You know I love a movie when I write twelve posts that have mentioned this movie in one way or another. So, one way or another, I was going to watch this movie.
“71-Into the Fire” is angling for an Oscar nomination, and perhaps a win, and I don’t blame it. It is really good. I don’t know if it will win just yet, since I don’t know what other films are going up against it, but it would be nice if “Into the Fire” won.
I will avoid spoilers as much as possible.
Here’s a mini synopsis without the ending. North Korean troops have invaded South Korea and gone way past the 38th parallel. Most of the troops are being redirected to Nakdong River, which is the last defense for South Korea and their allies, from Pohang. Kim Seung Woo‘s Captain Kang is not too keen on leaving the place, especially since if North Korean troops decide to go to Pohang, they have an easy route to Busan. He leaves T.O.P.’s Oh Jang Beom in charge. Jang Beom is a student soldier with little guts; he fought in a fierce battle but mostly as a courier of arms. The bombing resulted in a a ruptured eardrum, but he was by the side of the second-in-command officer to Captain Kang until the man died. Because of this, Kang looks upon Jang Beom favorably. When a new crop of student soldiers show up at the Pohang Girls Middle School (their headquarters), including Kwon Sang Woo‘s insolent Kap Jo, Kang puts them all under the leadership of Jang Beom. The troops move out, and 71 student soldiers – all inexperienced save for Jang Beom and two others – guard the school.
The movie quickly establishes that Kap Jo and Jang Beom don’t like each other. It also quickly establishes that Kap Jo is all brawn and little brain, and therefore not a very good leader. Meanwhile, Cha Seung Won, in his brilliant evil glory, is quickly advancing. As Commander Park Moo Rang, he disobeys orders to go to Nakdong River, and chooses to go straight to Busan via Pohang. He is ruthless but cool, efficient and deadly. A few skirmishes prove that Jang Beom is a good leader, and eventually he is forced to come face to face against Commander Park and his army of tanks and hundreds of soldiers.
First off: The Acting.
This movie felt like IRIS 2.o, because people from IRIS or ATHENA were in this. Even minor IRIS actor David McInnis (who appeared on the IRIS side int he later episodes) was in this with a bit role. I would love it if Kwon Sang Woo would just do a mini cameo in ATHENA. Park Jin Hee appears as the nurse who treats Jang Beom. She seems to take a liking to him – perhaps because he looks so lost and like he just lost his innocence – but is sent away to Nakdong River almost right away. And that was the last of a female presence that we got in the film… But anyways, let’s talk about the actors.
Kim Seung Woo was solid as a commanding officer. He had a smaller role compared to everyone else, which surprised me. He certainly lent a fatherly air to the film, because every time he was in a scene with T.O.P., or Choi Seung Hyun, he would look upon him with a protective glance. He has one of the funniest scenes in the film – unintentionally of course – when one of the student soldiers, nicknamed “Math Wiz”, calls him via radio after the student soldiers have a run-in with North Korean scouts. Math Wiz reports breathlessly that they all just survived an attack and it was the scariest thing ever, in the safety of their headquarters. Captain Kang replies, “What??” because he can’t hear with the bombs blowing up behind him in the trenches. The juxtaposition of a calm setting-frantic soldier versus a frenetic setting-calm soldier breaks the tension that has built up for the past twenty minutes.
Cha Seung Won is absolutely frightening. I think he takes on an accent as well when he speaks, which makes his words sound all the more silky and slippery. He is a big, tall guy, so when he first appears sitting in a sidecar next to his driver that’s operating a big scooter, it’s almost comedic. But it’s so comedic that it’s scary, because you just know that if you dare laugh, he will shoot you in the head. Cha does not have to do much character wise, except be stoic and menacing throughout. His statuesque figure helps a lot for those scenes that look like it could have been a high fashion photo spread, because he makes it that much more artistic looking.
Kwon Sang Woo – what to say… though it was a little unbelievable to see him play a student, he had two sidekicks that looked older than everyone else as well, so I felt a little more willing to buy into it. It was also addressed a couple of times, and I think they resolved the “age issue” by saying that he just never got to go to school, so he may be older than everyone else, but with the intelligence of a high school kid. He is arrogant, annoying, boastful, and thinks he’s tough as nails. But what’s great is Kwon allows us to see the cracks in his character sometimes so we know that Kap Jo isn’t as great as he says he is. One great moment is when Kap Jo – so intent on killing the “damn commies” – aims his rifle right at Commander Park’s face, but Park just has to push it aside and Kap Jo’s muster fails. He has the tough guy attitude from “My Tutor Friend” and just refined it a little more here; despite literally being older than every other student soldier in the film, he acts like he’s the little kid who wants to be involved in everything but just doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s devastating that tragedy continues to surround him until the end.
Now as for T.O.P. – I respect him so much I will now refer to him as Choi Seung Hyun. After all the interviews and press conferences with all the costars lauding him, it’s easy to see why. Choi has a scene with dialogue with all the other actors, and he holds his own in every single one of them. The beginning sequence brings us right into the middle of battle, and from the get-go, we know that Jang Beom has never been in a battle before and is scared out of his wits. He’s innocent enough that it seems every soldier wants to protect him. Even the second in command soldier won’t let him fight when they get ambushed by North Korean soldiers; he’s too naive, and Choi does a great job in portraying that. When the movie goes on, Choi’s eyes harden and he does well with his steely, resolute glares. It’s not the same cheeky glares that he does in IRIS; it’s a little more conflicted, because we got to know him so well as the frightened boy who is forced to grow up. One thing I have to definitely hand to him is he has a lot more subtlety than Kwon Sang Woo. This film parallels “Letters from Iwo Jima” in so many ways, down to Jang Beom’s voice-over reading his letters to his mother. In the same way that Ninomiya Kazunari impressed with his quiet perseverance and acting, Choi does it with Jang Beom. Jang Beom goes from a boy who cannot properly load a rifle to a man who can load one in a quick second.
I LOVED the cinematography of this film. The one-takes, the beautiful dolly shots, the cinematic panoramas, the soft focus and rack focus shots… the film was artistically done. It was gritty and shaky when it needed to be – and boy were those scenes gory – but they evoked a certain elegance to it. In the first battle, poor Jang Beom is forced to encounter at least five bombings and explosions that get in his way (hence a ruptured eardrum). One of the bombs sends a car flying in the air like a huge fireball, and it slowly rolls in an arch over Jang Beom. The special effects is so ridiculously meticulous, and I was awed despite the horribleness. I have three favorite scenes:
1) The student soldiers walk through a forest to get supplies, and all the trees look like knobbly wooden sticks from the ground (the leaves are gone). With a wide, panoramic shot, we see the tiny student soldiers walking through what looks like a painted forest of tree trunks on a barren brown earth.
2) As North Korean soldiers lead the hot-headed student soldiers into a trap, they all run in a huge field of overgrown weeds and grass. The camera zooms out and we see a bunch of camouflaged North Koreans pressed down on the ground hiding behind the tall grass, the student soldiers in dark uniforms running towards them.
3) Kap Jo and Jang Beom duke it out in the courtyard, unable to handle each other. Kap Jo runs towards Jang Beom, with the rest of the soldiers running behind him, and punches him. The camera is on a dolly track, and moves parallel to Kap Jo as he runs from left to right of the screen.
One thing I definitely loved about the characters was the parallels drawn between Commander Park and his second in command, and Jang Beom and Kap Jo. Park and Jang Beom are more alike than they probably think; both are stoic and efficient leaders. Jang Beom knows he can’t control Kap Jo, but he doesn’t do anything unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’s not going to pick a fight with Kap Jo just because he could. Kap Jo and the NK second in command love to question their leader’s actions. They’re more “trigger-friendly” and prone to force than to mind-fuckery. (excuse the language) Commander Park’s tactics are more underhanded; he goes to visit the school to offer terms for surrender, but by doing so he also gets to scout out what resources Jang Beom has at Pohang Middle School. That’s way better than trying to force the details out of a captive student soldier. Kap Jo and the NK second in command even have similar lines of dialogue, thus making the parallels even clearer.
But despite the parallels, I also like that the film doesn’t try to make the North Koreans into anything. They’re not all bad, as indicated by one dying soldier calling for his mother, or a couple of soldiers too weak to push a truck out of a rut. Those are things that could happen to anyone no matter what side they are on. But the North Koreans aren’t all good either, as indicated by their ferocious battle cries and their ruthless leader. The North Koreans are just soldiers, and this film doesn’t try too hard in preaching what kind of people they are. I like that, because it treats them as-is, rather than trying to vilify them or pardon them of anything.
The other student soldiers weren’t left out of the script development-wise. We find out little things about the rest of the soldiers in little bits. The clear baby of the group was Kim Hye Sung (Unstoppable High Kick, Kingdom of the Wind) and he just followed his big bro to war; the comedian of the group loved his potatoes; and the Math Wiz miscalculated the angle of the cannon and therefore shot the first torpedo at the front gate of the school. In addition, everyone had something to lose, whether it was a family member or a friend. Commander Park even had a son, thus humanizing him a little bit and making it more understandable as to why he was willing to spare the students instead of just killing them.
There’s a scene where Captain Kang wants to send backup to Jang Beom, and he has to go through his military commander to get permission. He continues insisting that a North Korean division has gone to Pohang, and when the commander finally agrees, they move to another tent to see the American military commander. Can the Americans spare some troops? No – but the American offers another solution. Out of the tent they go, and off to another one – where all the weapons are at. No troops, but the Americans can give them a super bazooka. In this one scene, we manage to see just exactly how bureaucratic decisions can be frustrating. Everything is in steps, but if you convince the right people and get to the higher up people, you’ll eventually get what you want.
The film has other memorable beats that tell so much about the time they are living in: a North Korean soldier poses, with his gun and his leg propped up by a body of a dead South Korean soldier, to take a picture; the student soldiers want to choose their captain via voting process; the student soldiers singing and dancing during their first night; Jang Beom accepts a box of medicine supplies from Nurse Hwaran (Park Jin Hee) and turns, but then turns back as if he wants to say something, and ends up not doing so. He looks like he’ll say thanks, but he is too numb to say anything.
I am a sucker for war movies. I don’t watch every single one, like Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line or Band of Brothers miniseries. However, if there’s a good war movie out there, I will go watch it – even more so if it is set in Asia. “Into the Fire” is a violent movie, but a harsh portrayal of war is better than making it pretty. I am so glad a woman was not involved in this at all, and there was no romantic subplot. The only woman that appeared consistently throughout was Jang Beom’s mother in his memories.
There’s a documentary montage at the end, during the credits, where two survivors of the actual Pohang Incident talk about what happened that day. One of them said that he always hurt knowing that there were so many of his friends who died and yet he’s still alive. This film manages to evoke that same, exact feeling.
I almost cried. (Yeah – I’m a tough girl with a bit of a reputation to protect…)
Rating: 9.5/10 (minus .5 for a ridiculous rooftop shootout that was so incredible and incredulous, but it made the characters involved much more heroic)
photos from hancinema