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71 - Into the Fire
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by Jay Seaver

"Teenage soldiers, basic war movie."
3 stars

The opening moments of "71 - Into the Fire" are a recitation of the origins of the Korean War so close to the one which opened a film I saw a week ago ("A Little Pond") that I briefly thought that it was that film, being distributed in America under a different name. It covers a different incident, though, and winds up a rather conventional war movie, though it doesn't dishonor its subjects.

That opening text tells us that a desperately outnumbered South Korean army accepted many teen-aged volunteers, so-called "student soldiers". The first we meet, Oh Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyeon) is serving as a runner in a battle at the start of August 1950, terrified enough that he is unable to even load his weapon properly as an officer is bayoneted in front of him. Still, when his unit's commander, Captain Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo) is dispatched to the Nakdong River, he chooses to leave Jang-beom in charge of the garrison at Pohang, along with two other veteran student soldiers and 68 just off the bus. It should just be guard duty, but there are two issues - gang members Koo Gap-jo (Kwon Sang-woo) and Poong-chun (Kim Yoon-seong) especially don't take well to Jang-beom's authority, and North Korean commander Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won) has opted not to procede straight to Nakdong, but capture Pohang along the way.

As the opening titles make sure to remind the audience, 71 is based upon a true story, one that arguably sounds even more impressive than what's presented here (the closing titles describe an 11-hour standoff, while the battle on film seems to be much less drawn-out). Its American release appears to be roughly timed to the sixtieth anniversary of the battle (11 August 1950), and testimonials from what I assume are real-life student soldiers appear during the credits (that section of the print was unsubtitled) It is, as one might expect, a very conventional war film, aside from the youth of its protagonists: Respectful of the military, placing those who fought and died on a pedestal, although modern enough to recognize that the ROK army had to do its share of things it wouldn't be proud of.

Director John H. Lee leans heavily on war-movie conventions, at times to an almost ridiculous degree: Jang-beom not only writes letters home to his mother, but has the sort of maudlin flashback with the swelling music usually reserved for the end of the movie after the battle that starts the movie, as well as toward the end. You'd better believe that there is what's meant to be an inspirational speech on tap right before the end, too. Meanwhile, the visuals, especially during the battle scenes, are along the lines of what's become the standard since Saving Private Ryan - soldiers in the dirt, color frequently drained from their skins and the sky, realistic mayhem. To Lee's credit, he messes with the color palette less than most, and the execution of the battle scenes is often very well-done, clearly chaotic for those inside but not random from the outside.

The performances are generally good enough that I wondered at times whether the characters may have been a bit underwritten. Take Choi Seung-hyeon, for instance; I absolutely believe him in the movie's first act, when Jang-beom is terrified under fire or numb and somewhat shell-shocked afterward. Despite that, I never really see what Captain Kang sees in him that makes him believe that Jang-beom can be an effective leader, not even when he has evidently gained the respect of his soldiers. Similarly, Kwon Sang-woo's Gap-jo is a guy that we're told is tough, and he certainly comes off as a confident city kid, but there isn't the raw sense of danger to him to make us feel that he's in remotely the same category as the combat Jang-beom has already seen. On the other hand, it's hard to find fault with Cha Seung-won, who makes General Park a fierce and cunning foe whose combined arrogance and no-nonsense attitude make for an intriguing combination.

"71 - Into the Fire" does most of what it sets out to do reasonably well; it's a pretty good war movie about inexperienced soldiers against overwhelming odds. It probably won't grab those without interest in the genre or subject, and as such is a curious film to show up in mainstream theaters.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21331&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/02/10 13:39:51
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User Comments

8/09/10 jay the best movie I have ever seen, but need to understand about the Korea War 5 stars
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Directed by
  John H. Lee

Written by
  Dong-woo Kim
  John H. Lee
  Man-hee Lee

  Seung-hyeon Choi
  Seung-won Cha
  Sang-woo Kwon
  Seung-woo Kim

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