It’s June 29, 2002, and South Korea is abuzz with nervous anticipation. The nation is co-hosting the World Cup with Japan and has just enjoyed its best tournament performance ever, advancing to the semi-finals before losing to Germany 1-0. Now, it must fight with Turkey for third place — but before that happens, a different conflict breaks out. At around 10am, two North Korean patrol boats cross the Northern Limit Line (the maritime border between North and South Korea) and fire at a pair of South Korean patrol boats near Yeonpyeong Island. After 30 minutes of intense fighting, reinforcements arrive and chase the Northerners away, but not before dozens of South Korean sailors are killed or injured and one of their boats sunk. Because of all the World Cup frenzy, the incident (now known as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong) quickly becomes lost in the media cycle.
Twelve years on, Kim Hak-soon’s film Northern Limit Line attempts to resurrect the memory of this battle, in which six South Koreans eventually lost their lives. Released several weeks ago (24 June 2015) in South Korea, it has already become the country’s most-watched movie of 2015. Now, the film is out in select American theaters.
As a war movie, Northern Limit Line is pretty conventional. It progresses rather slowly, spending over half its length to introduce and develop the sailors on PKM-357, the patrol boat sunk in the 2002 incident. Though the characters’ backstories are compelling, Kim applies a certain degree of artistic license to allow viewers to feel a deeper connection with them. This is a cruel choice. When the inevitable battle erupts, Kim spares nothing when it comes to violence and gore. The movie’s second half is reminiscent of the gratuitously graphic opening scene of Saving Private Ryan — except the sailors are stuck on their boat for a period far longer than that scene lasts. Like all war films “based on a true story”, Northern Limit Line is not about being unpredictable or unique, but rather about how well it presents its characters and action sequences. By this standard, it is a film filled with strength, one that someone with no interest in Korean politics–or who isn’t a huge war movie buff–can enjoy.
For those who are interested in Korean politics, Northern Limit Line provides a whole other layer of juiciness. The film can feel rather jingoistic; among other things, it opens with (and gratuitously deploys thereafter) South Korea’s version of the “U-S-A!” chant — “Dae-han-min-guk! Dae-han-min-guk!” (“Republic of Korea! Republic of Korea!”). Among those who have given it rave reviews are conservative South Korean politicians, like former president Lee Myung-bak. It’s easy to see why — in real life there was some controversy over whether the rules of engagement were too strict and thus prevented the South Korean patrol boats from firing sooner, and the film incorporates dialog suggesting that less cumbersome regulations might’ve saved lives. This question of how freely South Korean forces should respond to North Korean provocation is a constant theme in the nation’s politics, and both this 2002 incident and the later 2010 ROKS Cheonan sinking have increased the bargaining power of those who want looser rules of engagement.
In 2002 South Korea was also under the “Sunshine Policy”, a doctrine of detente with North Korea pioneered by then-president Kim Dae-jung, one of the country’s most prominent liberal figures (he won the Nobel Peace Prize for the policy). To this day, conservatives deride the Sunshine Policy as an utter failure — and the events on June 29, 2002 are perfect evidence for that view. With that said, Northern Limit Line actually includes a subtle jab at Kim and the Sunshine Policy. In one scene, a TV report plays in the background talking about how Kim will be traveling to Japan (subtext being “as opposed to staying at home to confront the tragedy”) and that trips to the Kumgangsan Resort (a centerpiece of the Sunshine Policy) remain unaffected by the clash.
While Northern Limit Line provides strong entertainment value as a war movie, it’s still nothing smashingly special when judged by that standard. Instead, what does make it more “special” is its role as a political narrative. Films recollecting controversial events in South Korea’s political history (like The President’s Last Bang or May 18) aren’t rare, but Northern Limit Line addresses the most recent incident that any of them have attempted to cover. The movie may be about something from the past, but it may also be just as much about the state of Korea today — whereas pieces like The President’s Last Bang came out amidst a liberal resurgence in South Korean politics, Northern Limit Line enters the fray after seven years of conservative rule. Maybe who’s in power has something to do with what’s in South Korean movies, maybe it doesn’t. But ultimately, as long as North Korea remains a threat to a democratic, economically resurgent South Korea, the flashpoints set off in Northern Limit Line will smolder on, patrol boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Northern Limit Line (Korean: 연평해전)–South Korea. Directed by Kim Hak-soon. First released 24 June 2015. Running time 2hr 10min. Starring Kim Mu-yeol, Jin Goo, and Lee Hyun-woo.