Dispatched to the front line of the Korean civil war in January 1953, Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is on a mission to investigate the suspicious death of an officer and hunt out a potential communist spy. But as he begins to fight alongside the ‘Alligator’ unit his perception of the war and the divisions between the North and the South crumbles.
Director Jang-hoon, who impressed greatly with last year’s LKFF offering Secret Reunion, returns to familiar territory with a film that mines the complex and damaging effect of this divided country. Much like Secret Reunion the overarching message from Jang-hoon is that regardless of whether you’re from the North or the South of Korea you are still just another human being. This story of Koreans fighting Koreans over a symbolically important but ultimately pointless and tiny piece of land, Aerok Hill, also effectively taps into the absurdity and brutality of war.
Not only are the two sides fighting eachother no different they are also on some level friends. As Eun-pyo begins to further understand the situation at the front line and get to know those fighting there, including an old friend forever changed by war and a morphine addicted senior officer, he also uncovers that both sides have been communicating via a box in the centre of the hill.
North and South fight for possession of the hill, with each constantly regaining the hill for just a short period of time, and the two groups of soldiers hideaway booze, cigarettes and messages for eachother. Eun-pyo at first believes he is uncovering some kind of secret collusion with the enemy but the truth is more simple and heartbreaking, the two sides may kill eachother in a brutal fashion on the battlefield but they know deep down that this killing is just as worthless as the hill they fight on. All they’re doing is just trying to find something positive, no matter how small, amongst all the killing.
This back and forth between the two groups, and the sympathy and complexity inherent in this relationship, is expertly written by Park Sang-yeon. Whilst it is perhaps a little too reminiscent of a similar piece of plotting in JSA: Joint Security, which was adapted from Sang-yeon’s novel ‘DMZ’, it is highly effective and provides an excellent emotional counter-balance to the harsh and violent battle sequences.
Jang-hoon manages to avoid too much over-sentimentality in the more emotional interactions but there are few moments that are played with too much melodrama, helped along by a pretty terrible bit of over-scoring. The battle scenes are more consistent with a lot of visceral thrills but a clear sense that war is hell and not at all ‘fun’. Moments of violence on the battlefield are quickly followed with grisly shots of the resulting missing limbs and the battlefield littered with fallen soldiers.
Jang-hoon delivers a powerful and potent message about the absurdity of war but also one of hope for the reunification of Korea, all within the guise of a compelling and gripping blockbuster war film.
The HD transfer on this Cine Asia release is exactly as should be expected and in keeping with the theatrical presentation I saw last year, albeit with slightly punchier colours. The extras are pretty decent with a wide selection of featurettes that provide a fair bit of detail on the making of the film. Unfortunately the extras are in a variety of slightly odd aspect ratios and the image quality is very weak at times. There is also an engaging audio commentary from Bey Logan included, which features a number of facts about the historical reality behind the film, all delivered in Logan’s characteristic laid back style.