By Lee Hyo-won
A star-studded, big budget war movie comes in time for the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, leading the array of anticipated summer blockbusters.
"71-Into the Fire
" was inspired by a true incident in which boy soldiers perished during the conflict, and their tragic story comes to life through a film with impressive production values. Though it suffers some critical flaws and at times feels Hollywood manufactured, performances by hallyu stars, particularly the gripping big screen debut by pop star T.O.P (Choi Seung-hyun
), will ensure ticket sales in Asia.
In the summer of 1950, North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel and seized Seoul in just three days. The Communist troops continued their way down toward Busan, and South Korean soldiers had to defend the southernmost port city while awaiting the arrival of additional U.N. forces.
On Aug. 10, several hundred South Korean soldiers and 71 boys drafted for the national emergency were on standby in Pohang, located two hours away from Nakdong River, a critical frontier. Due to the shortage of men, the small city was left in the hands of the teens.
The boys were each equipped with nothing but an M1 rifle and 250 bullets. But by engaging in four battles they were able to prolong the North's march south for 11 hours, during which some 200,000 civilians were able to flee to safety and the South Korean and U.N. forces were able to better prepare for combat.
Some 60 North Korean soldiers lost their lives while 48 of the 71 boys died. One of the fallen heroes, 16-year-old Lee U-geun, left behind letters addressed to his mother that testify to the horrors of war. The film was inspired by the words of the young hero, who is played by Choi Seung-hyun
, better known as T.O.P of the pop group Big Bang.
The first major production after the 2004 blockbuster "Taegukgi
" to shed light on the inter-Korean conflict, "71-Into the Fire
" was directed by John H. Lee
. He has displayed his flair for orchestrating human emotions in the melodrama "A Moment to Remember
", and smartly sticks to human drama.
The film is first and foremost a coming-of-age story. Choi shines as Oh Jang-beom, a timid young student who suddenly finds himself thrown into a skirmish for survival ― "Mother I might die today… I'm not afraid of death, but I'm afraid I might never see you or my brothers again. I wish the war would end soon so I may return to your arms", he writes after the sun sets.
When he is ordered to head the group of 71 untrained boy soldiers, he must overcome self-doubts about his leadership. This becomes increasingly difficult when Gu Gap-jo, a thuggish orphan, constantly challenges his authority (kwon Sang-woo
displays some more of his "Once Upon A Time In Highschool
"-style acting that is all-too-familiar, but it works).
While the warm-hearted South Korean officer Gang Seok-dae (a rather anticlimactic performance by Kim Seung-woo
) tries his best to return for the boys, a faceoff is inevitable with the North Korean soldiers led by the ruthless and charismatic General Park Mu-rang (played Cha Seung-won
, who unfortunately still seems to confuse the movie set for a fashion magazine shoot with his feigned expressions).
It's a polished war film _ the explosions, dummy corpses and crumbling buildings take viewers straight into the heart of a blood-splattered battlefield, and flashes of red Communist flags in particular provide for a visually striking mise-en-scene amid the gritty, earthy color palette. Grand orchestral melodies crown climactic moments.
Motion pictures however must establish a unique sense of time and space, and a critical flaw is that it fails to plot the drama with the appropriate ebb and flow. "71-Into the Fire
" creates a convincing physical world: the sight of gun-toting students defending an abandoned school building highlights the fact that they are just helpless little boys.
The film loses its dramatic edge because it does not establish a sense of time; the boys are given but two hours until a big showdown with the Northerners, which could have provided for some pulsating sequences, particularly since Jang-beom is wearing a watch, symbolically given to him by Gang.
In theaters June 16. Distributed by Lotte Entertainment.