Monday, July 13, 2015

Northern Limit Line: DPRK Belligerence in the Yellow Sea

Brinksmanship is always hardest on the soldiers and sailors who serve on the brink. Such has definitely been the case along the naval boundary that serves as an extension of the 38th Parallel, dividing South and North Korea. The ROK battleships guarding against incursions are forbidden from engaging DPRK forces first, regardless of their provocations. This ironclad rule of engagement is just fine with the North. In fact, they were counting on it during their sneak attack timed to coincide with the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. The resulting Second Battle of Yeonpyeong is dramatized with scrupulous respect for the historical record in Kim Hak-soon’s Northern Limit Line (trailer here), which opens this Friday in the Tri-State Area.

Yoon Yeong-ha had only been captain of PKM 357 a short time before the fateful Northern Korea attack. As the ambitious son of Yoon Doo-ho, a former officer still respected by his colleagues despite his fall from grace, Capt. Yoon is determined his high-profile tour of duty patrolling the Northern Limit Line (NLL) will advance his career. For the crew of PKM 357, this means a whole lot of drills. Nevertheless, Capt. Yoon starts to warm to his men, especially his helmsman, CPO Hang Sang-guk. Of course, the South Korean team’s unprecedented World Cup drive also helps unify the skipper and his crew. Unfortunately, it also provided an opportune time for the DPRK to strike.

As is always the case, there were signs of the high seas ambush coming, but Kim makes it clear they were not adequately analyzed or acted upon. Needless to say, the men of PKM 357 did not give up without a fight. In fact, their heroic last stand is the bruising spectacle centerpiece of the film, running over half an hour’s worth of carnage. Arguably, NLL constitutes some of the best cinematic warfighting since Fury—and Kim does it on boats.

However, his screenplay devotes even more time to humanizing the men of PKM 357. Throughout the first half of the film, we learn in no uncertain terms, medic Park Dong-hyeok is devoted to his deaf mother, petty officer Jo Chun-hyoung has a baby girl who just celebrated her first birthday, CPO Hang has nerve damage in his hand and a soon to be pregnant wife, while Capt. Yoon and his colleague Capt. Choi are ambiguously attracted to each other. Kim’s sympathies are admirable, but a lot of the preamble to battle-stations could have been tightened up considerably.

Still, the cast is first-rate, including the appropriately youthful Lee Hyun-woo, who barely looks old enough to graduate from high school as Park the medic. Jin Goo and Kim Ji-hoon are also terrific as the intense CPO Hang and easy-going Jo, respectively. Not to be spoilery, but many of the primary ensemble have death scenes and they each carry it off convincingly, but also with dignity. Yet, it is Kim Hee-jung who really lowers the boom as Park’s mother.

Most of the naval action we get in movies happens below the water in submarines, so NLL’s clash of battleships is in itself distinctive. However, the real mind-blowing fact is that the dynastic Kim regime could launch such a blatant act of aggression and face no real consequences from the global community. That just guarantees they will do it again. NLL provides a timely reality check, as well as delivering some very human drama and smashing sea battle set pieces. Recommended as a very strong naval war film and a moving tribute to South Korea’s fallen heroes, Northern Limit Line opens this Friday (7/17) in Queens at the AMC Park Terrace, in New Jersey at the Edgewater Multiplex, and in Los Angeles at the CGV Cinema.