Korean cinema has come a long way. Of the three principal exports of the decade-old “Korean wave” (hallyu) of pop culture–the other two being music and television–South Korea’s movie industry is the one that strives most for critical as well as mass appeal, tackling once-taboo subjects such as prostitution and developmental disabilities. This contrasts with the more popular and lucrative soap opera industry, which peddles images of the country as a fantasyland of profligate wealth and plastic surgery to audiences in Cambodia and Indonesia. (Perhaps the closest a Korean TV drama has come to social commentary is Hanoi Bride, which supposedly confronts the rise of the Vietnamese mail-order bride business. In it, a rich and handsome Korean doctor falls in love with a Vietnamese woman and whisks her away to a life of leisure.)
But it wasn’t always like that. Through the 1990s, Korean movies were little more than formulaic retreads of two basic genres: sappy romantic comedies and gangster movies. The two would occasionally merge and create a third genre, romantic gangster comedies. Then came 2002’s Oasis and 2003’s Oldboy, two psychological melodramas that won critical acclaim at the Venice and Cannes film festivals, respectively, and the Korean New Wave took off. Today, new Korean films cater to the international art house crowd. They are somber, restrained, and a lot less fun to watch: Set far away from the glitz of Seoul, they often portray broken families mired in poverty. A disproportionate number end with something bad happening to children involving rat poison.
Which is why 71: Into the Fire, showing through Friday at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria, doesn’t feel like a new Korean film. A big budget action flick “based on a true story” from the Korean War, it shares elements with previous war dramas like 2003’s Silmido and 2004’s Taegukgi. But 71 deals with none of the moral complexities of the earlier movies, which acknowledged atrocities by both sides during the conflict. At its heart, 71 is a buddy film, and thus feels most like the excellent brothers-in-crime drama Chingu (Friend), going so far as to lift dialogue from the better film.
71 opens shortly after the June 1950 invasion of the South by the North, which quickly overran the entire peninsula except for a tiny corner on the southeast coast. The story focuses on a group of 71 high school students who volunteer for the South Korean army, and are tasked to stay behind and defend a makeshift base at a middle school in Pohang. With little training, the adolescent soldiers are both outnumbered and outmatched by a North Korean army unit that has inexplicably decided that the entire war rests on capturing the middle school, rather than pursue their foes to the East Sea.
The students are led by a shell-shocked Oh Jung-Bum, the only student soldier to see prior combat, played timidly by Choi Seung-Hyeon—-aka T.O.P. of the Kpop boy band Big Bang. Other hallyu heartthrobs round out the cast, clearly chosen more for eye candy appeal than acting ability: Kwon Sang-Woo is the bad boy, a murderous hood who was let out of juvie on his promise to “kill some commies.” Cha Seung-Won plays the North Korean commander, robotically channeling pure evil in what appears to be a DPRK army tennis outfit.
What follows is an entirely predictable and over-the-top exercise in South Korean jingoism: unhelpful American generals, “we are all brothers” moments succeeded by dastardly betrayals by the North, and brave kids making the ultimate sacrifice for the Republic. Piles of bodies are literally stacked up from fighting sequences that are as exciting as they are ridiculous.
The film is showing at the AMC Hoffman Center with English subtitles. JS Media, a Korean promotional company, is screening the movie at 14 cities in the U.S. on the anniversary of the Korean War. The limited release is a test run for potential future showings at theaters in other cities. The true test, however, is whether Korean movies can match Korean dramas and Kpop in generating hype in non-Korean markets. Given Friday’s opening day audience at AMC Hoffman, made up of three teenage girls and one elderly Korean couple, it may be a while before Americans who don’t go to Cannes warm up to Korean cinema.