SEOUL, June 4 (Yonhap) -- This month marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War (1950-1953), giving gravitas to Lee Jae-han's timely new film, "71 Into the Fire," which pays homage to the 71 students who became bullet sponges in the early days of the conflict when trained soldiers ran low.
Audiences probably expect to learn from the non-fiction story what was going through the minds of the teenage boys as they were transformed into reckless shooters during a 12-hour standoff at a frontline base.
But the film does not take enough time to develop the characters, and viewers are told to satisfy themselves with shallow portrayals of their naivete, internal rivalry and helplessness.
The drama also tries to portray North Koreans in human terms, but the results are not so touching. The central character on the enemy side, played by Cha Seung-won, comes off as an unblended, detached mix of good and evil as he tries to balance his stone-faced belligerence with occasional moments of humor and humanity.
The story opens with an order for Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo) that he leave a frontline base to the youth squadron and hurry to the Nakdong River with his regular troops to fend off infiltrating North Koreans. The only boy in the squadron with battle experience, Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyun, also known as T.O.P of the idol group Big Bang) is named commander.
The only training they receive is a single shooting round. Jang-beom becomes a subject of scorn to some of the uncontrollable bad boys, like Gap-su (Kwon Sang-woo), who otherwise would be in prison on an attempted murder charge.
Horror descends unexpectedly one night as Park Mu-rang's North Korean army lands on their base instead of heading through the expected route over the Nakdong River on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. The boys, scantily armed, are left to fight the North Koreans and their rolling tanks until the regular troops return.
The director's own take of the Korean War occasionally shows in the lines of the characters, particularly in a letter from Jang-beom to his mother. Recalling a dying North Korean soldier he had shot for the first time, he says, "The North Korean puppet army that I knew was the monster with horns on its head. But the North Korean soldier that I saw today was a human being whose last word was 'O-ma-ni' (mother)."
The movie works in conflicting thoughts about the meaning of the war, which still hold today across the inter-Korean border. "Aren't you the bullet shields of the U.S. imperialists and their minion, Rhee Syngman?" the North Korean commander says to the boys. "Are you going to let the communists take our nation?" one boy says to others in the squadron.
As the North Korean army commander, Cha Seung-won plays perhaps the most interesting and complex character, but still falls flat. He is rigid, merciless and forcefully charismatic on the battlegrounds but goes soft in front of the piteous unarmed boys. But his inner conflicts do not come shining through.
In his screen debut, Choi Seung-hyun is one of the more poignant characters, delivering a range of emotions from fear and despair to triumph and joy without relying on many words.
The 11.3 billion won (US$9.4 billion) blockbuster, produced by Taewon Entertainment, will arrive at local theaters on June 16.