71: Into the Fire
Director: John H. Lee / Screenplay: Man-Hee Lee (Original story: Dong-Woo Kim) / Editing: Steve Choe / Score: Dong-Jun Lee
Cast: Seung-won Cha / Sang-Woo Kwon / Seung-Hyun Choi / Seung-woo Kim
A Local Film For Local People…
difficult film, this. Not in terms of its subject or content, but rather its context. To this (British) reviewer, the Korean War now seems a distant conflict; despite the fact that my own countrymen fought there, as part of the U.N. contingent. With each passing decade, its beginning seems to blur & coalesce with the ending of World War Two, just five years earlier in 1945.
Yet its ramifications still unfold today. North Korea still poses a regional threat to its immediate neighbours, not least the South with whom, remember, it has never signed a peace treaty, let alone officially declared a ceasefire. Now, thanks to its accelerating missile programme, the North even threatens the fringes of the continental USA.
To those living in the South, the war seems much, much closer in the collective memory; not least, because it threatens to break-out again at any time. A film like this then, is intended to do one thing only: tap into the national psyche and remind a new generation of what others gave-up for their freedoms. Despite the odd moments of brevity, the story of how seventy-one ‘student-soldiers’ are pressed into service to defend a strategically vital area and who then all lose their lives in the process, is imprinted onto the national fabric.
Their sacrifice speaks to successive generations about the values (and valour) implicit in dying for a noble cause. It reinforces the idea that the South, along with its liberal values, strong economy and international outlook, is an idea as much as a land to be defended. Of course, in recent years, the principle of ‘self-sacrifice’ has been adopted by Islamic fundamentalists, most notably ISIS/DAESH, which only proves that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It all depends on which side you’re on and who’s pulling the strings.
Having therefore established a cultural distance between this reviewer and the subject, let’s take a look at 71: Into the Fire.
After a seemingly-endless fusillade of co-production partners, director John H. Lee begins with a vigorously choreographed set-piece in a dense, chaotically interlinked series of alleyways and streets, as soldiers from the North (hereafter ‘DPRK’) flush-out troops from the South, who’re out-numbered and out-gunned. One of their number, is a student, Oh-Jung Bum, played by Seung-Hyun Choi, who still wears the distinctive school-uniform then in-use. Comprising trousers, a black naval-style blazer and cap, this formal uniform was introduced to all Korean high-schools during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula and mirrored the formal uniform in Japanese schools. Following their surrender in 1945, the style lingered for some time; with civil-war likely, I daresay the introduction of a new school uniform standard might not have been the most pressing issue of the day.
I digress. Oh-Jung is employed as an ammunition delivery-boy to the regular army, but as things fall apart around him, he ends-up in a situation where he fumbles in the defence of a comrade who’s bayonetted in front of him. Numbed at the speed with which it’s all happening, he gets the injured man onto a truck and ends-up at a school, that’s been hastily pressed into service as a makeshift hospital & HQ. But not for long: with the DPRK advancing closer with every hour that passes, the place has to be evacuated. Its Commander, Kang (Seung-Woo Kim) nominates Oh-Jung as a new leader, in charge of a newly-minted batch of students. Together with two other ‘combat experienced’ students, that gives us seventy-one…
‘Hold until relieved’: that’s the set-up. Thrown-in for good measure, are a few young men from a local prison who chafe against Oh-Jung’s orders and dress/swagger like they’re auditioning for a production of West Side Story; one of the film’s many mis-steps. We also get a smattering of stereotypical characters for good measure: the bespectacled nerd, the fat one, the homesick one, etc, etc.
Opposite them and leading the DPRK advance is Commander Park Mu-Rang, played by Seung-Won Cha, as almost a caricature, for he’s the only one with a beard, a pristine white uniform and an arrogant contempt for danger. He exhibits equal contempt for his superior officers back in Pyongyang, ignoring orders in favour of pursuing Kang’s dwindling forces ‘to the sea’. When faced with a part-demolished road-bridge, Park merely orders his men to swim across the river, thus adding to the notion that here is a formidable enemy of considerable guile. For our heroes to overcome him, must mean they really are heroes. For all I know, the real Cmdr. Park was short, fat and ugly, but here he looks like a stubbly-period George Michael minus the leather jacket.
Anyway, yes, they’re picked-off one-by-one. Things culminate on the school’s roof and Oh-Jung gets final revenge. But enough of the plot, because I want to highlight the film’s poor directorial choices. In particular, Lee’s total reliance on slo-mo in practically EVERY action sequence, to the point where it becomes almost a crutch when he runs out of other ideas. That’s not all, for after each one of these over-blown dramatic explosions or scenes of someone dying ‘gloriously’, he adds a burst of mournful strings and cello for when his script and, frankly, his direction, is failing to let us reach those emotions ourselves. It’s as though he once heard Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ used somewhere and told his composer Dong-Jun Lee to ‘compose variations on that’.
So, he did. And nothing else…
As if that wasn’t enough, we get a repeated flashback to a memory of Oh-Jung’s, as he watches his mother weep as he’s driven away in a truck; I think we saw that at least three times… The script itself is barebones fare, with precious little for us as an audience to hang on to. Characters have no interiority or depth. The depiction of the DPRK army and its vain, maverick Commander, is laughable when compared to the form of a typical, contemporary War film made with a ‘Western’ sensibility.
The combined effect of all this overwrought nonsense then, is to play against the film’s expectations. For all I know, this group of actors represents the cream of South Korean talent: but if that’s the case, they’re under-served here. Ordinarily, I am a committed fanboy when it comes to ‘Oriental Cinema’, but this is just inexcusably weak.
Its strongest section is the opening dogfight in the alleys. After that, it’s as though Lee ran out of talent and/or ideas. Yes, he’s arguably hamstrung by having a fixed location, but even that’s not a problem, as he switches between the different armies and Kang, as he seeks a way back to the school. In more experienced hands, this might’ve been something GREAT; transcending the status of cultural talisman. In the event, it serves a local audience, history and outlook and fails as a film to be compared with its international peers.
I thought the enemy soldiers were monsters, but they cried out for their mothers just like us!