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Ko-pick: Korean War Films

Jun 21, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South initiating the Korean War that would continue until July 1953 with the Korean Armistice Agreement. This month marks 74 years since the beginning of the Korean War, sometimes dubbed the forgotten war because it was overshadowed by the Second World War a few years earlier. But on the Korean peninsula, its impact is still felt to this day with the two countries still technically at war.


On screen, the Korean War has been depicted in different ways over the years. During the 1960s and 1970s under President Park Chung-hee, there was a focus to depict North Korea as the enemy seen in films such as Im Kwon-taek’s Testimony (1974). Lee Man-hee ran into censorship woes with his film The Seven Female POW’s (1965) for its portrayal of North Korean sympathizers.


Since the 1990s that ushered in a new era for Korean cinema with changes in the ways films were produced and financed – together with democratization that transformed Korea’s political system in the 1980s, Korean films dealing with inter-Korean relations evolved with features including Swiri (1999) and JSA (2000) that depicted North Korean characters in a more sympathetic light.


Korean War films after 2000 to varying degrees have sought to villainize war and division itself seen through features like TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War (2004) and Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005). As the industry has grown and able to compete with Hollywood tentpoles, they have also attempted to replicate the blockbuster formula with the staging of spectacular action set-pieces – and to much success with the Korean War films of the 2000s. The 2010s saw further films set during the Korean War with features including The Front Line (2011) and Operation Chromite (2016) but failed to connect in the same way – perhaps owing to audience fatigue with such films.


This week, we profile Korean War films starting with TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War and concluding with the most recent Battle of Jangsari (2019).  

TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War 

Kang Jae-gyu whose Swiri was one of the most seminal films of the 1990s adopted a similar blockbuster template in his subsequent film TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War (2004). It was a massive hit selling over 11 million tickets, becoming the second Korean film to surpass 10 million viewers after Silmido (2003) was the first released just two months earlier. Interestingly, it also dealt with inter-Korean relations. 


TaeGukGi features two brothers played by Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin. The older sibling, Jin-tae seeks to win medals so his younger brother, Jin-seok, who suffers from a heart condition can be sent home. But later consumed by rage and betrayal Jin-tae defects to the North and the brothers end up fighting on different sides.


Shot by one of Korea’s leading cinematographers, Hong Kyung-pyo (Parasite (2019), The Wailing (2016)) many compared it to Saving Private Ryan (1998) for how it depicts the brutality of war and its battle scenes that emulate the famous Omaha Beach scene. But it also features effective melodramatic moments optimized in the scenes involving Jin-seok fifty years later when he finds out that the remains of veterans have been discovered.


It was re-released in Korea on Memorial Day, June 6th having been remastered in 4k, with the director and Jang Dong-gun attending a press conference to mark 20 years since the release of the film.



Welcome to Dongmakgol 

Also popular with audiences is Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) and considered by some as one of the best Korean War films of the contemporary era. Directed by Park Kwang-hyun, co-written and produced by one of Korea’s most talented screenwriters Jang Jin (he wrote the play it’s based on), it’s set in a secluded village called Dongmakgol that is discovered by North and South Korean soldiers along with a US pilot. Villagers who have no contact with the outside world are completely unaware that a war has engulfed the peninsula.


Starring Shin Ha-kyun, Jung Jae-young and Kang Hye-jung, it approaches the conflict in a different fashion compared to many other war films. It’s far more whimsical but no less affecting with troops from North and South Korea together with the US pilot collaborating to prevent the village from being bombed leaving the peaceful community intact.


Some of the scenes would become iconic, a standoff between the two sides that culminates with a grenade going off blowing up the storehouse full of corn which results in a popcorn shower.  A scene involving a wild boar where the North and South Koreans work as a team to bring down the boar, also captures the film’s fanciful tone. The film accrued 8 million admissions after its release in the summer of 2005.



71-Into the Fire

Although not a hit to the extent of Taegugki or Welcome to Dongmakgol John H. Lee’s 71-Into the Fire pulled in more than 3 million viewers in the summer of 2010. Starring Kwon Sang-woo, Cha Seung-won, Choi Seung-hyun and Kim Seung-woo it’s based on the true story of 71 student volunteers who despite being outnumbered and outgunned defended the Pohang Girls’ Middle School that was located close to the strategic Nakdong River.


Many Korean War films of the 2010s focused on moments or battles of the conflict, which is true here. This is also the case for John Lee’s other Korean War film Operation Chromite that depicts the Incheon Landing Operation, The Front Line (2011) is set during the ceasefire at the end of the war, while Battle of Jangsari (1950) refers to the battle it is based on.


The film shows the clear comradery amongst the group of students making it also a film about friends and the relationships among them that has been a common trait in many contemporary Korean films and genres; from gangster films to action features. 



In Love and the War

Park Gun-yong’s In Love and the War (2011) can be differentiated from many other Korean War films for how it follows North Korean protagonists led by Captain Jeong-woong (Kim Joo-hyuk) who enter a small South Korean village. They claim to liberate the villagers but actually are seeking to locate reactionaries. They start to develop friendships with the villagers with a romance developing between the Captain, and a young woman (Jung Ryeo-won).


There are inevitable comparisons to Welcome to Dongmakgol given the setting and its theatrical execution through slapstick comedy and melodrama, but this is unique for how South Korean soldiers are mostly absent throughout much of the film, instead the focus is on a North Korean captain who wrestles with his conscience and his loyalty to his country.


It’s also a melodrama as opposed to an action film – though it does feature some set-pieces – which was probably a factor in its lack of success at the box office mustering 242,000 admissions. 



The Front Line 

Jang Hoon’s The Front Line (2011) remains an accomplished feature that does share similarities to Taegugki and Welcome to Dongmakgol in the sense that it is anti-war though is less melodramatic. The film, which stars Shin Ha-kyun, Go Soo, Lee Je-hoon takes place during the 1953 ceasefire of the Korean War but fighting continues as the two countries seek to capture strategic points to create a new border along the peninsula. We see hills on the 38th parallel change hands as negotiations continue.


The film is interesting for how several scenes look at the connection between both sides. Gifts, for example, are left behind on the hill for their adversaries, while there are references to how the enemy is war itself.


While it’s more of a drama compared to many Korean War films making it reliant on dialogue and performances but it does feature excellent production values – much like Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (2010) and A Taxi Driver (2017) - through its cinematography and production design. The film attracted close to 3 million viewers upon release in 2011.



Operation Chromite 

Coming in 2016 was John H. Lee’s ambitious Operation Chromite that follows a secret operation under the directives from US General MacArthur (Liam Neeson) to infiltrate the North Korean army command center in Incheon to pave the way for the famous Incheon landing in 1950 that became a decisive moment in the Korean War.


The mission is led by Captain Jang Hak-soo played by Lee Jung-jae (Squid Game), while the antagonist comes in the form of the North Korean commander Lim Gye-jin acted by Lee Beom-soo. Headlines were generated when the film went into production owing to the casting of Hollywood star Liam Neeson. While it wasn’t new for a Hollywood actor to appear in a Korean film, it was further evidence of the internationalization of Korean cinema with more high profile non-Korean performers taking significant roles in features.


The film went on to accrue 7 million admissions after its release on July 27, 2016 that coincided with the day the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. It was also the peak of the summer box office season, which is traditionally the last week of July and first week of August.



Battle of Jangsari 

A sequel to Operation ChromiteBattle of Jangsari (2019) is the second and latest installment of a planned trilogy of films. As the title suggests, it depicts a battle that took place in 1950 telling the true story of a battalion of student volunteers led by South Korean Captain Lee Myung-joon (Kim Myung-min) to stage a diversionary mission at Jangasri to enable the success of the Incheon Landing.


Similar to Operation Chromite, the film featured a major Hollywood performer with Megan Fox starring as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, who is based on Marguerite Higgins who became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Correspondence.    


The film wasn’t as successful as Operation Chromite, however, pulling in 1.14 million admissions, which was seen as a disappointment. Its lack of success also underscored with the exception of Operation Chromite how Korean War films were not the box office draw they used to be. The Long Way Home (2015), A Melody to Remember (2016) and Swing Kids (2018) also all underperformed.



Edited by Shim Eunha

Written by Jason Bechervaise

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