3.5 stars out of 5
Legendary stories of courage under fire, in the face of insurmountable odds, tend to endure and be celebrated across cultural divides. In America, the Battle of the Alamo (“Remember the Alamo!”) and Custer’s Last Stand have been inextricably woven into the cultural consciousness.
For similar folklore, local historians will point to the Battle of Pasir Panjang in 1942, whereby a hopelessly outnumbered home force was savaged by a Japanese invasion force; meanwhile, film fans will invariably bring up Zack Snyder’s 300, the visually arresting hit film based on Frank Miller’s graphic-novel retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Yet another against-all-odds siege that has made it to the big screen is 71: Into the Fire, a dramatisation of a pivotal Korean War battle fought by a small South Korean student volunteer force – the titular 71 – against hundreds of mighty, battle-hardened North Korean veterans.
A big hit at the Korean box office this year – its release coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War – the film is striking mainly for its remarkable earth-shattering battle scenes, which appear equal to anything Hollywood can orchestrate.
In the first ten minutes of the film, in which the hero, a junior soldier named Jung-Bum (K-pop star T.O.P), stumbles through a fierce firefight before being evacuated for treatment at a military outpost at a former high school.
Those ten gripping minutes, during which the sound design at times transports you right into the heart of battle – incessant shell blasts and bullets whizzing – and at others simulates the numbing aural sensation of being shell-shocked, are breathtakingly intense and wholly believable as authentic.
One imagines that it’s the closest thing to the gory D-Day beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan that you’ll have seen in Korean cinema so far.
There are more stirring and bloody battles beyond the opening, interspersed with a battle of wills between Jung-Bum, who is appointed leader of the 71-strong force of students, many of whom are unfamiliar with weaponry and war tactics, and an insubordinate murder convict (Kwon Sang-woo) who only joins the ranks because of the breakdown of civil order.
As the film sets up for a final stand-off at the high school grounds that you know will inevitably come with requisite body count, heroic sacrifice and seemingly superhuman endurance and death-dodging, we get to know the student volunteers, albeit not very deeply.
The film, directed by John H. Lee, attempts to humanise the student fighters and have the audience privy to their fears, self-doubts and innocence as they await their date with destiny. Jung-Bum marshals the troops as best he can – his own military experience is limited, as he served as a front-line munitions runner – and the audience gears up for the moment of truth.
Of course the students rise up to the occasion – the high school needs to be defended as it stands on strategically important terrain – and are hailed as heroes etched in the annals of history. And of course, this being a South Korean film, the North, personified by a supercilious general (Cha Seung-won) leading the march to the high school, are demonised as cruel kamikaze-like invaders.
Despite the film fixedly following the conventions of its based-on-historic-events nationalistic war movie genre, it will still entertain anyone who knows nothing about the Korean War, or who, despite possible property investment inclinations, are not fans of T.O.P.
Typical for Korean cinema, this sweat-stained and gritty film has a real enjoyable swagger about it, and has indeed been stylishly and proficiently put together. The stars – you can’t mask their matinee idol looks under that make-up – all get enough screen time to pose and strut, so that good guy or bad, they all look great doing what they have to do.
In that respect, Cha probably has the most scenery-chewing moments – his character even gets himself driven into the high school, unarmed, to deliver a personal ultimatum to the pitiable students – and will be remembered, even loved, for his constant menace and sinister cool.
On the flip side, as the quiet reluctant hero, T.O.P mostly looks sullen and contemplative; his character eventually demonstrates that he possesses steel beneath his stoic demeanour. As such, this is probably the perfect role, one not overly demanding, for T.O.P to diversify his film portfolio.
With its riveting battles, impressive technical nous, decent performances and an ultimately engaging if predictable storyline, this stands as the best Korean war film I’ve seen thus far. If nothing else, savour the ‘shoot-em-up, blow-em-up’ battles. They make you want to shout out, “I love the smell of gunpowder in the morning!”
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.