A desolate expanse of land is causing a lot of trouble. The area along the border of South and North Korea is where the battle is happening and it cannot be described as picturesque. Lives are being sacrificed on both sides due to its strategic value. Neither side seems to gain a clear advantage and many lives are ended.
The suspicious death of a commander on the eastern front leads to Kang Eunpyo (Shin Ha-kyun – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst), an intelligence officer, being sent to investigate. He is surprised by what he finds there. The division defending that front can only be graciously described as a motley crew. Their new leader is Shin Ilyeong (Lee Je-hun) and Kang soon learns he is a morphine addict.
While with this division Kang discovers that his childhood friend Kim Suhyeok (Ko Soo) is alive and an officer. Kim is a loose cannon who does not listen to his superiors does things his own way damn the risks. This is dangerous because it is one of the few remaining active fronts while a cease-fire is being negotiated. With this on the horizon the leaders of the two sides still needlessly send their men out to fight bringing about more and very needless deaths. Kang begins to understand how the division has come to this as it has changed hands eighteen times in a year and a half.
It is 1953 and flashbacks are used to depict a battle in 1950 at Pohang in which this division participated. Much of this portion is quite gruesome and not for the faint of heart. Much of the battle is quite something to see. The effects are stunning (I don’t know if that is the right way to say it, but there it is) with the fight during a thunderstorm being spectacular.
Through this realistic recreation of the violence it becomes quite a strong anti-war statement showing what a waste of life it is. People are killed without a second thought. Death is almost not even acknowledged and this becomes quite disturbing to watch. Life in the trenches becomes very compartmentalized out of necessity. The bright light amidst all this horror and tragedy is the closeness the men fighting side by side achieve. They help each other get through as best as they can.
Hun Jang’s (Secret Reunion, Rough Cut) film does not fall into the usual trappings of depicting war as a fun adventure and the men in it as real men. Leaders are clearly shown as robots that just send their men into war without really thinking about how many would not be coming back. The way the film is set up you really end up hating the commanders/leaders rather than idolize them.
Another appealing element of the film is that it does not take sides. Neither the South or North is seen as the good guys and the Korean War is clearly set up as a civil war.
Very few missteps happen during the over 2 hour film. There are a couple of overly dramatic moments, but they are rare enough that they do not disrupt the excellence of the rest. Leaving the film you will feel as if you have been through a war and it was obviously the intent of the director for his film to have an almost physical effect on the watcher.