Both selectively brutal and outrageously sentimental, The Front Line takes the final year of the mid-20th-century Korean conflict and attempts to fit its battle-fatigued soldiers into a war-is-hell melodramatic template generally unchanged from the last major update of Saving Private Ryan. The initial tease of a military whodunit, with republican counterintelligence officer Kang (Shin Ha-kyun) sent to the front to investigate former fellow prisoner Kim (Ko Soo) for possible collusion with the Chinese-backed North, fades when the central premise of Park Sang-yeon’s script kicks in: After fighting for months over one hill that straddles what will ultimately be the border dividing a torn nation, nearly all of Alligator Company has gone mad. What the film offers up as telling ironies are mostly rusty tropes (glamorous female sniper, slow-motion cries in moments of agony, green teenage grunt paired with grizzled vet), with a final movement that plays as a sick joke when the two sides prepare for an apocalyptically bloody skirmish before the signed armistice takes effect at midnight.
That this long march into banality has some glints of an original vision can be credited mostly to director Jang Hun’s talent for efficient, precise images: A nearly uniform muddy brown blankets the fortified caves and steep terrain in which his characters huddle and labor, and a series of dissolves show bodies tumbling and climbing over the same rutted hillside season after season. While the screenplay tries for a macho humanism as enemies leave each other gifts and letters in a cubbyhole that routinely changes hands, it also dares the occasional transgression from formula, most wildly when the handsome, erratic Kim guffaws evilly at a child amputee who asks if her arm will grow back: “Are you a lizard, motherfucker?” Yet when Alligator Company learns that they must fight one more hopeless battle in the hours before peace is imposed, their shell-shocked captain (Lee Je-hun) delivers an earnest go-get-‘em address that the syrupy score suggests we take at face value.
The Front Line collapses into pieties that contradict its more hellish intimations of martial pointlessness, and this dishonest, flailing attempt at working both sides of war-film aesthetics goes a long way in accounting for its status as South Korea’s Academy Award submission. It ultimately sides with battlefield pyrotechnics over the grim truth.