Daniel K Gray reviews Korea's answer to Saving Private Ryan.
Released By: Cine-Asia
Price: £17.99 (2 disk edition)
Availability: Out now
Oh Jang-beom (played by Korean hip-hop artist Choi Seung-hyeon) is a minor soldier caught up in the slaughter of a neighbourhood town, surviving more by sheer random luck than any particular skill and without managing to fire a single bullet as he dashes amongst the rubble trying to supply ammunition to his comrades. Almost everyone else is killed and he is one of a handful evacuated as they beat a hasty retreat from the encroaching forces of the North led by Commander Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won). The small band of survivors recover at an old school, but their relief is short-lived as many of the South’s forces must abandon the school to fight a major battle elsewhere. Captain Kang (Kim Seung-woo) must reluctantly leave a small group behind to delay the enemy, their chances of survival minimal but their stand necessary. Kang appoints Oh Jang-beom in charge of the 71-strong unit because he is the only one with proper battle experience and he recognises an innate honour ability in the young man. As chaos closes in, can the shambolic group, unused to the degree of violence and death possibly awaiting them pull together to give their other comrades the breathing-space they need and will reinforcements return in time?
It’s impossible to review a movie like 71: Into the Fire without using Saving Private Ryan as your most immediate touchstone. Steven Spielberg’s own magnum opus wasn’t just a solid war film, it brought the audience into the middle of an unforgiving arena of battle like never before. While older films had glorified the field of combat in almost romantic ways, Ryan was hard, brutal, unfair and unforgiving and it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed not just the genre but cinema on a fundamental basis.
Directed by John H. Lee, 71: Into the Fire follows in that tradition and for the first ten minutes of the film your senses are assaulted as bullets fly, explosions tear apart buildings and flesh and the sense of unrelenting carnage fills the screen. Superb cinematography doesn’t hide the devastation and you almost flinch at the well-observed recreation of all-too-real events. You don’t ‘enjoy’ it, but you experience it in a way that few films bother to try, even in Ryan’s wake.
While much of the film is brutally realistic – I never need to see maggots emerging from a dead body ever again – there are elements of humour as our ‘hero’ tries to knock his fellow soldiers into shape, all the while wondering if he’s the right man for the job. There’s a slapstick accident with a grenade and a typically buffoonish overweight solider, but these are moments there to illustrate the everyday humanity of our small group rather than lighten proceedings too much. The power-plays amongst the recruits, who initially have little respect for their new leader, are played out in satisfying fashion and while one may wonder just how accurate some of the internal specifics within the historical event are, this is still a powerful piece of cinema that deserves a wider audience. It’s domestic success in South Korea was somewhat muted but international critics have been more welcoming with the film earning over $20 million globally.
Definitely a must-see for discerning fans of war movies, this is a mix of intense visuals and camaraderie that may have a formula, but mixes the ingredients with undeniable panache and heart.
Daniel K Gray