Lack of character development puts ‘Fire’ out

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Lack of character development puts ‘Fire’ out

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Choi Seung-hyeon, left, plays a student leader in the new film “71: Into the Fire”. Provided by Taewon Entertainment

“Mom, I killed a man.”

This is the opening line of a letter found on the body of a student soldier fighting in the Korean War (1950-53). It later becomes the main motif of the war film “71: Into the Fire,” which opened Wednesday.

The film is based on the true story of 71 South Korean student soldiers who defended Pohang, a port city in North Gyeongsang, during the Korean War in 1950. As the South Korean Army converged on the Nakdong River to guard against the advancing North Korean Army, the student soldiers who remain in Pohang become the only defense against them.

The film opens with a battlefield scene. Bullets fly and the crack of gun shots and blasts is relentless. From the collapsing buildings and bomb explosions to the fluttering particles of dust and realistic makeup, everything is recreated in realistic detail, showing where the 11.3 billion won ($10 million) might have gone.

The fact that the film was made last winter was quite surprising, because there are no traces of the season. This is all the more incredible considering the movie’s beautiful images of the surrounding environment, shown in long shots of lush verdant fields, forests and mountains.

As the film progresses, the pace is fast, even abrupt, and director Lee Jae-han focuses heavily on the images rather than on the story of the student soldiers, who were drafted into the war as teenagers.

After the first battle scene ends and the unit has to leave the base in Pohang in order to make a sally to the Nakdong River, South Korean commander Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo) asks, “Which unit will defend Pohang?” and a line of trucks carrying middle and high school students rolls toward the unit as if in answer.

However, there is no background on the students nor information on how they came to be drafted. The only thing we see are flashbacks from the memories of student leader Oh Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyeon, a?k?a T.O.P. from Big Bang?), during which we see him with his mother and revisit time he left home to go to war. That’s not really enough to help us understand Oh, let alone the other students.

This lack of character development doesn’t arouse our sympathy for the soldiers and creates confusion as to just what their motivations are. This is especially frustrating with North Korean officer Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won) - a villain that isn’t really all that villainous.

At one point, he takes one of the students captive and then goes to the student encampment to ask if they are ready to surrender. Had the writers shown us more of Park’s character leading up to that point, we might have understood why he would do such a thing, but the way the character is written now just raises more questions.

Audiences may have expected that Lee, who has primarily directed melodramas in the past, including “A Moment to Remember” (2004), would produce a film with a tight story line and beautiful imagery.

But Lee seems to have chosen the imagery over the story, perhaps because the film’s running time of 120 minutes is too short to allow for both elements. And that was frustrating.


By Suh Yun-young Contributing writer [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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