Before I watched 71-Into the Fire (directed by Lee Jae-han), I was a little skeptical. Maybe it was that Choi Seung-hyeon (T.O.P from the Korean group Big Bang) was leading the charge in the film. I saw that the film did well in the theatre but I wasn't going to read too much into that when such a huge pop idol was up on screen; a ploy, I thought, to lure in his many followers and cash in on some media hype. Having now watched the film I can say that all my doubts have been laid to rest.
Inspired by real events, 71-Into the Fire tells the story of a group of 71 teenagers burdened with the task of holding down Pohang girls middle school. Short on recruits, as the North Korea forces continue to push south, the Korean military has enlisted these young and inexperienced boys in a position of responsibility and duty. This misfit group of "student soldiers" have to band together and overcome their troublesome group dynamics to delay the advancing communist force until they receive reinforcements.
The group is led by Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyeon), a shell-shocked young man with alarmingly little combat experience and little sense of leadership. He is promoted as the groups general by Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo), who has to move his troops out to aid the South's desperate defense of the Nakdong River. Jang-beom is left with a large group of unruly students, some of whom have no interest in taking orders from a soft-spoken peer. This is a group with as much variety of character as one would expect to find in a schoolyard, and Jang-beom has to solidify them into a fighting force if they are to succeed.
Threatening the school is the North Korean General Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won). This man is a military deviant of sorts as he regular defies protocol and orders from Pyongyang. He is seemingly self-motivated and almost stoic in his characterisation. General Park decides to not take his forces to the vital Nakdong River, but instead advances bullheadedly to Pohang.
Jang-beom and his platoon of youngsters slowly become aware of their deadly reality and the perils that surround them. Members are lost in skirmishes, fights break out amongst themselves and supplies are foolishly obliterated, but when the North Korean general approaches them and gives them an ultimatum, they find themselves in need of leader. Jang-beom finds his feet and is able to rally his student soldiers to a very satisfying ending.
One of the things that struck me in the film was the intermittent use of overly stylised visuals that seemed displaced from the rest of the film, most of which involved the Korean general. I believe this to be an interesting attempt to frame him as an all-powerful and daunting figure. He is almost godlike as he commands his troops into battle and takes bullets and knife slashes without flinching. It's an interesting point and one to take note of when watching the film.
The film carries a "sins of the father" theme woven around a sense of family and social responsibility. As the title of the film suggests, these young students were thrown into a dangerous situation that they were neither prepared for nor started. As Jang-beom writes to his mother describing the horrors he has faced and throughout the film his only true wish is to be reunited with her. The father figures in film are represented by the two generals, one supportive and full of faith, the other distance and demanding. I will avoid any further superficial Freudian analysis here but the film definitely contains commentary on the social responsibilities and pressures involved Korean War and their impact on the youth. 71-Into the Fire was a pleasant surprise and although the quality of the acting is not spread evenly amongst the actors, it still manages to tell the emotional and heroic story of these 71 student soldiers who stood and fought like men in the face of overwhelming odds.
-Christopher J. Wheeler
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