In 2004, Tae Guk Gi was released in Korea to financial and critical success. Since then, Korean war films followed a similar approach and even tried to copy its cinematography, but unfortunately only a few were able to replicate its success. Then came 71 Into the Fire, a 2010 Korean war film that cast Korean Pop megastar T.O.P. in his second feature film outing. Did the filmmakers make the right choice of picking a relatively inexperienced but massively popular entertainer to shoulder a movie this important and significant?
71 Into the Fire is loosely based on the Battle of P’ohang Dong and focuses on the internal struggles of 71 student soldiers who must defend a military outpost all by themselves against a larger, more experienced enemy. It’s an ambitious set-up and even the tagline “The Day that Courage Came Of Age” plays around themes of friendship, courage, loyalty, camaraderie and other cliches you can find in war movies.
If you have seen a lot of war movies, then you will find this one familiar. In fact, everything seems predictable. You can even guess who will live and who will die in the first few minutes of the film alone. Moreover, some of the scenes feel like they were copied from a World War II film. The movie even tries to go for ambiguity to the point of being rather preachy but thankfully these scenes are short. The characters start out as stereotypical but they end up well.. still stereotypical. The dialogue and patriotic speeches are very formulaic and even the tear jerking scenes feel so familiar. These glaring flaws may seem like a distraction but what this film does is execute all these cliches in near perfect quality.
The first thing that you will notice in the opening moments of the film is the exceptionally beautiful lensing and cinematography. It is downright stunning with deep and rich colors, impressive contrasts and consistent details. (For the record I watched this movie in Blu-Ray thus the noticeable bump in quality). It arguably looks better than Tae Guk Gi (you know, it’s now the standard for Korean war films). The large scale battles are impressive and very intense, and the special effects and money shots are very well done without being too intrusive.
The cast is hands down outstanding and quite possibly the best ensemble cast for an Asian war movie. Despite T.O.P.’s inexperience he manages to carry his role very well in a surprising consistency not found in other pop stars turned actors. However, he is overshadowed by the other cast members who bring life to their characters most notably Sang-woo and Seung-won. Dong-Jun Lee’s score meanwhile is typical Korean melodramatic flair that fits well with the tone of the movie, and executed perfectly especially during the montage scenes.
Is this film better than Tae Guk Gi? The answer is no. But it comes pretty close. If you enjoyed Tae Guk Gi, then you will enjoy this one, warts and all. This is a beautiful film with an equally strong message so it comes as a no surprise that I highly recommend this film.