War film action junkies sit up and take note, as 71: Into the Fire should be written into your books as a must watch if you haven't already made plans to do so. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan may have set the bar and raised expectations many years ago with regards to the use of strained colours and realistic war violence being portrayed on screen, and in recent years even China too got into the act through Feng Xiaogang's Assembly. While tales of heroism during WWII have been aplenty done by filmmakers from the West, I can only think of a handful done in the East to meet that kind of scale. This is one of them.
Directed by John H. Lee, the basis of the film reported came from a letter from one of the 71 deceased South Korean student soldiers, which chronicled their Alamo experience and moment as the few who had to stand up to the invading North Korean masses in very David and Goliath measures. Tasked with the strategically important defense of Pohang while the rest of what's left of the South Korean army and UN coalition defended the Nakdong River area, this is not 300 where a group of battle hardened soldiers led by King Leonidis tragically fended off the huge Persian army, but a group of rag tag students with little military experience being told to hold their ground for 2 hours against a fanatical, professional army before reinforcements arrive.
You can feel the sense of urgency and desperation throughout the film, as Lee doesn't forget to remind you how dire the situation was, with the tremendous loss of territory over a period of four months to the North Korean forces sledgehammering its way down south, and the reliance of students to take up arms in what could have been a tactical lesser of two evils. The UN Coalition is stretched thin, and the makeshift Captain of the ragtag student group, soft spoken Oh Jung-Bum (T.O.P), has some serious growing up to do if he is to lead the students, being one of three who have had some combat experience. Making things difficult is the inclusion of criminals like Kap-Jo (Kwon Sang Woo) who's just happy to be out of prison to lend his weight to the fight, but as with any army that requires discipline, here is one man and his two lieutenants who prefer the contrary.
From the get go you'll get thrown thick into the action with loud gunfire and pretty much everything exploding on screen from artillery and other big guns fire, as Jung-Bum wanders around his battalion doing errands like topping up and delivery of magazines and rounds to soldiers, only to find his side of the forces constantly retreating, and being caught up in a life and death situation. Clearly not the hero he thinks he could be, he soon gets sent packing into a truck and again the North, under the leadership of Commander Park Mu-Rang (Cha Seung-Won), is triumphant and merciless in their taking of additional territory.
More set action sequences are to follow, and each are carefully crafted to reap maximum effect for the filmgoer as we root for the student soldiers as they stand their ground, and rely on their street smarts to come up with some form of defense system to protect their minuscule turf. While luck has them chancing upon caches of abandoned weapons, improvisation meant the welcoming of Molotov cocktails (still a weapon of choice for guerrilla styled riots), and various forms of gas/fuel+fire combination. Not being military strategists, the students are susceptible to the oldest trick in the book like ambushes, and each challenge they come up toward meant a reduction in their already pathetic numbers.
Perhaps it is their making of such naive mistakes that draw in on the harshness of war, where director Lee doesn't spare us much of the gory details from bursting wounds and machine gun fire from up close ripping up bodies. As the adage goes, don't die for your country but make the other bastard die for his. However this film depicts Koreans killing Koreans, so therein lies an opportunity to address some of this insanity why people ought to be killing their own comrades and countrymen, even having the North Korean commander at times exhibiting being a maverick willing to go against battle orders, albeit to satisfy his bruised ego that had been wounded by a bunch of students against his own troops.
There's no lack of drama and tension as well, brought on when Jung-Bum and Kap-Jo have to go head to head in order to earn each other's mutual respect, but before that the gangsters' shenanigans prove to be running against the grain of the student soldier's mission. For Jung-Bum, we witness how he matures from boy to man, while Kap-Jo learns about responsibility and what it means to be counted upon, in contrast to his selfish ways since the enemy is now real and right at their doorstep. Unfortunately while this film has 71 student soldiers split into two platoons, realistically you're not going to have to get to know all of them, so only these two fly the character development flag for the rest.
Well made with excellent production values and sets depicting the state of war affairs during the Korean War, 71: Into the Fire will go into my books as one of the best this year in its genre. Highly recommended, especially when viewed on the big screen!