'Northern Limit Line': Film Review

Northern Limit Line - POSTER
This overlong war film will mainly be of interest to its Korean target audience.

Kim Hak-soon's South Korean military drama, a huge box-office hit in its native country, concerns the little-known 2002 naval Battle of Yeonpyeong.

South Korean audiences have responded passionately to Kim Hak-soon's military drama about a brief 2002 naval battle in the disputed Yellow Sea border that gives the film its title. Displaying the sort of jingoism common in American movies during World War II, Northern Limit Line has quickly become the highest grossing film of the year in its native country. Now being released domestically in major U.S. cities, it's unlikely to find much of an audience on these shores.

The film spends more than half of its overlong running time introducing us to several of the South Korean sailors involved, most notably a rookie medic (rising young star Lee Hun-woo of Secretly, Greatly) who's hazed by his fellow shipmates. Other major characters include the ship's stern commander (Gim Mu-yeol) and its affable helmsman (Jin Goo) whose recurring hand tremors result in a near-deadly collision. Their personal backstories are limned in sometimes moving, but more often prosaic fashion.

Read More South Korean 3D Film 'Northern Limit Line' to Get North America Release

It's all a preamble to the fateful surprise attack by the North Koreans — which occurred while the country was consumed with the World Cup competition between South Korea and Turkey — that resulted in the deaths of six South Korean sailors and an unknown number of Northerners.

The naval battle is depicted in intensely bloody fashion, much in the style of the deliberately chaotic opening scene of Saving Private Ryan set on Omaha Beach, complete with a shot of a dazed combatant desperately picking up his blown-off fingertips and stuffing them in his pocket. Choppily photographed and edited, the sequence is more visceral than coherent, but it packs a punch nonetheless.

Read More South Korea Box Office: Local War Drama 'Northern Limit Line' Topples 'Jurassic World'

The crowdfunded film has been cheered by several of its country's more conservative publications, not surprising since it depicts the North Korean military planners in a highly caricatured fashion that practically has them twirling their moustaches.  

Northern Limit Line is most effective in its final moments, when it includes archival footage of the sailors' funerals and interviews with several of the survivors. It provides a vivid reminder of both the lives lost and the tensions that still prevail even 65 years after the start of the Korean War.

Production: Rosetta Cinema
Cast: Kim Mu-yeol, Jin Goo, Lee Hyun-woo, Chung-ah Lee, Lee Wan
Director/screenwriter: Kim Hak-soon
Producer: Jung Moon-goo
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Kim Hyung-koo
Production designer: Shim Jeom-hui
Editor: Steve M. Choe
Costume designer: Lee Jin-sook
Composer: Mok-Young-jin

Not rated, 130 minutes