71 Into the Fire, by director John H Lee (이재한), is a film based on a true story which occurred in the early months of the Korean War, when the northern armies swept all before them until they reached the Busan perimeter. A group of 71 student soldiers are given the job of defending a school, and do so heroically against a whole DPRK division.
The lead actors in this unlikely-sounding box office success (it came 4th in Korea’s domestic rankings in 2010) are Kwon Sang-woo (권상우) as a gangster released from custody on condition that he joins the student soldiers, and Choi Seung-hyeon (최승현), aka K-pop star T.O.P from Big Bang, as the student put in charge. The communist commander, the bad guy we love to hate, is played by Cha Seung-won (차승원).
Kwon Sang-woo puts on his best gangster swagger (though the quality of his dentistry is perhaps inconsistent with his supposed humble background), while the angular, somewhat downtrodden features of T.O.P from boy band Big Bang play surprisingly well.
Most entertaining is the DPRK military commander, a maverick wearing a white suit and sporting a very fancy Rolex (where would a Comrade have got such a luxury?), smoking a cheroot – almost as if he’s a sophisticated Mexican bandit in a traditional western. He gets the stylish camera shots and leads a stylised army: his troops hold aloft dozens of red communist flags as if they are the imperial army in a Zhang Yimou martial arts epic.
If the commie bad guy and the thug who turns good in the end are larger than life characters, T.O.P as the unconfident student with the slightly angular, downtrodden face might on paper seem to be in danger of being outplayed, but it is his performance which brings the film together, as he portrays a character who grows into the responsibilities that are placed on him. His favourite camera angle, as he looks over his left shoulder to a camera which is slightly lower than him, seems to be taken straight from a manga.
How realistic is it all? Well, this is a film, so we shouldn’t expect things to be true to life. Yes, the film is based on a true story, but a director has to take liberties to sustain one’s interest for the two hour stretch of the film. The discovery of a stash of ammo in a shed (fortunate, because the students certainly discharge more than the 250 rounds which were originally distributed to them) and the last-minute find of sufficient gasoline to rig up some splendid pyrotechnics; the tension provided by the conflict between the teenage students and the somewhat older gangsters; and the sight of the commie commander riding across the plains in a motorcycle sidecar as if he’s hunting for a treasure map in The Good The Bad and the Weird – well, it all adds up to the formula of an enjoyable piece of cinema, and should not be taken too seriously. Nor should the theatrical drive by the baddie into the school to confront the students be taken seriously: it’s just an opportunity for the student leader to show his new-found maturity.
The students do a lot of ill-advised running around the countryside, which gives the cinematographer a chance to show off its beauty. The pine woods which surround the school could be straight out of a Bae Bien-u photograph, while the yellow-tinged wheat fields are reminiscent of the scenery in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. Shots of the mountains make you want to visit Korea.
The release of 71 Into the Fire by Cine Asia comes with a welcome extra: a full length audio commentary by Bey Logan and Mike Leeder. Logan is better known for his Hong Kong martial arts expertise, and his efforts on Korean movies with Mike Leeder have been mixed. A dire Musa was more than offset by an interesting and informative Volcano High. The pair are on form for 71 Into the Fire, with useful historical context and insightful comment on production techniques. In fact, when you’ve got a decent commentary like this, you wonder why a company bothers with all those added extras on the second DVD. The “behind the scenes” documentary and other extras are the usual uninspiring collection of talking heads summarising the characters that they play, stitched together with repetitive and unrelated clips from the film. With one exception: there’s an interesting interview with two surviving veterans from the 71 who defended the school. That should have been squeezed onto the first DVD, and then the second disk could have been ditched.
Does 71 Into the Fire represent a sensible investment for Cine Asia?
As a war film, it’s a very competent and enjoyable production. For a Korean domestic audience it rehearses a moment of heroism in the war, shows that even students can put up a fight against better equipped and numerically superior commie hordes, but also shows that the communists have a heart – the bad guy offers them a chance to surrender.
What relevance does it have for a western audience? Hard to say. The Asia Extreme genre finds a reasonably ready audience. The big directors such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho will always find their films bought up. The art house cinemas will always want to show a Hong Sang-soo. But this is a commercial production – a war film about a war which very few westerners know about. The heroic defence of a strategic position in a civil war is certainly well-made and demonstrates how it is possible to make an extremely good-looking film with plenty of explosions, while only spending around $10 million. As such, it’s interesting to watch for a cineaste and for someone already interested in Korea. But for a mainstream audience I fear it might struggle.
Written as part of the Korean Film Blogathon 2011