday at theaters nationwide, was daunting for Jang in many ways, not least because he was concerned about the potential for distorting the history of the war. His second challenge was raising the 10.1 billion won ($9.5 million) budget, which was nearly double the cost of his first film.
The result of his efforts, however, is a film that has been praised by critics and industry insiders who are comparing it to classic antiwar films from the West. Film critic Shim Young-seop compared it to the 1979 hit "Apocalypse Now" and Busan International Film Festival programmer Jeon Chan-il said Jang's film was reminiscent of "The Thin Red Line" (1998).
"The Front Line" is set at the height of the war in 1951, two years before the signing of the armistice. With a ceasefire negotiation in progress, South and North Korea confront each other along the eastern front line in a battle to secure strategically valuable positions before the negotiations are complete.
The film starts with the sudden death of a South Korean company commander. At first, it appears that the commander was killed by enemy fire, but it is later discovered that the bullet came from within his own company. Meanwhile, there are signs that one of the South Korean soldiers is communicating with the North. As suspicions grow, the South Korean military dispatch Lieutenant Kang Eun-pyo (Sin Ha-gyoon) to investigate the situation and discover the truth.
What Kang discovers there, however, raises even more questions about the commander's death. Members of the Alligator Squadron, the company at the center of the case, exhibit strange behavior, which is masked by their drug addition and mental distress.
In the course of the investigation, Kang reunites with his long-lost friend, Kim Su-hyuk (Ko Soo), which only complicates matters because Kim is the leader of the squad.
The JoongAng Ilbo recently interviewed Jang about his work on the film and his career.
Q. What films inspired you when you began working on "The Front Line"?
A. When I read the screenplay by Park Sang-yeon (the original author of a story that was later made into the 2000 hit "JSA - Joint Security Area"), the first film that came to mind was "Platoon" (1986). The story also reminded me of "Band of Brothers" (2001). In terms of the visual imagery, I thought of "Paths of Glory" (1957). In general, I wanted to express the soldiers' feelings of helplessness during the war.
You are not part of the war generation. Was that a challenge?
Yes, and it made me more cautious. But I realized during the production of "Secret Reunion" that there should be a wider variety of stories about North and South Korea if we want to figure out a better future for the two Koreas. And I don't think there should be a limit on the subject matter, whether it is something about North Korean defectors or the Korean War.
The Korean War is not an easy topic, though. How did you approach it?
Most of the story is fictional. I worry, however, about how teenagers and viewers in their 20s will receive it and wonder whether they will view the fictional episodes as true stories.
In addition, people have certain expectations for war films. They expect flamboyant battle scenes, but I tried not to use gratuitous violence.
Some critics say the film has less commercial appeal than your previous film, "Secret Reunion". How would you respond to that?
Park, the screenwriter, told me that the most important element in the film is the battlefield. The human story is secondary, which may make the film less commercial. But while we were researching the Korean War, Ryu Sung-hee, the art director, showed us a picture of one battlefield that haunted us. There were no trees and the ground was caved in as if disfigured. That was the beginning of this movie.
What was it like to work with heartthrobs So Ji-sub, Kang Dong-won and Ko Soo?
One disadvantage that attractive actors share is they are often judged by their looks, even though they may have valuable skills.
One thing these three actors have in common, however, is that they are always focused on their acting.
By Ki Sun-min
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