There’s a broad trajectory war films take, as the war they depict recedes into history. During the war they are obviously propagandist. Immediately afterwards they are patriotic and heroic. Then comes lighter fare, then films that question the war or focus on the horrors.
But films were censored for much longer under South Korea’s military government than they were in the West. And as no peace treaty was signed the Korean War technically isn’t over merely on ceasefire. It blows hot and cold, as recent events in the area have demonstrated.
So Korean War films from the peninsula aren’t simply about a historical event: they resonate.
‘71 Into the Fire’ focuses on one small but significant firefight at Pohang in 1950. It’s a combination of heroic action film and horrors-of-war film, as 71 student soldiers attempt to hold a rearguard command base against the invading North Koreans. The students were teenage volunteers and, with a handful of exceptions, most had only fired a single bullet in training before facing down an elite commando brigade.
My biggest criticism of the film is that there is an extended twenty minute prologue which – possibly due to the rough introductory subs on my preview disc – doesn’t make the situation immediately clear. I didn’t realise only one character, Oh Jung-Bum, was a student soldier and so I was struggling to understand what was happening. It is, however, an excellent battle sequence: suggesting both the chaos of the initial days of the Korean War and that there was a strong element of urban warfare.
Oh Jung-Bum (T.O.P. – a Korean popstar in only his third film) fails to save a fellow South Korean fighter when he fumbles a bullet. He’s then made captain of the student soldiers by Kang Suk-Dae (Kim Seung-Woo) and left to defend the abandoned forward base at Pohang Girls School with 70 other students. Military intelligence suggests the North Koreans will head straight to the crucial battle for Nakdong, bypassing Pohang. Amongst the 70 untrained student soldiers is Ku Kap-jo (Kwon Sang-Woo), a convicted murderer whose escort has fobbed Ku and his two sidekicks off as students.
Most of the narrative drive of the film is the conflict between Oh, the stiff and unwilling leader, and Ku, the rebel replete with cap at a jaunty Brando-esque angle. Bearing down on them as they squabble is ruthless North Korean commander Park Mu-Rang (Cha Seung-Won) and his hundreds strong commando unit. It’s hard not to read this as a metaphor for how South Korea has to unite to fight implacable evil. American firepower makes a fleeting appearance towards the end of the film, but is merely an adjunct – the focus is on a small disparate group fighting a unified war machine.
Overall, ‘71 Into the Fire’ is a good action film that veers occasionally into cliché. Park is a crude stereotype of a villain, a communist Terminator who stops at nothing. And don’t get me started on the kimchi dialogue. But the central performances are plausible and the battle sequences vary from the epic and impersonal warzones to the intimate and horrifying fight of some under-trained teenagers in a school.
‘71 Into the Fire’ is out now on DVD and blu-ray. You can watch a clip here.