71: Into the Fire was packed yesterday night. They actually had to play it in TWO of their larger theaters because of all the people that showed up to watch it. At first I wondered why the movie was so popular, but then after being asked if I was watching the movie because of the actors, I realized it must have been because of the stars. I guess they are really famous to South Koreans. A star from the movie and the director were there to say a few words and accept HIFF’s Closing Night Film award, probably twice: They had to do the same thing in the other theater!
EDIT: HIFF recorded the whole thing in significantly higher quality here.
Supposedly based on an actual event, 71: Into the Fire is about 71 South Korean student soldiers who are tasked with defending the strategic point of Pohang Girl’s Middle School during the Korean war. The North Koreans are advancing rapidly, and the main army is forced to ditch a last line of defense away from the school to stall the North Koreans until reinforcements can arrive. While they fight in a battle two hours away from the school, the 71 student soldiers, most with no formal training, must defend the school from an elite North Korean division hell bent on taking it.
The combat in the film is fantastic and really keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is intense, and the camera keeps you close to the action, if not in it. The film’s sound is top notch and you can hear the screams as well as the gunfire and explosions responsible for producing them. The film does a great job of bringing the chaos of war home without feeling over the top. It is not overly gory, which may make the film more amenable to people with sensitive stomachs, and it manages to be impactful on a higher level than just blood and splatter.
To say that 71: Into the Fire is just a war film does not do it justice. Yes, it is a film about war, but unlike many war movies, it manages to keep you invested even during the peaceful lulls. The combat in this film is absolutely engrossing and immersive, but it is the fantastic imagery of the film and the issues it tackles head on that really captures that feeling of war and creates an emotional experience. The film rightly focuses not on the killing, which has the risk of desensitizing one to the violence, but on death. I felt sickened during one scene in a makeshift casualty treatment center that showed nurses walking down corridors wearing bloodstained aprons, looking more like butchers than lifesavers. Another scene involving the students burying the dead soldiers there before them shows a side of war that not many war films expose to audiences. A North Korean soldier’s dying calls for his mother really tugs at your heartstrings and makes you feel the enemy was not as evil as one would initially believe. Indeed, the South Korean propaganda portrayed the North Koreans as demonic beasts, but the main character, and more importantly, the audience, learns that they are just as human as any one of us. The propaganda bites both ways, as seen in another incident involving a child soldier who spouts North Korean propaganda while menacingly wielding a machine gun at the student soldiers. That scene truly showed how horrible the brainwashing of propaganda can be and the decisions one must face in a war where your life can be taken away without even a moment’s notice. These are just a few of the many instances in the film that stand out as prime examples of the film’s powerful scenes. The film does a fantastic job of constantly evoking emotions that are felt only rarely in war movies.
There are a few funny moments in the movie, though, so you don’t have to stock up on Prozac before watching it. One standout moment, which maintains that high quality imagery and scene setup found in the film’s more somber moments, occurs when one of the more bumbling of the students finds a grenade in the potato hut. He plays around with it and ignorantly pulls out the safety pin, much to the panic of his friends. After realizing it is cooking off, he and his friends panickingly throw it back and forth in an attempt to get rid of it, playing a high-stakes game of “hot potato”. It somehow managed to be an absolutely hilarious scene while still keeping you nervous and edgy about the outcome.
One aspect of the film I feel deserves mention was the change that is visible in the students during the course of their battles with the North Koreans. When they first arrive, it is clear that they are inexperienced students with no formal training in combat. In comparison to the North Koreans, who are shown to be highly disciplined, organized, and battle hardened, the student soldiers are a joke: they don’t take the war seriously, and shroud themselves in the belief that nothing bad will happen. The only opportunity they are given to train is when they are allowed to fire a single bullet at a hanging pot. The captain, one of the only three with prior battle experience, claims that he only had eight shots to practice before he fought the North Koreans; they would only have one. All 71 students fire at and miss the target, and some of the students even drop their guns, startled at the loud noise. They are definitely in need of practice, but they won’t get that opportunity.
The student soldiers must be forged in the fire of battle and learn quickly or die. Their first contact with the North Koreans is successful only out of sheer luck. In the dark of night, they see a group of figures walking down the path. Unsure whether they are enemy or ally, the student soldiers brace behind a short wall as the figures walk by. In a scene reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, part of the short wall they are hiding behind topples and reveals them to the North Koreans. The students panic and light them all up, firing round after round at them over the wall. Many do not even use their sights, hiding behind the wall and firing blindly. Their fear shakes them to their core and their inexperience prevents them from feeling otherwise.
By the time the main North Korean division attacks the school, the students have been in combat only twice, but it is apparent that they learned a lot from those battles. The difference between their initial contact and their final stand is absolutely startling. They manage to use mortars, Molotov cocktails, and improvised explosives to devastate the initial Korean advance. In one scene that I watched at the edge of my seat, the first platoon fires its guns from the front of the school. I felt a deep dread as the infamous “ping” of the M1s sounded repeatedly down the line, signaling that their clip was empty. They had run out of shots, and their volley of fire was screeching to a grinding and deadly halt. I thought to myself “Oh, no” because I knew the North Koreans were going to have their turn. To my deep satisfaction and relief, the second platoon positioned in the school began to fire, giving enough time for the first platoon to reload. When the second platoon ran out of ammo, the first platoon began firing again. This discipline in holding fire stands in stark contrast to the unrestrained “fire at will” attitude of their initial battle. They have learned to work as a cohesive unit in just a few short days.
The only weak point with the movie was the individual character development, which is forgivable considering the rest of the film’s excellence. The film doesn’t tell much about the motivations and personal history of the students before the film. I understand wanting to save their country as a basic motivator, but beyond that I did not learn what drives the individual students to stay and fight. This is, however, such a minor point compared to the rest of the film’s awesomeness that I find it hard to fault the film because of it.
71: Into the Fire has made not only my list of favorite war movies, but my list of favorite movies in general. Fantastic combat combined with emotional punch and sharp imagery makes it a definite watch for those who like war movies, and for those who like great films.