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DC K-Cinema: 71 Into the Fire
It was relatively early in the Korean War, but
it was very nearly the Republic of Korea’s last stand. A ragtag contingent of seventy-one
student-soldiers were assigned to hold off the dreaded 766th Regiment
at the P’ohang-dong Girl’s Middle School while the beleaguered allies dug in at
the Naktong River. They faced Alamo-like prospects, but they were not about to
give up without a fight. Brace yourself for the carnage and heroism of John H.
Lee’s 71: Into the Fire (trailer here), which screens next
week as part of the Washington, DC Korean Cultural Center’s monthly K-Cinema
Oh Jang-beom saw plenty of action before the
South Korea Army was forced to retreat, but he never fired off a shot. Still,
Captain Kang Suk-dae appreciates the implications of his experience, so he
places Oh in charge of the newly formed student-soldier unit. They are to hold
the P’ohang Middle School against the expected Communist onslaught, to prevent
the Naktong forces from getting outflanked. To complicate the situation, surly delinquent
Gu Kap-jo challenges his authority at every turn. The green recruits under his
uncertain command simply have no idea what war entails.
Making matters even worse, the ruthless Major
Park Moo-rang is leading the drive towards the middle school. Even though he is
a true believer, he also happens to be the North’s most capable battlefield commander.
Yet, he still finds his orders second-guessed by the regiment’s political
71 opens and closes with massive spectacles of warfighting
conflagrations, fitting in several tense skirmishes in between. This is the
sort of film that can give you a concussion. Lee is clearly not fooling around
with a lot of phony melodrama. While Park Jin-hee (the court nurse in Shadows in the Palace) briefly appears
as a compassionate military RN, most of the film revolves around shooting at
the enemy. War is definitely Hell in 71,
but the film’s sympathies are clearly with the ROK. Despite Park’s professed
desire for unification, his ideals are constantly undermined by cruel and
craven political officer.
While many of the seventy-one student-soldiers
blend together, K-pop rapper T.O.P. (a.k.a. Choi Seung-hyun) manages to project
a slow-burning intensity above all the explosive bedlam surrounding him. It is
a dynamite screen debut that deservedly racked up a number of Korean popular
choice film awards. Frankly, he barely looks like he is out of middle school
himself, which lends the film further authenticity and poignancy. 71 was definitely his coming out party,
albeit one produced with the cooperation of the Korean Defense Ministry and
released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the start of the
Korean War. Nevertheless, Cha Seung-won’s Park vividly personifies
condescending arrogance, while as Kang, Kim Seung-woo anchors the film with
Without a doubt, 71 is one of the best produced war films of recent vintage, ranking
just below My Way and considerably above
Fury and The Front Line. It is viscerally immersive, but T.O.P., Kim, and even
Park Jin-hee maintain a strong human connection. Recommended for mainstream war
movie audiences, 71: Into the Fire screens
this coming Thursday (8/27) at the Korean Cultural Center in DC.
Labels: Korean Cinema, Korean War film