71 - Into The Fire
Directed by: John H Lee
Starring: Kwon Sang-woo, Choi Seung-hyeon, Cha Seung-won, Park Jin-hee
Young Deok, 1950. The North Korean People’s Army is on the verge of overwhelming the South. Drafted as a student soldier in the 3rd Infantry Division, Oh Jang-beom survives an attack on the town and flees without personally firing a shot. While regiments are diverted to the Nakdong River, a major defence barrier shielding the cities of Daegu and Pusan from invading forces, Jang-beom is left behind in Pohang with seventy untrained student soldiers. Demoralised and shell-shocked, they make their last stand against an advancing heavy artillery force, led by the ruthless Park Moo-rang…
Whilst based on a real-life event – at Pohang Girl’s Middleschool for 11 hours, 71 inexperienced student soldiers managed to hold at bay the elite shock-troops of the North Korean army – the telling of the story is just as fanciful as Michael Bay’s account of Pearl Harbour, although it manages to balance the visceral visuals better with the human dramas.
Visceral is exactly how the films starts, as we meet up with Oh Jang-Beom (Seung-hyeon) as he ferries ammunition to the forward troops, running through destroyed buildings and alleyways. He is unflinching in his mission, braving gunfire and artillery explosions, but when it comes to shooting an enemy soldier, his nerves get the better of him. The whole emphasis of the battle changes with the arrival of Park Moo-rang. Park Moo-rang uses the vast numbers at his disposal to literally steam-roller through the town, overwhelming the South Korean’s defensive positions in a matter of minutes. It’s a devastating attack which doesn’t bode well for our heroes later in the film.
When the action shifts to Pohang, Jang-Beom finds himself put in charge of the new recruits. Although he still hasn’t fired a shot in anger, his earlier experiences have left him “battle-hardened” and he has the so-called “thousand yard stare”.
Among the new recruits are three delinquents who were on their way to juvenile detention when the decided to enlist instead. They are lead by Gap-Jo, a gangster posing as a student. A lot of the rest of the film boils down to the antagonistic relationship between Gap-Jo and Jang-Beom.
With the main bridges destroyed, Park Moo-rang is forced to separate his forces, sending his tanks and artillery on a long winding route while his shock-troops swim across the river and act as recon. This leads to the first contact between the students and the North Koreans, and thanks to a surprise attack the students are able to win the short battle. It is here that Jang-beom is finally forced to shoot to kill – a wounded enemy soldier no less, in front of all his men.
Just when you think the film is going to settle for a mid section filled with melodrama between the students (and Jang-beom and Gap-jo in particular), there is instead a masterful set-piece. While transporting supplies back to the school, the students are ambushed by a couple of snipers. Gap-jo rashly leads a chase after them, only to be lead into another ambush as more enemy soldiers wait in the tall grass at the bottom of a hill. This whole sequence is excellent, and the setting gives it a very unique look.
Eventually things come to a head. Park Moo-rang arrives to find his recon outfit decimated and offers a truce to the students – stand down and they would be spared. A call to headquarters sees Capt Byong manage to put together a small team of reinforcements, but they are unlikely to get there in time. It’s up to the students to prove they are soldiers after all.
What follows is a very cinematic battle, filled with a mix of physical and CGI enhanced fx. There are moments of heroic sacrifice and tragedy amidst the flying bullets and exploding debris and the whole thing boils down to Jang-beom and Gap-Jo, once enemies, now comrades at arms, fighting back to back on the school’s roof. This isn’t just an excellent action scene, but an interesting bit of foreshadowing as director John H Lee has been chosen to direct the remake of John Woo’s The Killer.
I mentioned at the top of the review that this is a fanciful retelling of the battle. This can be gleaned even from the closing credits of the film, as a couple of the survivors of that battle recount the real events. Nevertheless, 71-Into The Fire is a first class film which should sit side by side with Taeguk-gi.
Blistering battle scenes intertwined with a coming-of-age story, ending in a bout of Heroic Bloodshed. Highly recommended.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)