December Issue: The Making of an Oscar Contender

Photo by John Park

Only two Asian films have won the best foreign language Academy Award in the entire history of the prize. Korean director Jang Hun’s The Front Line is South Korea’s entry for the 2012 award. Does it stand a chance?

by Eugene Yi

It’s been a rite for half a century. As the days shorten, the Korean Film Council will choose a film as its selection for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language category. The Academy will announce its nominations in January. The South Korean film will not be on the list.

So this year, on an early November evening in Los Angeles, the ever-optimistic Korean Film Council (KOFIC) hosted a screening of its latest selection: Jang Hun’s The Front Line. Such screenings are an opportunity for Academy members to view the film on the big screen. Such attendees, if they were there, were not of the celebrity variety, so were difficult to spot.


Jang, however, was very visible.  Only 37, all three of the director’s films have been hits, and all three were shown at the CGV theater that day in a “retrospective” of his work. A bit generous, perhaps, for a still-young filmmaker, but in that spirit, I asked him whether he thought he’d hit upon a style to call his own, and he described himself thusly:

1) His films are all action films.

2) He focuses on the relationships between male frenemies, to the point that he is sometimes chided by the South Korean press for seeming to dislike actresses.

True to form, The Front Line explores the disillusionment among the rank-and-file during the last days of the Korean War. Ragged units of the North and South fight over a hill called Aero K, which has changed hands so many times that the soldiers have lost count.  (Read the name of the hill backwards to find its allegorical meaning.) Jang had reservations about making a war film, thinking it’d be too physically grueling, but “within two hours of reading the script, I decided to make the film,” he said.

Though the Korean War has been revisited frequently by South Korean filmmakers—notably in 2004’s Tae Guk Gi, another of KOFIC’s unnominated selections—few of them deal with the war’s end, Jang said, adding that it was indicative of a broader lack of awareness of just how the conflict did end. The characters in Line have been hearing talk of an armistice for two years, and the film builds to a bloody climax (spoiler alert) following the signing of the truce agreement. But before it takes effect, there is a 12-hour gap during which the soldiers, unbelievably, receive orders from their commanders to wage all-out war to maximize territorial gains.

Scenes from The Front Line, which won the Grand Bell, South Korea’s Oscar, for best picture.

Jang shot the $10 million film (a huge budget for a South Korean film) over a six-month period that spanned an entire winter, and it proved as physically grueling as he had feared. The effort paid off.

In the end, the film became a critical and commercial hit. It won the Grand Bell, South Korea’s Oscar, for best picture. It also netted a cool $19 million, making it one of the top money earners of the year.

Reaction to the film in South Korea ran largely along generational lines, according to Jang. For those younger, it’s just a movie. For the Korean “Greatest Generation,” which lived through the war, it’s a document of the times. But for the Korean baby boomers, the generation that grew up in the war’s aftermath, it’s communist propaganda. Bbalgaengi—pinko Commie bastards, idiomatically—is part of the rhetoric of that generation.  “I felt I got to know my country much better. I felt it in my skin,” Jang said.

So KOFIC had a commercial and critical hit on its hands, a film that resonated with the Korean psyche, a film that had the potential to fill a mantel place with prizes. According to KOFIC’s Academy Award selection committee, it had come down to Line and Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea. The committee declared that Jang’s film received high marks for its subject matter and for “the outstanding quality of its denouement,” a nod to the presumed thematic approach necessary for serious award-garnering. Na’s film, which had high marks for its “completeness,” was nevertheless counted out for its content, which verged on ultraviolence. The stereotype is that Academy voters skew older, and graphic violence is considered to be a big turnoff.

That sort of reasoning is common in the tea-leaf reading of Academy Award handicappers, and it can be difficult to know exactly how much credence to give this type of argument. Line certainly seems to have all the hallmarks of a winner. It’s a war film, virtuosically shot on an epic scale, released just after the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Of course, Saving Private Ryan had similar momentum going into 1998’s award season, but ended up losing to the upstart Shakespeare in Love because of a beyond-the-pale, ethically dubious marketing campaign orchestrated by its studio, Miramax.

These days, it’s not uncommon for a studio to spend upwards of $15 million just to woo the Academy. The 2008 winner for best foreign language film, the Japanese movie Departures, was reputed to have benefited from a similarly aggressive marketing campaign on the part of the Tokyo Broadcasting System, even chauffeuring Academy members to screenings, and hosting meet-and-greet parties for stars and voters, a strict no-no. In recent years, Indian and Filipino filmmakers have even complained about the lack of government support (read: dollars) in pushing their films to the Academy. All’s fair in love and awards, apparently. (KOFIC did not respond to requests for comment.)

This year’s list of eligible films for the Best Foreign Language Oscar was recently released, and favorites have started to emerge, including The Flowers of War, renowned Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou’s World War II drama.  Will the similar content by a higherprofile filmmaker (Zhang has been nominated three times for the Best Foreign Language Oscar) destroy Line’s chances? Or does KOFIC have an aggressive lobbying campaign it is about to unleash, a la Shakespeare in Love and Departures? The trench war of Academy lobbying is only now starting to heat up. The nominees will be announced on Jan. 24, 2012.