Korean War

Kings of the Hill

by Liz on May 17, 2012

in Books & Entertainment

The Front Line/Go Ji Seon (2011)
Directed by Jang Hun
Cast: Shin Ha-gyun, Go Soo, Ryoo Seung-soo

Hills are tricky places, but they’re also massively symbolic. The people who scale the hill are worthy of exceptional merit, perhaps even of biblical proportions. But hills embattled by brotherly hatred in one of the most bloody conflicts of the 20th century are, according to the South Korean film The Front Line, neither exceptional nor meritorious. They are a curse.

The Korean War, of course, is a vintage war fought during the Truman-Eisenhower transition years, but in Korea its outcome has lingered long after the signing of the Armistice in 1953. Which may be why South Korean filmmakers by and large think less of the heroism of that War, and more of its destructive outcomes, and what it does to otherwise good people.

There are no John Waynes in The Front Line, nor even a Captain John Miller, the Tom Hanks character in Saving Private Ryan. (That movie, by the way, probably has had more influence on South Korean war films than the rest of Hollywood combined). In many Korean films about this war, I’ve noticed a tendency to portray the soldiers as victims of a greater force, rather than masters of their destiny. The Front Line is no exception. We see good people trapped in a nexus of indifferent manipulation: higher-ups, Americans deciding the fate of Korea at Panmunjom or conducting aerial bombings from the safety of their aircrafts, even propaganda blaring from megaphones. As a viewer, you are treated to the spectacle of tragic men hurtling towards demise, because of a shoddy, fallible system that has failed them. It’s really not their fault they might die tomorrow, but there’s also nothing you or I can do.

That said, I still want to recommend this film for those of you either taking a hiatus from Korean movie-watching, or unfamiliar with Korean history. That’s because I think the movie has something interesting to say about fate and individual irrelevance. At our core, we may be intrinsically good, but we also live in a world shockingly indifferent to who we are as people: warm-blooded, emotional creatures who want to reach out to each other — even across enemy lines — an unrealistic expectation that can and does culminate into a bullet in the chest.

But if a bullet in the chest — or even heartbreak — is what it takes to salvage a bit of human amid the devastation of war, so be it. At least that’s the message I kept hearing between the script lines. The most memorable scenes took place during the intermittent breaks between the violent skirmishes on the hill, in a hideaway nook where the North and South Korean soldiers exchange gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, and even letters to their relatives, a custom that has developed as the hill has changed hands more than 30 times in the course of an unrelenting civil war. After all, there’s a fundamental alikeness to us, even if we must stare down at each other from the barrels of our guns. Because we all know how to laugh, sing, and long for home, but mostly we want this war to end. If only we knew how to end it.

The Front Line was selected as South Korea’s submission to the 84th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, but did not make the shortlist, which is a shame because it definitely could have been a contender. But no matter. You can still watch it here.


A rare color photograph of a South Korean woman carrying a baby in Namdaemun market, Seoul (1951)

Last night, I attended a Korean War Veterans Workshop, a panel on the experiences of three Korean War veterans who’ve been proactive in educating the public about an easily forgotten war (1950-1953). With no peace treaty ever signed, it was a sobering reminder even today there is no clear solution in sight on the Korean Peninsula. I learned new facts and was moved by accounts of ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as experienced by the veterans. But I was equally inspired by their veteran pride, still going strong after all these years. As they iterated, it was their military service that built the foundation of the Republic of Korea, but it was the drive and discipline of the South Koreans that made the country what it is today.

I was also reminded of a project I worked on last year with Seoul Selection: a book of color, Korean War photographs taken by former NBC war correspondent John Rich. Growing up, I was accustomed to seeing photographs of Korea of those years in grainy, black-and-white, so it was literally eye-opening to see the Korean landscape, its people, and the soldiers who fought, often valiantly, in the colors we are accustomed to today. It’s also an impressive testimony to the power of photojournalism.

Aside from the fact the Korean War ended almost 60 years ago, there’s not much common knowledge of the parties involved in the conflict, turning points, or even talk of heroes in this country. In the American imagination, the Korean War is uncomfortably sandwiched between two more significant events. The Second World War produced legendary heroes who were welcomed home, the Vietnam War tore America apart across generational fault lines, but the Korean War was a tale of stalemated conflict. It’s no coincidence the enigmatic Don Draper in the hit television series Mad Men is a Korean War veteran. In many ways, the war that changed his life is a metaphor for who he is: an obscure, compromised hero.

Working on ‘Korean War in Color’ helped myself to understand how human affairs are always hanging in a precarious balance. You’ll see here pictures of war and undue suffering interspersed with halcyon vistas of the Korean countryside, which was often how the War was experienced. In many ways, it’s no different from the world today: an uneasy middle ground, punctuated by inexplicable chaos that call out for attention. Perhaps, even for peace.

(All Photos Courtesy of John Rich)

The verdant hills of the Korean countryside (1950-1951)

American soldiers under the UN Command catching a break.

A wounded civilian boy. Picture taken on the road to Seoul (1950)

A Korean woman selling goods in a flea market near Gaeseong, present-day North Korea (1952)

John Rich, on far right, with communist journalists Wilfred Burchett to his back, and Alan Winnington, center. Taken at Panmunjeom (1951)