Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Review: NORTHERN LIMIT LINE Mistakes Nationalism For Narrative

By Pierce Conran

2014 gave us the nationalist call-to-arms Roaring Currents and, following its record-breaking run, the following summer unsurprisingly treated us to its own entree of patriotic balderdash, the melee of melodrama and jingoism that is Northern Limit Line. Going right for the tear ducts, this limp cash cow often feels more like a TV drama than the naval thriller it pretends to be.

Switching out the Battle of Myeongryang with that of Yeonpyeong, Kim Hak-soon's film fictionalizes (emphasis on the fiction) the naval skirmish that saw unprovoked North Korean ships attack a South Korean patrol boat during the 2002 World Cup, on the day that South Korea vied for the Bronze trophy against Turkey on home ground. In the lead-up to the attack, a rookie corporal joins the crew of Battleship 357 while the amiable Sergeant Han tries to soften the stern careerist Lieutenant Commander Yoon.

Shamelessly trying to provoke the sympathies of viewers who remember the famous incident, Northern Limit Line is single-minded and clear in its design but it might have been forgiven its inevitably cloying nature were it not so badly made. Haphazard doesn't even begin to describe this TV drama posing as a big-budget summer tentpole. Poor green screen work, unrefined sets, overexposed and blocky lensing and borderline incoherent editing, inexplicably from the award-winning Steven M. Choe (Snowpiercer), are just some of the problems inflicted by this arduous ordeal on its unsuspecting audience.

But Northern Limit Line's greatest offence is its utter lack of narrative drive and purpose. Most of the 130-minute film builds up to the brief battle on the open sea, introducing us to wafer-thin characters and the not-so dynamic relationships within the vessel. Much like the tsunami blockbuster Haeundae, Kim's film wants to lure us into caring for its characters before killing them off. Alas, without any significant side stories to allow us to follow these men and their personal troubles, the 100-or-so minutes of foreplay comes off as terribly dull.

What's more, the lengthy preamble doesn't lead to anything particularly exciting. The battle sequence is over quickly (though it still feels embellished) and is nothing short of a letdown. Aside from not being able to connect with the fates of the protagonists, the scene is also undermined by poor technical execution.

The effeminate, mild-mannered and perpetually grinning Lee Hyun-woo (Secretly Greatly) is the main face in the film's central trio, playing the audience surrogate who boards the boat at the outset of the story to grant us an exposition-filled tour of the vessel. Likely cast for his large fan base, he's hardly the right fit for the role but the blame can't really be laid at his feet. His character's narrative is thin to say the least, while his personality never gets any deeper than his easy-on-the-eyes appearance.

In his first post-military service role, Gim Mu-yeol (Eungyo) is all stern glares in a relentlessly gormless performance as the ship's Lieutenant Commander while reliable supporting star Jin Goo (Mother) fares best among the trio though fails to distinguish himself in a rare leading role.

Director Kim Hak-soon earned the Asian New Talent award from the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2003 for his widely screened indie debut Written, but whatever sensitivity he brought to that project seems to have disappeared in the 12 years he's been absent from the director's chair. Given the highly calculated nature of the project, one might be tempted to think Kim was installed by studio executives but his credits as producer and sole writer of this endeavor seem to indicate otherwise.

Given its stellar performance at the Korean box office, it appears that Northern Limit Line's patriotic appeal has made it critic-proof, but anyone not swayed by Korean nationalism may want to draw their attention somewhere else.

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