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June 2011

71: Into The Fire

cast: Cha Seung-won, Kwone Sang-woo, Kim Seung-woo, Choi Seung Hyun, and Christina Cha

director: John H. Lee

116 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Showbox / Cine Asia DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jim Steel

71: Into The Fire

All war films are by their very nature dishonest (and all adult viewers are well aware of this) but there are several different varieties of lies. 71: Into The Fire (aka: Pohwasogeuro) purports to be based on a true story - which it is - and it starts off in full war-is-hell bloodbath vérité mode before flipping and turning into an action movie shoot-'em-up that brings back fond memories of pre-Hollywood John Woo. You can even spot the exact moment it flips. But we'll come to that in due course.

When communist North Korea stormed across the 38th parallel in 1950, they came very close to pushing the South Korean forces back into the sea. All that was left of South Korea was a small pocket around Busan in the south-east that was desperately trying to hold on long enough for the Americans to come to the rescue. This eventually happened, of course, and the war seesawed for a few years after that, but all that took place after the events in this film. At the start it looked very grim indeed and the South Korean government was throwing every kitchen sink they could find into the front line. Students were armed and marched out to be little more than cannon fodder.

And that's where we discover Oh Jang-beon (Choi Seung Hyun). He's ferrying ammunition to troops who are being overwhelmed in a violent urban street-fight. When one of the professional soldiers is attacked, Oh jams his gun and is unable to prevent the man from being bayoneted. They retreat, and Oh accompanies the dying soldier a hospital in a converted school. By now he's so withdrawn that he's almost catatonic (this may have been a tactical decision on the part of director John H. Lee since Choi is, first and foremost, a pop star). A pretty nurse (Christina Cha) takes a shine to him but gets no reaction from him before she is evacuated. This, obviously, is as near as Lee can get to injecting a romantic interlude.

Eventually all the troops are moved to where the main attack is expected and the 71 students who are left at the school are all there is to defend it in case of attack. Oh and two others are the only ones who have had combat experience, so the departing commander places Oh in command. Well, you would, wouldn't you? Oh, to his credit, does try to point out that he's hardly leadership material but the commander can obviously see something in him that's oblivious to the rest of us. I may also have said 'students' earlier, but a couple of them are young thugs who were dropped off by the police since they might be more useful on the front line than in jail. Indiscipline? Conflict? You betcha! The usual stereotypes also crop up amongst the others: geeky radio operator, fat clown, underage innocent, etc. The shooting can't start soon enough.

Meanwhile, the North Korean force that we witnessed in the opening battle is driving towards the school in an attempt to outflank the main South Korean army. Their commander, Park (an effective Cha Seung-won), dresses in a white uniform and is chauffeured around in a sidecar. He is clearly a hardened and forceful man despite that, and his frequent arguments with the political officer prove that he is no mere party hack. His poor tactics, however, tend to show that the political officer was correct, which may not have been the filmmakers' intended effect. Oh, by contrast, rises to the occasion and moulds his motley crew into a force that is capable of withstanding a full-frontal assault from a professional army that outnumbers them ten-to-one.

The main battle at Nakdong River is portrayed as the turning point of the war, and the battle at Pohang School is shown as vital to the success at Nakdong River. Since the South wasn't overwhelmed, you can safely assume that the students held out long enough to make a difference but it would be unfair to reveal whether or not you are watching a Rorke's Drift or an Alamo. As hinted earlier, though, the film does move into high-carnage action film mode. The change-over comes when Oh Jang-beon gives the students a stirring prep speech - complete with stirring music - on the morning of the main assault. One suspects that, from then on, any attempt at veracity has been shelved. But it is damned exciting and that is what counts.

At least no-one has the effrontery to claim that they are fighting for freedom. Chinese Premier Zhou, when asked whether or not the French Revolution was a good thing, famously replied that it was too early to tell. Syngman Rhee's agrarian South Korea was a brutal dictatorship that had a lower standard of living than the industrial north up until the 1970s, folks, but in the long term the good guys appear to have won. They've also developed a major film industry and while 71: Into The Fire may not be the best that it has produced, it is certainly a good, solid piece of entertainment.

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