Arts Desk

Reviewed: 71: Into the Fire


Korean cinema has come a long way. Of the three principal exports of the decade-old “Korean wave” (hallyu) of pop culture–the other two being music and television–South Korea’s movie industry is the one that strives most for critical as well as mass appeal, tackling once-taboo subjects such as prostitution and developmental disabilities.  This contrasts with the more popular and lucrative soap opera industry, which peddles images of the country as a fantasyland of profligate wealth and plastic surgery to audiences in Cambodia and Indonesia. (Perhaps the closest a Korean TV drama has come to social commentary is Hanoi Bride, which supposedly confronts the rise of the Vietnamese mail-order bride business.  In it, a rich and handsome Korean doctor falls in love with a Vietnamese woman and whisks her away to a life of leisure.)

But it wasn’t always like that.  Through the 1990s, Korean movies were little more than formulaic retreads of two basic genres: sappy romantic comedies and gangster movies.  The two would occasionally merge and create a third genre, romantic gangster comedies.  Then came 2002’s Oasis and 2003’s Oldboy, two psychological melodramas that won critical acclaim at the Venice and Cannes film festivals, respectively, and the Korean New Wave took off. Today, new Korean films cater to the international art house crowd.  They are somber, restrained, and a lot less fun to watch: Set far away from the glitz of Seoul, they often portray broken families mired in poverty. A disproportionate number end with something bad happening to children involving rat poison.

Which is why 71: Into the Fire, showing through Friday at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria, doesn’t feel like a new Korean film.  A big budget action flick “based on a true story” from the Korean War, it shares elements with previous war dramas like 2003’s Silmido and 2004’s Taegukgi.  But 71 deals with none of the moral complexities of the earlier movies, which acknowledged atrocities by both sides during the conflict.  At its heart, 71 is a buddy film, and thus feels most like the excellent brothers-in-crime drama Chingu (Friend), going so far as to lift dialogue from the better film.

71 opens shortly after the June 1950 invasion of the South by the North, which quickly overran the entire peninsula except for a tiny corner on the southeast coast.  The story focuses on a group of 71 high school students who volunteer for the South Korean army, and are tasked to stay behind and defend a makeshift base at a middle school in Pohang.  With little training, the adolescent soldiers are both outnumbered and outmatched by a North Korean army unit that has inexplicably decided that the entire war rests on capturing the middle school, rather than pursue their foes to the East Sea.

The students are led by a shell-shocked Oh Jung-Bum, the only student soldier to see prior combat, played timidly by Choi Seung-Hyeon—aka T.O.P. of the Kpop boy band Big Bang. Other hallyu heartthrobs round out the cast, clearly chosen more for eye candy appeal than acting ability: Kwon Sang-Woo is the bad boy, a murderous hood who was let out of juvie on his promise to “kill some commies.” Cha Seung-Won plays the North Korean commander, robotically channeling pure evil in what appears to be a DPRK army tennis outfit.

What follows is an entirely predictable and over-the-top exercise in South Korean jingoism: unhelpful American generals, “we are all brothers” moments succeeded by dastardly betrayals by the North, and brave kids making the ultimate sacrifice for the Republic. Piles of bodies are literally stacked up from fighting sequences that are as exciting as they are ridiculous.

The film is showing at the AMC Hoffman Center with English subtitles. JS Media, a Korean promotional company, is screening the movie at 14 cities in the U.S. on the anniversary of the Korean War. The limited release is a test run for potential future showings at theaters in other cities. The true test, however, is whether Korean movies can match Korean dramas and Kpop in generating hype in non-Korean markets. Given Friday’s opening day audience at AMC Hoffman, made up of three teenage girls and one elderly Korean couple, it may be a while before Americans who don’t go to Cannes warm up to Korean cinema.

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  • really?

    "What follows is an entirely predictable and over-the-top exercise in South Korean jingoism: unhelpful American generals, “we are all brothers” moments succeeded by dastardly betrayals by the North, and brave kids making the ultimate sacrifice for the Republic. Piles of bodies are literally stacked up from fighting sequences that are as exciting as they are ridiculous."

    I do agree that it was predictable at the times however this movie was based on true events. After watching this film only one can appreciate the amount of bravery these young kids showed in fighting an army that had triple amount of war experience and triple amount in numbers. Therefore, the fighting scenes somewhat show the harsh reality of this true story.

  • Ben

    It's vey offending when you describe this movie's plot as being "predictable" and when you also make the assertion that the actors were cast for their looks and not their acting abilities. First, you must be pretty ignorant and oblivious to not realize that this movie is based off actual events in the Korean War - obviously, the plot might seem predictable to some people because it's based off "real events". I mean what do you expect? These 71 soldiers were attacked by an entire battalion of soldiers, the odds were not exactly in their favor of surviving this attack by the North Koreans. Second, the purpose of this film is not to become some variation of a Big Hollywood film, rather it's paying tribute to these brave high school aged soldiers who fought and died for their country in a heroic attempt to stop the North Korean advance. Also, it is shedding light on one of the most forgotten wars in our recent history - the Korean War, which should be honored and commemorated way more often. Third, the actors were awesome including TOP. Their acting was top notch and was very moving. You must be blind and ignorant not to realize that these actors put on a superb performance.

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  • Unnie

    I thought it was an amazing movie. People think it may be predictable because movies based on true events like this have been made before, but personally, I have never cried so hard over a movie.

  • shia

    i find the movie great... maybe because i was surprised of T.O.P.'s acting. man ,he's getting better!! it is his first lead role and i was afraid he might not reach my expectations but he goes beyond it. i don't agree on pure eye candy though. eye candy! yes, coz top stars are casted in it but they did well!

    so let me start with T.O.P. (jang bum): although he rarely said words, his eyes presented excellent emotions. the first minutes of the movie showed how he is so scared that even a single bullet can't be loaded to a gun.his character showed that you can lead even if you ain't the toughest. "lead by heart" per se!

    sang woo (kap jo): the brash decisions leading to the danger of his fellow troops safety; the aura of being the toughest in the group ; his character showed it. he is the complete opposite of jang bum!

    seung won( NK commander): a certain characteristic is shown... treat somebody as to how they are supposed to be treated. there wwas a very brief part of him holding a picture with his son. that alone explained why he tried to "save" the students.

    seung woo(sk officer): a promise is a promise! he even fought with his superior for those students!

    somewhat it's predictable that they all have to die in the movie... and i agree that there's lots of elements shown about war . yes, the last part wherein all nk soldiers who tried to visit the rooftop are easily defeated was quite unbelieving since only two not so experienced student soldiers are the enemy but aside from that, it's a great movie!it moved me and that's all i need...

  • semester

    This is a poorly written review, full of biases and lack of information.

    I think the writer knows not much about Korean media productions and the acting ability of their actors and actresses.

    I think TOP and Kwon Sang Woo did very well in this movie. They are definitely not eye candies. In fact all 4 leading men are not handsome in my opinion, but they are truely good at performance.

  • Joe

    Dear Mike Paarlberg,
    Obviously you are a very biased person against any movie that isn't a big, fake, although visually appealing, hollywood movie. Considering that most American movies are even as predictable or even more predictable, this was a surprising movie. Though the plot doesn't elaborate on most of the 71 kids, this movie does pay homage to the poor kids who all died in the battle. I think you should really go back to high school or college and grow up a little before you start to write review again.

  • Kay

    This movie is exactly like Saving Private Ryan, without Tom Hanks. I think you're just a pompous racist fool who needs to open his mind to other movies other then *Zathura* or *Tropic Thunder*. This movie was a quality movie that you just won't be able to appreciate.

  • tiffay

    i'm sorry if we the rest of the world don't like to alter 90% of a true story to work it the way we want to sell it and also be able to sell the fact it's a true story. i'm guessing you can't understand the fact that not all the people of the world likes plotless action movies. we actually put the truth into the movie to say it's based on a true story! I know! shocking and completely ridiculus. and before anybody says i'm being racist or anything. don't try it. i'm not even korean